Phnom Penh is punctuated by the presence of vintage Vespas — and that is a very good thing. They are a wonderful part of the urban landscape and are a visual reminder of a rapidly disappearing era
Many people consider the period between the 1950s and early 1970s as the flowering peak of city. During those decades, the capital remained relatively untouched by regional conflict and reflected a healthy balance of French post-colonialism influences and a sophisticated Khmer urbane culture.
The Vespas seen on the streets today are the quintessential symbol of that period, and the originals from that era have recently become more and more appreciated. This is evident by how many are being restored and customized by enthusiastic owners.
Vespas are sturdy Italian made scooters, known for their durability — as well as their mechanical sensitive and finicky nature — and have survived radical regime changes over the last few decades.
While foreigners have appreciated their historic and “cool factor” value from the beginning, local Khmer hipsters have just begun to take to the Vespas.
And why not?
Even though their market price has been steadily rising, they are still relatively cheap, completely restored, compared to brand-new Japanese scooters. And unlike Hondas and Yamahas, they express the individuality of the rider, and retain, if not increase, their value.
Tai, a university student, explains: “I love these beautiful scooters. I never really paid any attention to them when I was younger. I just thought that they were old, used motorbikes. But then I saw some restored ones — colorful and bright shiny chrome — very nice looking. And I like the idea that they are all different, not another Wave or Future. I bought mine when it was pretty rough and fixed it up myself. It was fun and I am proud my 1966 Vespa Special 150 now.”
Influences like increasing local interest and more international exporters arriving in town have been driving the prices up. In many ways, Phnom Penh’s nascent scooter community relates to the much larger Saigon scene when it was beginning to heat up in the late 90’s. The Vietnamese now have several highly organized clubs who sponsor several events a year. In Phnom Penh there have been some organized Vespa rallies lately and, fortunately, more scooters are destined to stay in the city as opposed to getting put into a shipping container for a new life abroad.
Mark, A local English teacher who has been in Cambodia for more than 5 years, offers his view: “A big part of the appeal of living and working here is the colonial artifacts — the architecture, furniture, food and especially the scooters. I loved Vespas back home in England and was delighted to find them here. When I got my first one they were very inexpensive and much worn, beater bikes really. Personally I cannot imagine being here without riding on these bikes — it adds to the warm vintage feel of this interesting city.”