Coffee and Bicycles in Cambodia
At the end of December my wife and I took a trip to Cambodia to visit my brother's family for two weeks. I'm grateful to Salem's many coffee-lovers who forgave the two-week absence of Steel Bridge Coffee's services during that time. Thanks for waiting it out.
While this trip was not about business, I eventually realized that Cambodia's coffee and bicycling scene were interesting enough to warrant a blog post as a way to share with you all about my trip.
I had been to Cambodia once before in 2008. I spent two months. My brother has lived there since 2003. In the time since then, the bicycle and coffee scene have been changing dramatically.
First, a brief history: Cambodia is heir to the great Angkor empire, which was the dominant power in the region a millennium ago and built some of the world's greatest temples of that era including the famous Angkor Wat. Angkor began declining around the 12th century and fell in the 15th. The 19th century brought on French colonialism. Independence was achieved in the 1950's and Cambodia's capital briefly enjoyed a reputation as a hip and vibrant city until political turmoil culminated in the disastrous Khmer Rouge revolution of 1975-79
The Khmer Rouge, upon taking power, immediately evacuated Phnom Penh in an effort to rid the country of modernist/intellectual influence in favor of an agrarian-based, communist utopia. The result was genocide, as nearly a quarter of the population had died of execution, starvation, or sickness by 1979 when the revolution ended.
It took over a decade to establish a new political order. The current Prime Minister, Hun Sen, took power in 1991 and has presided over a long period of relative stability (if not democracy). Since then, Cambodia has been slowly developing and changing, which brings me to my observations of coffee and bicycle culture.
Many travelers know the difficulty of finding a good cup of coffee in foreign lands, even (sometimes especially) in coffee growing regions. Latin America is known for its love of Nescafe instant coffee, for example. Cambodia has a couple of regions that are suitable for coffee production but its a small industry and there's virtually no export market. Neighboring Vietnam is known for exporting large amount of low-grade robusta coffee, though they also grow some higher grade arabica.
The first thing that comes to mind when you mention “coffee” in Cambodia is an icy, sweetened beverage, ubiquitously available on the side of any road from thousands of independent entrepreneurs. This coffee (similar to Vietnamese iced coffee) is a mixture of “Khmer coffee” and sweetened condensed milk, served on ice and always in a plastic cup with lid and straw. It's delicious. “Khmer coffee,” as it turns out, is a funny beast. It is not straightforward, brewed coffee. I was told that many things get added to the coffee during the roasting/processing, such as lard, chocolate, various spices, and possibly chemicals. During my trip I once tried “Khmer coffee” on its own; it was intense and, in my opinion, virtually undrinkable. I believe it is only meant to be consumed with sweetened condensed milk.
The scene for Western-style coffee has exploded in Cambodia over the last decade. My brother recalls that for several years after his arrival in 2003 his go-to place for a half-decent cup of coffee was adjoined to a gas station mini-mart. By the time that I first visited in 2008 there were numerous nice locations in the capitol serving fresh-brewed coffee, but you had to know where to find them. When I visited this month, coffee was everywhere. There were abundant options for locally run (often by expats) coffee and sandwich shops, usually serving espresso-based beverages. Additionally, chain stores were everywhere. UK-based Costa Coffee has made a strong showing. They are basically a British version of Starbucks. For its own part, Starbucks recently opened a location at the Phnom Penh airport. Perhaps the most interesting big player is Cambodian-owned Brown Coffee. They have many locations all over. Their coffee-service is similar to Starbucks and they roast very dark. My sister-in-law (a local expert) says that its better than Starbucks because each location is uniquely designed and decorated. They put careful thought into the aesthetics of each store. They also have a larger food menu than Starbucks.
The craft-roasting scene is still very small in Cambodia but it does exist. A company called Feel Good Coffee is roasting locally sourced beans with an eye toward quality and they seem to be carving out a strong niche. We were fortunate to get to talk with one of the owners (an American) when we visited their roasting location. They offer a single-origin coffee from Laos and a blended coffee from farms in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. They focus on the lighter end of the roasting spectrum. We learned that Cambodia's coffee production is too small to justify any kind of export market.
When I visited Phnom Penh in 2008 I immediately noticed that there were lots of bicycles on the road, certainly more than in Portland (as a percentage of total commuters). Nearly every bike on the road was the same, usually a 70's or 80's era cruiser-bike, probably made in Japan, equipped with a rack and kickstand, sporting a single gear, or more rarely a internal 3-speed hub. I bought one of my own for $35 from a local dealer and pedaled all over the city and even out of the city over the course of a month. I deemed Phnom Penh (a city of over one million) to be extremely bikable.
Traffic in Phnom Penh is chaotic. Small motorbikes (“motos”) are the ubiquitous form of transit and traffic plays by their rules, behaving like a viscous fluid as each individual weaves their way around like single molecules in a collective flow. Lanes exist but are sparsely regarded, as are stop signs and lights. Intersections are reminiscent of a woven rug. Everyone slows down, threading their way through a mass of perpendicularly pointed drivers. Left-hand turns are executed not by waiting for a clearing in traffic but by slowly asserting oneself into on-coming traffic until you've cleared a path for yourself. Automobiles are quite cumbersome in this environment.
At first, Phnom Penh's traffic is frightening to the newcomer. We are so accustomed to playing by certain rules that the chaos of Phnom Penh's streets feels like an endless cascade of potential accidents. However, since I observed no accidents in Cambodia, I suspect that motorists there stay far more alert to the road than their American counterparts and are constantly expecting the unexpected. The down side to all our meticulously followed rules is that we can become complacent on our commute and are unprepared for surprises.
Bicycles enter the fray of Phnom Penh's roadways just as a motorbike would. There are no bike lanes. It takes a bit of courage to jump into traffic at first but soon one gains confidence in the system. Traffic moves relatively slowly and an ambitious cyclist can sometimes keep pace with motorized traffic. Ultimately, it is more efficient to get around by bike than by car. The weather is hot in Cambodia, which may discourage some cyclists but it is never too cold to ride. During the rainy season, powerful monsoon rains sweep through in the afternoon. Most exposed commuters keep a poncho handy, just in case.
During my recent visit, I felt that there were noticeably fewer bicycles on the road and more automobiles. Phnom Penh is developing rapidly and it seems that there are more wealthy residents who desire the safety, comfort, and status of a car, even if it lacks the nimbleness of a bike or moto. It remains, in my opinion, a very bikable city. The recreational bike scene meanwhile is growing. There were a handful of modern bike shops in town, mostly dealing Giant bikes and gear. In 2008 I don't recall seeing a single modern bike on the roads. This time I saw numerous Giant mountain bikes and a few modern road bikes. I couldn't believe my eyes one day when a small peloton of 5-6 Cambodian riders rolled by in spandex on various carbon fiber road bikes, as if just bike from a day ride in the country.
Bicycles continue to be a common choice for school children in Cambodia, especially in the country-side. When you pass a schoolhouse you will see dozens of bikes parked there. One of the most charming sights, which I've seen numerous times in Cambodia, is that of a very small child pedaling an adult-size bike. If they use a ladies-style bike they can stand on the pedals with the seat against their back or, if they're big enough, they can drop the seat as low as possible and just reach the bottom of the pedals.
An interesting relic of Cambodia's pedal-powered commuting scene is the cyclo (pronounced SEE-kloo). This is a front-loading pedi-cab (similar to a classic Mexican-style ice cream bike) with room for one adult passenger. The cyclo was a common form of transportation in Cambodia decades ago. In 2008 they were still a common sight. On my recent trip there seemed to be fewer of them. Cyclos in Phnom Penh are (almost without exception) old machines, driven by elderly immigrants from the country-side. I've not once seen a modern/new cyclo, except for a display-piece at the airport. Cyclo drivers are at the bottom of the economic scale in the world of Cambodian commuting. Above them is the ubiquitous moto driver offering lifts to as many people as they can squeeze onto the back seat (you'd be surprised how many that is), and above them is the tuk-tuk driver pulling an open-air carriage behind a souped-up motorbike.
Now-a-days, cyclos seem to be rarely used for commuting. We rode on cyclos as part of an organized tour of local architecture. It was a fun and quaint experience, and I got the impression that such token tourist experiences were the new realm of survival for the once-ubiquitous cyclo. I will say though that I was surprised by the cyclo's effectiveness for getting us around. On Phnom Penh's flat streets a strapping driver can get up to decent speeds. In a town where sidewalks are hard to come by, it is far more pleasant to let a cyclo driver take you a few blocks distance compared to attempting to walk on the side of the road.
My favorite part about bicycles in Cambodia is the kickstands. Yes, the kickstands. Nearly every bike is equipped with a rugged kickstand that mounts to the rear axle and securely balances the bike without leaning it. I've never seen a kickstand like it in America. Until now. I bought two of them for $6 a piece and brought them home!