Another wrong turn. We stop at a junction and consult the map; navigating the backroads outside of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh is proving trickier than we had thought, so we turn the dirt bikes around and head for a junction on the other side of a small village we just rode through. The sun is up, the roads are empty, and the sounds of our 3 machines fill the air as we skip along over dirt tracks and potholes, back onto the concrete slab surface of the main road. We leave the block paving and on the dirt road up ahead, Dan finds the turning. I see him take the sharp right and realise I need to scrub off some speed before I overshoot the corner.
And then I am sideways, in midair, feeling the bike falling away from between my legs. I see a lump of a rock protruding from the ground just in front of me.
My hand snaps back with the handlebars and slams me headfirst into the ground. I bounce several times, and roll, skidding to a stop in the middle of the road, the bike left riderless, sliding to a halt off to one side. As I pick myself up I see Nicky already running towards me, my head is ringing and all I am thinking about is getting the bike back up. She yells at me to leave the bike and take off my helmet. It feels like I have been smashed with a hammer, but I can see and talk ok. The jacket comes off next, revealing a lack of obvious trauma. To everyones surprise I have bounced out of this crash relatively OK. My helmet took the brunt of the impact, as I skidded across my face, and the motorcycle gear brought all the way from the UK did its job. I am lucky, but shaken. Rookie error.
We have only been out an hour.
The plan for the days riding was to go temple hunting outside of the city limits, an easy few hours riding there and then back again before it got dark. I test the mobility in my fingers as we decide what to do. If we call it a day now, we can be back in the city in an hour. Or we can push on and try and find the temple before lunch, turning back if I start to feel worse. I tap my thumb across the fingertips on my right hand, there is no sign of swelling yet, and the pain is manageable, so after a pit stop we carry on.
I push the crash to the back of my mind as we start to pick up the pace again, Dan and Nicky having no problems on the closest things to roads we can find. Sometimes we are on wide dirt tracks, cratered with potholes big enough to swallow a front wheel. Others we wind single file along narrow tracks flanked by swampy fields. We follow a vague plan gleaned from online maps, happy to be out of the claustrophobia of Phnom Penh.
Along a long flat section that cuts across a field, we see dogs pacing the verge. Nicky passes first. A wiry black animal snaps up, barking, teeth bared as it begins to give chase. As I come up to pass, it breaks into a full run, giving chase as I shift up a gear. Now I am really riding. I don’t want to come off the bike again, but if I am going to, I don’t want to end up with rabies as well. I steal a glance over my shoulder, being careful not to let the handlebars follow my head, and see the dog falling behind. Dan is also past, and the ride continues.
Soon we are joined by local traffic, both coming with us and at us in the haphazard way the local traffic moves, an ebbing, flowing amorphous entity, consuming obstacles and flowing around each other with a skill and precision only made possible by growing up on two wheels. The traffic narrows as roadworks and potholes claim usable space, but this does not slow the flow. The need for focus is exhausting. Still new to bikes, every action requires thought; my brain working overdrive to process the gears, the speed, the distance from other riders and upcoming potholes. Despite this, despite the growing pain in my arm and thumping in my head, I feel alive. As we kick up the dirt and dust to a fine haze in the midday heat, I almost laugh as we bounce along. I love this.
We reach a main road and take a quick detour to check out a small temple. Trees provide welcome shade as we take off our helmets and wander around. My gloved hand is sore, but the adrenaline of riding is coursing through my body keeping the pain and the swelling from being too bad. We drink water and watch a group of stray dogs cool off in the stagnant waters of a small swamped field below. Easy conversation meanders from past escapades to where we should ride to next, and we suit up again to ride out into the midday heat. It takes a few seconds to regain the hard won comfort at being mobile on two wheels again, as we wind our way past more strays and young monks to rejoin the main road on our mini pilgrimage.
We cut away from the tarmac of the main road and begin the hill climb to the temple. As the ride steepens I think about how I will be able to handle the bike on the way back down, resolving to worry about that later, trusting it will be fine. The climb takes us past street stalls and the occasional bike, the riders invariably comfortable in flip flops and sunglasses, contrasting our armour and claustrophobic helmets. The fresh battle scars that obscure the vision in my visor remind me that this discomfort in the tropical heat is a small price to pay. We break out onto a flat courtyard, snaking along in single file, searching out a shady place to let the engines cool while we take on more water. As we cut our engines, the silence is notable. After spending so long trapped in the confines of the Penh, I am unused to hearing no traffic, or construction or shouts and dogs barking. Here the only sound is the wind and the passing whispers of small groups of Khmer, who have come to eat a picnic together in the shade of the pagoda.
While we sit and talk a movement catches my eye. The thick green body of a snake slides past, hoping to go unnoticed, as it searches for a place to hide. Coming from leafy England, where the closest thing I can hope to see is an elusive Adder, seeing a wild python* is a rare treat. Grabbing my camera from the bench I scramble over before it is lost, and find it coiled in a small nook beneath a tree. It stuns me, and I stand awestruck watching the smooth lines and perfectly adapted movements of its body. It is so easy to forget in the city that this is a country of immense natural beauty, teaming with life and no doubt a myriad of creatures completely unique to its vast and varied eco systems. Under threat from poaching and habitat destruction from illegal logging and development, all fuelled by greedy expat markets and a corrupt government, it is hard to see the best way to protect this countries diverse natural and cultural wonders. It is a situation too nuanced and complex to understand from the outside, a complex web of power struggles leaving the burden on local activists and communities to take positions which often cost them their lives.
We leave the temple and ride to the track that leads us down. I listen to Dan’s last minute coaching, how to ride a motorbike 101, and watch as he dips over the edge to start the decent. A brief flashback to trying to ride mountain bikes downhill does not fill me with confidence. Thinking back to when I ended up stuck upside down in a tree on my road bike doesn’t work either. But I am here, on top of a mountain, and the only way home now is to ride down or fall down. I ease off the brake and commit.
Somewhere near the change in gradient I realise that like many things in life, that which at first seemed daunting turned out to be quite within my capabilities. Although the sight of the precarious Barang gingerly inching down what is, in reality, a well trodden path must have been hilarious for the locals for me it was a victory. Maybe I can ride bikes…
We reverse the route we took in the morning, riding back across orange dirt roads, dust flying as we skip and bounce over cratered lunar roads like stones across a squally lake. The sunlight stabs in white hot lines through clouds of red, cutting with precision like a laser and making the whole scene cinematic. The heat of the engines, the smell of the petrol, the noise as the bikes race onwards, it is visceral and real and alive in a way I haven’t sensed for months. The joy of moving fast, the freedom of it, suddenly it dawns on me why people ride bikes.
We watch as thick black clouds gather and the light edges towards the golden hour. Flying through the back roads, we beeline for the city. My hand aches with every jarring bounce of each passing pothole. I twist and wind my way around and over and through the road, focus kept ahead, the bike eating the ground voraciously, hungry for more as we speed towards the coming storm. But all too soon it ends, the roads return, small villages appear on either side interspaced with paddies and hulking cows. We take advantage of the consolidated surface to speed up. I can almost taste the margaritas. Up ahead the road bends after an old train line.
And then I am sideways, in midair, feeling the bike falling away from between my legs. Not again.
This time I feel the wheel go, I let my body go with the bike, whipping around to try to bring it back, but it is too late. I am over the bars, landing hands first I feel my head crack against the concrete, the sickening scrape of my helmet sliding along the ground, inches from my chin. The wind is knocked out of me and I roll over to find my bike. Jumping up as best I can I reach it to find the engine running and fuel spilling from the tank. I grasp at the keys to cut the ignition but my fingers don’t close enough anymore. I try again, willing them shut, but its no good. I reach in under the bars with my other hand and finally get the engine off. Again Nicky and Dan are with me, helping pick up the bike. I look down at my hands, a neat hole punched in the right glove from the slide. My helmet has grooves across the chin where the momentum carried my head into the road. My jacket is covered in dirt. They usher me to the side of the road, taking refuge in the shade of a local garage while Dan looks over the bike. The man at the pitstop looks to me, and rides off, returning with a sealed bottle of iodine which he insists we keep. I plaster my cuts and try to work out how it had happened again, not on the technical off-road, but on the easy ride so close to home.
Crashing headfirst from a motorbike (twice) is probably the closest I’ve come to seriously injuring myself in these adventures. If it wasn’t for careful planning and preparation I would not be here writing this. As it happens, I got lucky and walked out with a bad head and some sprains. But the key here though is just that, I got lucky. This for me was a lesson in humility. Don’t think you are a superhero, don’t underestimate the unforeseen, or the blinding obvious consequences of your actions, and most of all don’t be an ass to those back home. While everyone has a different attitude towards risk, and how much is acceptable, and what constitutes “adventure”, you should always be aware of the consequences of your actions on those waiting for you back home. Let this blunt your machismo, let it humble you, and let it keep you safe. You don’t have to live in a bubble, but there is no glory in needlessly throwing yourself into the danger zone, just the people you care about left behind trying to pick up the broken pieces.
Stay safe out there.
*It was probably a python, definitely a large constrictor.