Bridget Di Certo looks into Cambodia’s passion for a style icon — the Vespa — and discovers a scooter reborn. Photography by Conor Wall.
During the innovation and arts heyday of the 1960s, the Vespa became a symbol of youth, freedom and the future. Yet decades after the Khmer Rouge imposed an ultra-Maoist communist regime on Cambodia in 1975, the once popular scooters lay abandoned and almost forgotten.
Rusted and torn apart for scrap metal, they were scattered across the countryside. Tong Soprach, born in the dying days of the regime, remembers stumbling upon these mechanical carcasses near his home in Kampong Thom province.
“As a child I would play on the metal shells [of the scooter body] and the old people would say: ‘This is a Vespa.’ But at that time everyone needed food first. There was starvation so nobody really cared about the past and the Vespa looked like garbage,” he says.
Tong’s imagination and childhood games on the broken scooters took hold of him again in adulthood. After first buying a Vespa in 2006 because of its affordable price, he found other Cambodians and expatriates fascinated with the scooters and launched the Phnom Penh Vespa Club that year.
“When I drive the Vespa sometimes, the older people try to touch and say they used to drive one like it,” says Tong, who owns a white 1967 model made in India, decorated with the colours of his favourite British football team — Arsenal.
The Vespa Club has had its ups and downs, primarily linked to the transient nature of its expatriate membership. It fell apart in 2010, but is currently undergoing a revival thanks to the arrival to the country of some new enthusiasts, who are determined to bring love for the Vespa back to life.
When Kevin Stainburn, now one of the co-organisers of the Phnom Penh Vespa Club, moved to Cambodia after serving in the British military, he seized the opportunity to acquire a vintage Vespa.
“Having purchased a Vespa soon after my arrival, I noticed that support by way of knowledge of the Vespa and the ability to obtain parts was scant to say the least. Having done some research and also seeing how many Vespas were around, I decided that a club would assist all,” Stainburn says.
He met a fellow expatriate who had experience as a Vespa mechanic and together they embarked on a mission to reinvigorate the club.
“It has now started meeting again. Whilst the same social atmosphere will exist, it will also be a source of information and assistance to the dwindling number of Vespa owners of Cambodia,” he explains.
Numbers of vintage Vespas have declined due to the degradation of the vehicles over time and opportunistic foreigners buying up the scooters cheaply in Cambodia and exporting them for international sale.
“It is like owning a piece of history — they are quirky, great to look at and great fun to ride. They are an iconic image of the 60s and 70s and for some reason everyone just likes to look at them. They have a particular sound and I, personally, can hear one coming long before I ever see it,” Stainburn adds.
Both Stainburn and Tong agree that as well as the romantic and symbolic associations with the Vespa, the scooter has myriad practical benefits such as safety, durability and resilience.
“They were extremely well built in the early days and the two-stroke engine in them just keeps on going and going provided it is loved and cared for. The shape and style has also helped them to stand the test of time, in my humble opinion,” Stainburn says.
This has not been an opinion widely shared by young Cambodians. Tong says the Vespa was seen as uncool until the arrival of new, updated models in 2012 that reintroduced them to the iconic vehicle’s charm.
A revival of interest has been aided by the introduction of a showroom on Monivong Boulevard that is presenting new models for sale. This veneer of modernity is attracting a new generation ready to fall in love with the Vespa, Tong believes.
“They think that the Vespa is classic and the new ones being advertised are cool,” he says. “I feel like these days everyone is more concerned with the modern things, so it is nice to see the romantic Vespa has more attention.”