January 25, 2009 was an eventful day in Cambodia, the day before Chinese New Year. Preparations were well under way in the country’s second-largest city, Battambang; fireworks were being tested for maximum explosive effect, trays of food offerings were being decorated, the psar nat (central market) was overflowing with vendors and buyers stocking up on last-minute staples like noodles, apples and dangling goose-bumped chickens.
I rented a bicycle early in the morning from a place called Moto Gecko, and headed out towards a market a few miles from the town center. The market was closed, but I met a group of women standing by the roadside, and after a comical exchange among the group of us, one of them agreed to sell me her large rattan basket. I cycled back to my hotel, where I deposited the basket; then, stopped off at an internet ‘café’ and had a bit of lunch near the market.
Since I had already purchased my bus ticket to Phnomh Penh for the following morning, and was curious to see more New Year activity, I hopped back on the bike and headed down along the river. The doors to the Chinese temple nearby were shuttered, so I decided to cross the river over an iron bridge wide enough only to accommodate bicycles and motorcycles. As soon as I rode onto two shaky wooden planks, I sensed trouble. But the cycling-traffic was so heavy and I felt so uneasy about stopping to turn back that I continued on. (Note to self: TRUST YOUR INTUITION)
Within seconds, I could no longer steady myself nor could I avoid the gaping hole that suddenly appeared out of nowhere on the floor of the bridge. The bicycle and I went flying through the opening, plummeting to the riverbank some 8-10 meters below. Fortunately, the brain has an amazing ability to react to impending doom in nanoseconds: my entire being blacked out the instant I lost control.
I regained consciousness for only a few seconds on the riverbank – long enough to notice a crowd of onlookers on the bridge high above, and a man hovering in front of me with a video camera. My instincts kicked in as I shooed him away, probably shouting some expletives dredged up from my half-dazed brain. I then promptly conked out again, only to reawaken, briefly, in the hospital ER. (Knocked out yet again, I finally came to – in the most terrifyingly hallucinatory way – in a bed on a ward in an Italian-funded hospital surrounded by unilingual Khmer-speaking patients… but more on that another time)
I later learned from hospital staff that many other people have fallen through that same opening and either died or sustained serious injuries. Although I’ve yet to learn why the bridge had an uncovered hole in the first place, I suspect that it was either a construction defect or exposed ‘landmine’ known to, and avoided by, most locals. (Banish the thought of going to court in Cambodia to sue the city for negligence!)
p.s. I still have the key to the bike-lock, though Moto Gecko hurriedly sent someone to the hospital to get me to pay up for the damaged bike.