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Talking Shop In Phnom Penh

We woke up plenty early in the comfortable room at our local Battambang Chinese business hotel, a place called the Hotel Asia,  and lugged our things downstairs to find a pleasant surprise: it was raining. It had not rained on AsiaWheeling for months, since Kuala Lumpur in fact. The smell and the sound of the rain were invigorating in a totally unexpected way. We folded the cycles up in the hotel lobby. As we were doing so, the owner approached us and offered us a thank you gift for visiting his hotel: a couple of locally made silk scarves. We thanked him as humbly as we could and headed across the street to the bus station.

Some miscommunication with the ticket seller had resulted in an inadvertently early arrival. From there we had only to wait and take in the wonderful smell of the rain, which paired very nicely with a totally bizarre Cambodian cartoon show that was playing on a TV, bracketed to the wall of the station building. Next to the television was a glass case, inside of which were a number of tasty looking baguettes. We did our best to purchase some, but were instead met with some very stern remarks delivered by a child. The kid was certainly no older than 12, but he swaggered around, sticking out his belly like a 40-year old man. He spoke to us in a forcibly lowered voice, indicating that this was not his bread stand, that the owner was not around to transact business, that he was disgusted that we would even ask, and that, if we were interested, he was selling cigarettes and batteries right next door. He waved his hand at us as if to say, “Ah, forget it, you two chumps are a lost cause.”

I instinctively looked back at our luggage, which still lay where we had piled it on a station bench. We might be worthless idiots, but at least we had not lost our stuff. We returned to it, and from his bag, Scott produced some biscuits and cans of Nescafe. This would have to do.

When the bus finally arrived, it was an old decommissioned Incheon Airport Express. Though they had claimed at the ticket counter that the bus would have a bathroom, it did not. This was not the first time we had experienced this kind of bait and switch in Cambodia and Lao, but the seats were pretty comfortable, and we were able to load the bikes on board with no attempts made to elicit extra fees.

The ride was relaxing and scenic. Cambodia seemed to be drinking in the rain and greening up so fast you could almost see it happening in real time. As we drove on, the rain stopped, and we eventually climbed off the bus to stretch our legs and use the facilities at a makeshift rest area.

We got back on and continued our crawl over the vast flat pancake that is Cambodia.  At the lunch stop, we serendipitously crossed paths again with Elya, who was en route to Phnom Penh as well.  She lamented the road width and traffic chaos, but was clearly a seasoned wheeler.  We wished her the best and headed back to the bus.

Soon the fields turned into squat little housing developments, and those turned into apartment blocks, and all of a sudden we were in Phnom Penh.

We climbed off the bus, and attracted a giant crowd of people that watched with great interest and patience as we unfolded the bicycles and consolidated our belongings. We were not sure where we were in Phnom Penh, but from our research of the general geographical layout, it appeared that as long as one headed east, one would eventually hit the river, which appeared to be where the largest cluster of hotels was.

So east we rode, making our way through a number of truly giant street markets. One of these appeared to be solely devoted to fruits and vegetables. It was a morning market, and was nearing its end while the sun crossed past noon. With the end of the market, many vendors had simply deposited giant piles of rotting vegetables on the street, where they were being swept into larger piles by a great many old women. This made for quite the hazardous wheel, where we took our chances at times, riding the Speed TRs over slippery stretches of mushy cabbage.

The bus must have dropped us off at the western-most extremity of the city, for we needed to wheel for quite some time before finally making it to the water. Once we made it there, we quickly began the process of comparing rates at hotels, finally selecting the Amari Watergate Hotel. We had stayed at a great many guest-houses, even a few of which might be halfheartedly called resorts, but this was a real hotel, perhaps comparable only to the Hotel Nippon in Colombo in its level of hotel-ness.  What does that mean, you ask? Staff, a front desk, phones in the rooms to call the front desk, ice, coffee makers, do-not-disturb signs, maid service, bellhops, Internet. I’m talking Hotel here with a capital H.

It was glorious. And right smack dab in the center of a very interesting neighborhood, something in between a red light district and a central distribution center for the city’s sugar cane juice vendors.

With our things safely stowed at the Amari Watergate, we headed out to find some grub. The first place we saw was a rather posh looking Chinese-style noodle joint. Falling once again prey to the Cambodian dollar valuation problem, we sat down to some $3.50 bowls of noodles. They were quite tasty.

We didn’t have much time in the city, so as our stomachs began to dig into the noodles, we hatched a plan to maximize our time in Phnom Penh. We had an outstanding project K9 order for a collection of Cambodian military surplus goods, and we needed to find some. We had determined the location of a few large markets in Phnom Penh, and with any luck we would be able to find the merchandise that day and mail it off the next.

We climbed back on the cycles and headed toward the Phnom Penh central market, a giant golden-domed monstrosity at the center of town. It was then that Scott noticed his front tire was missing one of the bolts that held it in place. This was not an acceptable state of affairs, so we pulled a lichtenschtein and headed in search of a bike shop that might have a spare bolt on hand. We wheeled for a while before finding the Vicious Cycle Cafe and Laundry.

We pulled in and requested a bolt. They brought out first one then another. None of them fit. Despite our protests, however, one of the workers at the shop took off in search of the correct bolt. He was gone for quite some time. We had read cover-to-cover both copies of the Cambodia Daily by the time he returned.

So long did his mission take, that we would likely have simply left the Vicious Cycle Cafe and Laundry, except that he had taken our only remaining nut with him to compare, rendering Scott’s cycle useless.

Finally our man returned with a frown and an empty hand. He had driven all over and been unable to find it. “It’s a Chinese size,” he explained, “we only have Thai sizes here.” whatever that meant (and by all means please speculate in the comments). Then he had a final idea. Before we could explain to him that we would just go find the Chinese bike shop and speak to them in Chinese and get the nut, he was off again, on another long ride. Eventually he returned, victorious. But we had eaten the noodles so long ago, we were badly in need of another meal.

He put the nut on Scott’s cycle, cranked it on real tight, apologized, and charged us $1.00.

We thanked him and headed off. We were hungry again, but there was enough time to maybe eat quickly and still find some surplus military goods. We really laid into the Speed TRs, making up for lost time and heading for the market when we heard a terrible noise. We knew immediately what it was: Scott’s bearing was busted again.

I felt my insides melt into despair for a moment. Again, so soon? What could have caused such misfortune? We got off the bikes, and walked them over to a nearby park, overlooking the Tonle Sap river. We tried to sit down, but a security guard started yelling at us from across the park. Perhaps no bikes were allowed inside? Regardless, we apologized, and trudged defeatedly over to the parking lot of a nearby restaurant. Once there we sat down on a crumbling colonial wall, and with great effort shrugged off our despair and started to form a plan.

Why would the bearing be broken again? Willie had put in brand new expensive Japanese bearings. Well, we had one replacement bearing back at the hotel, the one Willie had given us to show how the originals had been NBK brand rather than the Japanese NSK. We could have the same guys that just helped us find a new nut put that one in the bike. That would get us back on the road. So we headed off, walking the cycles, toward the Vicious Cycle Cafe and Laundry. As we walked, we chewed through possible explanations. Likely it was not the collision with the one-and-only Stew Motta that had caused Scott’s bearing to break… it must be something else. Then it came: the nut! Both days when the bearings had broken had been when the nuts had been recently tightened. I looked down at the nuts on my bike, and they were covered on one end, making over-tightening impossible. Scott’s bike, on the other hand, had normal nuts.

When our man on the “Lao side” of Luang Prabang had trued Scott’s wheel after the accident with Motta, he had tightened the heck out of the nuts that held the wheel on. Then the bearing broke. Now we get a new nut, and the fellows at Vicious Cycle had re-tightened the nuts that hold the wheel on, and once again the bearing broke! Willie must have known not to over-tighten the nuts, but gone too far in the other direction. The nuts were so loose that one just fell off!

How’s that for Encyclopedia Brown (not to be confused with Leroy Brown)?

Back in Phnom Penh, I hopped on my bike to get the spare bearing from the Amari Watergate, while Scott walked his bike the rest of the way to the Vicious Cycle Cafe and Laundry. Once I got there, he was already in the back of the shop, knee deep in axle grease with the Vicious Team, tearing the dynamo hub apart.

Willie had been careful, gentle, and tender with the Speed TR wheel. These guys were much more of the Shock-and-Awe school of cycle repair. They were hammering on the wheel like crazy, before realizing that there was one more nut to loosen.

Needless to say, the hub would never again produce electricity. But the bearing went in, then all the other pieces went back over it, and we gingerly tightened the nuts. Scott took her for a ride. All seemed okay. Our man asked only another $1.00 for the job, since he had, after all, caused the problem. We were just happy to now know what had been happening with Scott’s bike. We gladly and insistently paid three times what he asked, and headed back onto the street, still able to get a little wheeling in before dark.

The K9 mission would need to wait for the next day. It would be full, as there was plenty else planned, but we thought we might be able to do it. It was time then to just enjoy the operability of Scott’s cycle.

We headed north, up the Tonle Sap river until the city started to peter out and the sun was sinking low. With that we turned into the interior winding streets of the city, relying on our compass, and making our way generally back toward home. It was about then that we realized we were starving. We stopped first at a tiny street stall, selling little scallion pancakes, with a spicy vinegar sauce. We had first one round, then another of these.

With a little food in the stomach, we headed deeper into the city, indulging in a bit of night wheeling.

The traffic in Phnom Penh is wonderful: very welcoming and forgiving, with a nice slow average speed. The main streets are well lit, so we began to stick to those, which greatly improved our ability to navigate. We came across a great many vendors selling chicken, and decided to buy a small chicken.

The woman packed it up for us with a giant handful of basil and mint leaves. From there we wheeled back toward our house, stopping at a sandwich stand to buy a couple of small baguettes.

We feasted that night outside a little general store on chicken, basil, and baguette. Feeling like kings of kings, we strode proudly into the Amari Watergate.

When we got inside, a clearly disturbed man was screaming at the front desk clerk. “No! Go Back! Show me another camera! His face, God damn it, I need to see his face!”

I peered over his shoulder, and the clerk was reviewing some security camera footage. “Who is he?” the man bellowed, “What was he doing in there for so long?”

“Checking your room”

“Checking should only take 30 seconds! He was in my room for a full two minutes!”

Scott and I exchanged puzzled glances and went upstairs. I was about to go to sleep when my curiosity got the better of me. I pulled on some clothes and ran downstairs. The man who had been bellowing at the clerk was outside, smoking. I approached him.

“Excuse me, sir. I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help but overhear… what happened?”

“Sensitive Data! I am traveling with confidential sensitive data, and they went in my room and copied all of it!” He drew closer to me and I could smell the thick malt whiskey on his breath “If you have anything, anything confidential at all, don’t leave it in your room. They’ll copy everything.”

I bid him my best, turned around, and returned inside. The clerk looked like a battered ghost. I attempted to give him a look which said, “Don’t worry, I won’t yell at you; I’m on your side,” then went upstairs.

Luckily, they had already copied our passports at the front desk, which left only the unpublished AsiaWheeling content for them to take advantage of. And frankly, we’d be flattered.


  1. laura | May 21st, 2010 | 1:21 pm

    wow, what an adventure! and wow, these pics are amazing! *love* the elephant cruising down the street, love the “outhouse”, love the food pics, esp the rotisserie chickens and the scallion pancakes. glad to hear you got the bike fixed and are feeling better. keep on wheeling! safe travels, laura

  2. laura | May 21st, 2010 | 1:25 pm

    hey guys, my doorbell just rang as i was submitting my last comment. special delivery from…..hanoi!!!!! oh my goodness, thank you sooooooooooooo much! i *love love love* all the cool utensils and spices, especially the *real* cinnamon sticks! i’m so excited, thanks so much! L

  3. Mark/Dad | May 22nd, 2010 | 3:27 pm

    I hope the bearing issues are under control now. What happened to the dynamo; did some of the external leads get banged into oblivion?

  4. Woody Schneider | May 23rd, 2010 | 7:21 am

    @ Mark/Dad

    So far so good on the bearings. You’ve got it about right with the problem with the dynamo. I think that at some point during the process some of the external leads were caught up in the threads during removal… The leads might also have been damaged when our man from vicious cycle was hammering on the thing.

    Well, that’s why we’re so grateful for our partnership with Knog…

  5. Daniel Bennett | May 23rd, 2010 | 12:15 pm

    Hello Scott and Woody, I just wanted to thank you for the great content thus far, it has been great following you guys, and I’ll continue to follow you till the end!
    Keep on Wheelin’

    – Daniel Bennett

    P.S. I hear you guys were interested in Bike Friday, my Mom actually works there and had told me you guys contacted them at one point in time.

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