#18 Rainy Day Wave Riding in Cambodia

It’s wet outside where I am wandering today, and the weather has me reminiscing about rainy days in Cambodia. Since it helps to laugh when the sky is grey, here’s an embarrassing tale about mixing monsoons and motorbikes.

Living in Phnom Penh, I drove a mildly beat up blue Honda “Wave” motorbike. When I first got my wheels I didn’t have much moto experience, but with fear of death as a great motivator I mastered quite a few skills quickly.

In just a few days I’d learned normal driving, riding in the dark, riding in rush hour, riding on the wrong side of the road, riding through roundabouts, riding with passengers and parking in a crowded line of other motos without knocking them all down like dominos. After a week the only thing I hadn’t yet attempted was riding in the rain. The rainy season was coming, but I wasn’t worried. I figured everyone else survives driving in the rain, I could too.

I was wrong.

The primary thing to know about riding a moto though a flood is that you must not stop once you start driving or your bike will stall. You also learn some other important things very quickly, like:  

–       you must learn which streets will flood

–       you shouldn’t wear shoes that fall off in the rain

–       you have to know where you’re going because you can’t turn around

–       you must know where the potholes are because you can’t see them

–       sometimes it is just better to stay home.

Here’s how I learned all of these lessons:

One afternoon in Phnom Penh the sky fell out just as I was leaving to go to a dinner at a friend’s house across town. I looked outside at the flooded street and thought, maybe I should skip. Then I looked at myself and said- to hell with it, you’re strong and brave and unstoppable, jump on your moto and go; the worst you can do is get wet.  I put on my flip flops and rain jacket and set out.

I got one block before I hit an intersection flooded too deep to cross. I turned around, reconfigured the route and headed a different way on streets with higher ground. Within minutes I was soaked, but feeling  exhilarated from braving the monsoon on a moto.

The wetter I got, the more problems I began having. My shoes were too wet to shift gears and my feet kept slipping off the pedals. But I drove on.

As I got closer to the neighborhood of my destination the waters started rising. Several times I drove down a street only to drive straight into a knee deep intersection requiring me to about face. After five or six denied crossings I was drenched and beginning to feel discouraged. I’d attempted every entrance to my friend’s street with no success. The last place I stopped was so deep that someone had tied a rope across the road to stop people from even attempting. I stopped my moto and stood there looking as I contemplated my next move. Someone watching me, thinking I might attempt to drive into the deep end came over to me and assured me with “No. No. No. No. Cannot go there”.

In my own drenched determination I decided to circumnavigate the neighborhood and enter her street from the opposite side. It it was still pouring and I was in very unknown and unmarked territory. While I claim to have a pretty savvy sense of direction, I was pretty much lost. I knew I needed to turn left into her street, but I had no way to know which street that was unless I drove down each one.

Every street was flooded. Flooding my engine was basically inevitable, and that’s exactly what I wound up doing. Knee deep in murky, smelly street water, I stood in the road on my dead moto contemplating my next move.

The electric starter was fried and I couldn’t see to kick start my bike because the pedals were underwater. A few people drove by, but no one could help because if they stopped, they would also stall.

I couldn’t get the bike into gear and kept losing my shoe into the grey water in the process. I got off the bike so I could use my stronger right leg to kick it into gear. It worked. Only problem was that my bike took off, and I wasn’t on it.

I lept forward to catch my run away moto with cat like reflexes. Although I was successful, I accidentally caught it with my right hand on the accelerator and just as I thought I might have control, it lept away from me and threw me backwards. Completely backwards onto my back in the flooded street.

I stood up, utterly drenched in stinky street water.  With tears in my eyes I picked up the Wave and attempted to push her to some dryer ground. The damages sustained were minor. My motorbike had a broken handbrake and my ego took a serious bruising.

And my lesson: sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself so you don’t add tears to the already flooded streets.

Just for the record, after three years in Cambodia I became a much accomplished monsoon moto driver. On the odd occasion when I did stall out in a flood I’d cue old school Milli Vanilla on my life soundtrack and hum “Blame it on the rain.”

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