I have a shameful secret. I only learnt to ride a bicycle two years ago. At the age of 35 in fact, when I moved to Siem Reap. I don’t know what happened: I had an otherwise normal childhood. Swimming – no problem. Roller-skating – well I’m a bit rusty but I could find my way round a roller-disco. But riding a bike? It just never happened. Somehow the stabilisers never came off. Frankly, I think my parents just gave up on me.
So it was that I found myself living in Temple Town, where the mode of transport of choice is the humble bicycle. Ridden by all, from kids to businessmen, zipping around the dusty streets all day long. Everyone, that is, except me. For the first few weeks I took tuk tuks everywhere like the tourists, but later my husband bought a bike and rigged up a sort of tandem affair – adding a second seat to the back. On it I would perch, sitting sideways with legs dangling, feeling somewhat like a prim Victorian lady.
However the hoots of laughter that followed me around from incredulous Khmers eventually got too much, and I decided enough was enough. I had to learn. My long-suffering husband took me out for a few “lessons” in the Royal Gardens. Remember the old adage about not having driving lessons with your other half? Well. I would wobble down a small path, perspiring in the 36 degree heat, inevitably get cross at not getting the hang of it and the whole thing would end in an argument. It was all also extremely embarrassing. I’ll never forget a trio of young monks walking past me laughing at me. One of them urged me to “keep practicing.”
We continued in this way for a few more sessions before I, like the sullen toddler I am, gave up. It was back to the tuk tuks for a while and seemingly my Mission Bicycle was over.
Then, one day, a strange thing happened. One bright Sunday morning I suddenly had the urge to try again. I had just done a yoga session, and perhaps my inner zen had been re-awakened. I rented me a bike, found a quiet dirt track to practice on, and off I went. The first few minutes were full of the inevitable wobbles, skids and swearing. At one point I very nearly cried. But slowly but surely, I got it. I did a slow circuit round the back of Wat Damnak. My two-wheeled adventure took me down roads I’d never been before. Rice paddies, chickens scratching in the dirt, and a small boy leading a white cow down the road. Plus the clichéd but true feeling of wind in my hair – it was amazing.
Then, just as I was busy congratulating myself on my cleverness, the rainy season came and with it the worst floods Cambodia had seen in a decade. Siem Reap’s roads turned into rivers, sandbags appeared in doorways and children floating around in washing-up bowls became a common sight.
But I discovered that cycling through two feet of water was actually doable. Sure, I fell off a few times. I resigned myself to getting soaking wet each time I went out and had one unfortunate and painful incident with a hidden pothole. But on the whole I just did what everyone else did and got on with it. Although I will never forget the memory of fishing around in the water to see what had got caught in my spokes, only to retrieve a sodden nappy.
Nowadays I am proud to say my guilty secret no longer is. I can barely remember the days of frustration and monk-laughter, or the period when even though I could ride, I had yet to master the art of taking one hand off the handle-bar to signal.
Sometimes I had to get off and wheel my bike across the busy junction of Wat Bo and High School Road. When I went home to London last summer, I even surprised life-long friends by cycling on ACTUAL BUSY ROADS, and attempted a couple of small hills in the Welsh countryside. After a lifetime of feeling ‘left out’, suddenly the joys of going on holiday, renting a couple of bikes with friends and pootling around country lanes were open to me.
I still can’t cope with cycling on sand and struggle to find any real pleasure in mountain-biking, but I’ve come a long way. My $30 rust-bag of a bike and I are now firm friends. I love cycling to work every day and as silly as it may sound, some thirty years later than everyone else my age I still get a little kick out of free-wheeling down a hill as fast as I dare.