“Have you ridden a motorbike before?”
“No, I haven’t, but I can do it.”
“If you do not know how to ride one I am unable to rent it to you.”
“Oh no, actually I have ridden one before. It has just been a while.”
I could feel the blood drain from my face as I heard Laura’s lie. Up until this moment, the prospect of renting a motorbike during our stay in Kampot seemed perfectly fine. Though we both lacked motorcycle licenses and any previous practice driving such vehicles, we saw it as an excellent complement to our weekend away, allowing us to design our own adventure rather than be under limited to a tuk tuk driver. With a hunger for adventure and a desire to explore Bokor National Park, we hoped to find our own way around and travel off the beaten path.
While Phnom Penh’s heavy traffic installed in me a fear of driving in Cambodia, the calmer and less busy roads of Kampot seemed like as ideal a place to experiment driving one as anywhere. Laura seemed confident enough to about driving a motorbike, and I somehow pushed my worrywart tendencies far enough aside to feel fine with it as well.
However when we arrived at our accommodation, ready to rent a motorbike and eager to head straight off to the national park and feast our eyes on incredible views, we ran into our first obstacle. Too trusting and too naive with our honesty, upon trying to rent the motorbike Laura confessed her inexperience. As is reasonable, we discovered the hotel would not rent a motorbike to someone unable to drive it. Despite the rationality of this discovery, and the probably safety precautions it meant to enforce, we both panicked.
My mind began racing a million miles a minute: Does this mean we should forget it? It was probably too dangerous anyway. What if we get in an accident and have to go to a hospital out here? Or worse, die.
But then, my mindset switched. Despite the dangers, I wanted desperately to ride the motorbike and to adventure, to see for myself the beautiful scenery I stalked on Google and travelers Instagram pages. I spent so much of my life afraid to do things, afraid to take risks and be spontaneous: I wanted to stop that.
In an uncharacteristic moment of bravery I opened my mouth, ready to blatantly lie: “I can drive one.” But before my heroic deed could be done, Laura beat me to the punch.
The young man at the front desk saw right through us, anyone could have seen it. But it also seemed he did not really care, as we found ourselves being handed a key to a motorbike. The initial excitement I felt quickly faded as we walked to the motorbikes, and once again I panicked knowing that we were about to embark on a journey that could kill us both.
When Laura first hopped on the motorbike, turned the key in the ignition and twisted the gas, my heart stopped as I watched her lurch forward in a frenzied and chaotic motion. “We’re going to die,” I thought, as I stood, my face cold with sweat, inspecting her intensely while she tried to get her bearings with the mechanical beast. After a while, she got better control over the thing and motioned for me to join her. About to vomit, I flung one leg over the side of the motorbike, and hopped on.
We moved forward at a glacial pace, being passed by cyclists and walkers alike. Little old ladies laughed and pointed at us, but we remained slow and steady on our vehicle. Some time passed, and Laura confessed she was beginning to feel more confident. I spoke words of praise, as I was actually impressed with how well she was doing, even if my knuckles, white from clutching the handle so tightly, suggested another sentiment.
More time passed, and eventually, the two foreign goofballs on the motorbike arrived at the entrance of Bokor National Park. Even the initial drive into the park was magical: roads surrounded by pink flowers, green everywhere, and silent of all noise. We felt like we were a Disney kingdom, or some other enchanted place.
Like children, we giggled and smiled and screamed as we drove up the mountain, stopping constantly to take photos of the breath taking views. “This is my favorite place in Cambodia,” continually bubbled out of our lips.
However, tragedy struck an hour into our ride.
“Laura, the gas,” I shouted above the wind, suddenly noticing our once full tank now danced into the red zone.
A chorus of swear words and desperate efforts at solutions followed in our conversation as we attempted to problem solve. Unfortunately, nothing seemed feasible and we concluded our best bet would be trying to race down the mountain and make our way back before getting stranded.
The decent began, both of us silent with worry. Occasionally one of us broke the silence with a joke or to swear about the man we rented the bike from, cursing him for not telling us to fill the tank all the way up in order to reach the mountaintop. Mostly we drove, going faster than we ever dared before; for some reason thinking that the faster we went, the more likely we were to beat the dwindling gas tank.
“I don’t think we’re going to make it,” Laura confessed. “We have to make it,” I said, less to her and more to the God I hoped was listening.
In the end, we did make it, our engine sputtering with its last efforts as we pulled into a gas station just outside the park. Victory was ours, even though we looked more like terrified children than champions.
After filling our tank, we felt a bit defeated despite our triumphs, wishing we could have made it to the top of the mountain. “We have to go back and finish it before we leave,” Laura stated, and I agreed.
Two days later, we raced up the mountain. Now confident drivers, myself included, we resolutely sped around the twists of turns of the road, determined to make it to the top. The morning air chilled our skin, and the wind from our speed hit our faces harshly. But we pressed on, and after an hour, reached the top.
It felt like we were driving through clouds and into the heavens, or some other form of another more godly world. Unable to contain our excitement, we smiled and cheered gleefully, only shutting up when a bug proceeded to hit me in the face.
The top of the mountain is home to an abandoned Catholic church. We parked our bike and explored its beautiful and haunting ruins for a moment, appreciating it in all its glory. After admiring it for what we felt was an appropriate amount of time, we scanned the surrounding area, looking at the views. Everything was gorgeous, but we could not help but feel a little disappointed: where was the view in the Google images?
“I think we should go,” I said defeated, sure that we would not find anything better than this.
“I’m going to climb these stairs first,” Laura said, not ready to part with the church. I followed her, walking a set of old stone stairs.
At the top, we burst out laughing, becoming hysterical for we almost missed it. Behind the church and up the hidden staircase was the view of all views. And it was breath taking.
The entire ride down the mountain and the three hour bus ride back from Kampot to Phnom Penh, I kept thinking about that view. It took two dangerous motorbike rides, almost getting stranded with no gas, and climbing some precarious stairs to find it, but it was worth everything and more.
In Kampot, I challenged myself and went against my instincts. I did things I would have never thought myself capable of, from riding a motorbike with someone who had never driven one, to driving it myself, to going up a mountain on it. I did things I was not necessarily ready for, but in doing so, I lived.
“If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives.” – Lemony Snicket