5.45 am, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A comfortable studio apartment in a comfortable part of town. I try to make myself coffee using the UHT milk that I found with my riding gear. It’s only been percolating for 2 years in tropical heat, and it tastes exactly as you’d expect: off.
Perhaps I should stop being so cheap. Regretfully, I also throw out the swanky granola bar that I’d been keeping for emergencies for the past four years. Like the milk, it had not survived the pandemic hiatus.
You know what did survive, though? My KTM 690 Enduro and my love of bad ideas, especially ones which involve riding around the world. With nearly 95,000km on the odometer, my 690 had rattled back to life two days earlier. I’d landed in a state of exhaustion after transiting Bangkok with an eleven hour stop over, and the first thing I’d done was head for my mechanic’s workshop. Part of me couldn’t believe that she’d still be there after all this time. It was more than two years since I’d casually asked him to look after my bike for a week while I went to Thailand.
But when I arrived, his shop looked exactly the same. There was Chek, with his usual mildly amused expression on his face. There were his three apprentices in their moto jerseys and flip flops. There was me, the mad foreigner waving my arms excitedly while my eyes scanned the scrum of motorcycles in the back of the shop. And there was my Beastie – just a glimpse of barkbuster – way down in the shadows.
My heart swelled. My ticket to freedom, made real: she’d been right here waiting for me the whole time.
For a brief moment, I remembered the times back in 2020 when, stuck in Thailand with the pandemic raging, everything locked down and my bank account empty, I thought I’d hit the end of the road. But then my mind flicked back further, to Vietnam in 2019, when I’d been alone in a shady guest house sick with suspected dengue, simply lacking the physical strength to ride on. I’d thought it was over then, too. Thank goodness I am usually wrong.
The boys began the long Tetris game required to extricate my bike from the back of the tiny, crammed garage. I wiped a finger through the millimetre of grime that covered her.
I spent the rest of that day sitting beside the workshop cat, watching while they disassembled the KTM with sure fingers, flushed all the fluids and installed the new air and fuel filters which I’d brought with me.
At the same time, I asked them to pull off my Touratech luggage racks: after 5 years on the road, I dream only of a lighter and lighter set up.
Without the racks, however, my number plate was left hanging by a thread. Chek shook his head, showing me how all the plastics were broken, but I was unphased: I knew he would have a way to fix it. Later on, I found him further down the street, sitting on the footpath with a group of men who were repairing damaged panels with epoxy and sandpaper. A guy was using a soldering iron to melt my broken plastics back into one piece.
Add a couple of pieces of metal reinforcement and the new tail tidy was exactly what I’d been hoping for: about the half the size of the original and shady as hell. I loved it.
I left the bike in their capable hands and went to organize my next priority: learn some Khmer, and learn it quick. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to communicate out in the villages if I didn’t speak a word of Khmer, and my lingual stupidity bothered me on a deeper level as well: how could I be polite if I didn’t learn the language? As a perpetual guest in other people’s countries, I travel with a sense of gratitude and reciprocal obligation.
So I made a phone call and got in touch with a friend of friend who’d been recommended to me. I eventually found him at his restaurant near the riverside, in a street of bars and cafes. He greeted me warmly and agreed to teach me Khmer intensively for the next five days: two hours in the morning, two in the afternoon.
I knew this would leave my brain feeling partially cooked – languages not being my strength by any stretch of the imagination – but Nikky understood my objectives. I wasn’t there to mess around with casual learning: in one week I would be standing in some Khmer village trying to figure out how to get by. I would need food, shelter, and the safety of friends. I would need language on my side.
But for now – my first day in Cambodia – I was overstimulated and exhausted. I retreated back to my friend’s studio apartment, where we drank wine on the rooftop as the sun went down. Through a gap in the buildings we could catch a glimpse of the Tonle Sap river. I chewed on spicy duck feet, patiently gnawing around each bone and separating each joint; they seemed to get spicier the more I ate.
When darkness had fallen, I went to bed and slept deeply.
* * *
The next five days passed in a blur of language studies. I would rock up to Nikky’s shop each day at nine or ten in the morning, and we would conclude our studies in the late afternoon. Indefatiguable, Nikky would be ready for me each day with page after page of vocabulary, specially tailored to the needs of a motorcycling vagrant. How to ask for food, how to ask for shelter, how to talk about your motorcycle and where you’ve been and the relative loudness of a particular exhaust system.
And as always, the motorcycling community came through for me: strangers becoming my friends and family on the long, meandering road.
* * *
Sunday brought me the pleasure of more excellent company – this time, expat and local riders meeting up for lunch at the pub. Two years ago the Women Riders World Relay rolled around the globe, and today those connections remain, uniting women all over the world. Bekka is one of those amazing women, and thanks to her I was soon drinking beer with a bunch of new friends.
In fact, it’s almost a pity to be leaving Phnom Penh when I’ve just gotten to know such lovely people; but on Monday Chek called me to say that he’d finished rebuilding my rear shock, and the bike was ready. Ah, how the road beckons. I leave town tomorrow.