Mr Rong and I were just beginning our six-day motorbike tour of the Cambodian countryside north and east of Siem Reap: Kulen Mountain, Koh Ker, Ta Seng and the jungle of the Boen Peae Wildlife Sanctuary. After a stop near Angkor Wat to stock up on water and petrol, we were waiting side-by-side to enter a wide, paved main road. I was watching Mr Rong for his cue to start off – but as he looked over my shoulder at the light traffic coming from behind me, a concerned expression came over his face.
I turned and saw this: a scooter approaching, carrying a male driver in an orange helmet and his wife behind him with an infant in her arms. It’s a common sight on the roads of Southeast Asia, an entire family riding a scooter – father driving, mother behind, children on their parents’ laps, mother holding an infant in her arms.
But the scooter was moving along the carriageway broadside, because the driver was in the process of laying it down. So what I actually saw, mostly, was the black tires and underside of the scooter.
Also, absurdly, between us and the scooter, there was a very tall and thin, very old man riding an ancient gray bicycle into the traffic, perpendicular to its flow. The bicycle and the scooter were positioned almost exactly parallel to one another, and aligned, so as the scooter slowly collided with the bicycle, it pushed the bicycle neatly sideways.
A moment later, all the riders and their conveyances lay on the blacktop, the people still more or less in normal riding position. Bicycle, old man, scooter, family.
I felt certain the old man must have died, as frail as he looked, but he lay on his back with his eyes open, very much alive but apparently stunned. I glanced at the family. They weren’t there anymore, which mystified me.
I’d dismounted, as had Mr Rong, and I moved toward the elderly man wishing I could help, but I didn’t know what to do. Mr Rong was already going to him. A man moved past me – the scooter driver, the father, still wearing the orange helmet. He and Mr Rong checked the old man for injuries and then lifted him by the legs and shoulders and carried him off the pavement. When they lifted him, his white baseball cap remained behind and I saw a splotch of scarlet blood on it.
Other people had gathered, and some were picking up the old man’s bag, the bicycle, and the scooter. Someone grabbed the old man’s shoe from the middle of the road, and another bystander retrieved his bloodstained hat. I’d taken off my krama – the all-purpose Khmer scarf – and folded it to set under the old man’s head when they lay him down on the gravelly ground, but someone had already placed the old man’s rubber sandal and his hat there, so I didn’t. I felt like I was moving too slowly, too uncertain of how to help, to be of any use.
Now on the road, there was only the spot of blood where the old man’s head had lain, and a mound of white rice. Later, Mr Rong told me the rice had been in the scooter driver’s backpack.
After half a minute, the old man began to revive, and people moved him onto a chair brought from a nearby roadside restaurant. Mr Rong got a small bottle of iodine and a handful of cotton wool from his bag. He gave these to the scooter driver, who cleaned the old man’s head with them.
I looked around but still didn’t see the woman and infant who had been on the scooter.
Then Mr Rong said, “He’s going to be okay. We can go.”
We talked about it later. We’d both been thinking the same things. If the scooter driver had struck the bicycle straight on, it would have killed the old man for sure, and possibly the whole family. Or if there’d been even one car behind the scooter … I don’t want to think about that! In that case, it could even have involved Mr Rong and me, given that we were standing right at the edge of the road and only about three meters from the incident.
I asked Mr Rong about the woman and baby. He said, not a scratch. The scooter driver had torn his shirt, and the old man had scraped his head. That was all. I remembered how quiet it had been right after the collision. No groaning, screaming or shrieking, no panic on anyone’s part as far as I saw. It was so quiet that, for a moment, I’d thought everyone must be dead or unconscious. The baby didn’t even cry.
Mr Rong said the scooter driver told him he had had a feeling that morning that they shouldn’t go out, that something was going to happen. Mr Rong thought maybe that’s why he wasn’t more upset. And he said the old man on the bicycle was drunk as a skunk. Mr Rong thinks the accident saved his life, because if it hadn’t happened, he would have continued riding his bicycle up the road and likely would have been involved in a more serious incident.
The Khmer phrase for “adventure” translates to journey of uncertain outcome. The incident that Mr Rong and I witnessed as we began our little adventurous loop through rural Cambodia reminded me that any journey, even the most everyday, has no certain outcome. But sometimes – and maybe more often than not? – it turns out to be something of a miracle.