8 May 2015

How I Became a Tuk-Tuk Driver

“Ouch, my arm, my arm!” I screamed in pain. “Are you okay, mum?” I shouted immediately after. I couldn’t see her, my face was against the ground and my head stuck in my helmet. I was in shock after my scooter had just slipped on a dirt track, my mother being on the passenger seat. I was really worried I had badly injured my mother – but thankfully she only had superficial bleeding wounds all across her leg and foot.

Sebastian driving the Cambodian tuk-tuk

I had ridden thousands of kilometres in all kinds of conditions, up volcanoes, in the night, on tracks full of potholes, on sand, down slopes so steep I had to ask my passenger to step down, under torrential rains or under the blazing sun (protecting myself from it in desperate ways), from Thailand to Indonesia and Vietnam. Call it luck or call me a safe rider, I never had a single accident. And here I was in the middle of the Cambodian countryside, thirty kilometres away from Siem Reap, calmly riding the scooter at fairly low speed in sunny weather on a red-dirt track with its fair share of potholes.

My memory is confused. I’m not sure if I had been slightly disturbed by a single motorbike coming the opposite way while I was trying to avoid those potholes. I don’t know what happened. I just fell on the right side. Within minutes, what seemed like a peaceful countryside with a few houses on each side of the road became filled with dozens of people, most staring at us while a few others provided some Tiger Balm, rubbing it directly onto our open bleeding wounds (I don’t know what would be less recommended, between not using such a balm on open wounds versus rubbing it with the dirty hands those kind teenagers had). After an hour of sitting on the side of the road under the noon sun, and having apologised to my mother at least a thousand times, I tried to find the strength to pick up the scooter and continue on our journey to some distant Khmer temples. Alas, I couldn’t even turn the handle, my right arm was hurting too badly.

Stubbornness defines me well. It took all of my mother’s convincing power to persuade me that I had to give up and accept the offer from teenagers to ride us instead to the hospital. On the way back though, I made them stop to get the smashed mirror repaired. Two hours after the accident, I was finally at the hospital – I would come out of it exactly as I entered: with dirty, bleeding wounds; and feeling just as much pain in my arm, having had to request an X-ray which thankfully showed that I didn’t break my arm. I learned afterwards that I should have gone to a private clinic instead. Oh well. I only had to bear with a very sore arm and wrist for about four weeks… and a delightful group-A β-hemolytic streptococcus infection (what a lovely name, isn’t it? I’ll think about that name when and if I have children one day – aren’t they parasites sometimes?!), which took close to two months to get sorted out (my mother can tell you more about it, she had the pleasure of self-contaminating herself a few more times).

But I obviously couldn’t give up on my idea of riding independently and not having to rely on anyone else to guide me around. Two days after the accident, my mother and I were on bicycles, riding south of Siem Reap towards the lake’s floating village. I pretended I was okay by throwing my weight on my other arm (my mother is going to kill me when she reads that and realises I was actually not well enough).

Less than a week later, I was down in Kampot, known for its fine pepper and lush greenery by the river. There were a few things to visit in the surroundings. My mind never stopping, I had suddenly thought that if I could rent a whole tuk-tuk, I wouldn’t risk slipping like I did with the scooter since it would be much more stable. In addition, I would perhaps not need to strain my right arm as much as on a scooter. I therefore set forth on a mission to find a tuk-tuk driver who would be happy – or rather, not too terrified – for me to rent his vehicle.

I was laughed at a bit, but I kept walking throughout town, shouting across to various drivers I encountered to make them stop and “talk to me, please, I’m a bit weird but yes, I really want to rent your entire tuk-tuk”. Phone calls were made and finally a yellow-painted tuk-tuk, that I am immediately baptised “yellow submarine” in my sick brain, was my reward. Followed an intense negotiation and a deal was struck at $15 for a full 24 hours – which amount I would then easily recoup by selling seats to other tourists, mwahaha (fellow countrymen, what’s more, but they still had a “good” deal). The driver was patient enough to explain to me how his manual-gear motorbike worked. I had indeed never ridden one of those bulky Russian Minsk motorcycles and it took me a bit of time to figure out how to avoid stalling – notice by the way how different those tuk-tuks are from the “Darth Vader” ones in Thailand or the traditional ones in India. But it was fun to set myself that challenge, succeed in getting what I wanted, and ride my big toy like a big boy.

And that’s how I became the first (wide-smiling) tourist ever to drive a tuk-tuk in Cambodia.