Outside the entrance to Tony Morvant’s home, down a picturesque alleyway in a residential part of Russian Market, is a large clay pot full of bamboo stems. The sight could hardly be more appropriate.
“We were looking for a home in Phnom Penh, so when we visited here and saw the bamboo outside, we thought ‘this is a sign’,” the 26-year-old Frenchman says.
Over the past three years, bamboo has become central to the young engineer’s life and work.
In late 2016, Tony set off from his home in Nantes, northwest France, on an almost two-year, 17,141km, cross-continental journey spanning 20 countries, destined for Cambodia.
What was his vehicle for such a mammoth journey? A bicycle made almost entirely of bamboo, built from scratch in the garage of his home.
For most, just the idea of building a bicycle from scratch – much less cycling it across the world – would be a daunting prospect in itself. But Tony has always had an engineer’s instinct.
Sitting in the light, airy living room of his Phnom Penh home-cum-workshop where he now lives, Tony fondly recalls a childhood in which he was immersed in outdoor sports, and where his creative urges were nurtured as he built an array of unusual items.
“I’ve always enjoyed thinking about new ways of doing things, how to transform materials for new purposes. My father and grandfather are very practical men and were often working on automobiles, so I think I inherited it off them."
“I was very curious about electricity and cars, how it all works. I remember once as a small boy, after my family had gone skiing, I attempted to rebuild the ski lift with my Lego and a motor at home. And when I was 12, I built a weaving loom made of wood and PVC tubes,” he says.
Six months research, six months building
In 2011 Tony enrolled on a five-year mechanical industrial engineering degree at the Ecole d’ingenieur a Nantes (ICAM). This is where he first experimented with the use of bamboo as a construction material.
“I became interested in the bamboo process at university, so in late 2015 I ordered some from a company in France who import it from Southeast Asia. For six months I did research – how to clean the bamboo, how to put water inside so I can slice it, just working to see what I can do with the material.
“The first thing I made was a small plate, then I used a PVC tube to craft the bamboo composite, and as a bike is essentially made of tubes it was not so far from there. So through trial and error I just kept making more complicated things until I built the bicycle,” he says.
The entire process of building the bicycle from start to finish took one year; six months of research and six months of building.
Freshly graduated, itching to see the world and armed with his handmade bicycle, on September 18, 2016 Tony set off on his ambitious cross-continental project – whimsically named au bambou de mes reves (bamboo of my dreams) – on a journey in which he would test the limits of both man and bamboo.
’Every day was an adventure’
First weaving his way east through Europe, he then traversed snowy peaks, mountainous landscapes and arid deserts across the likes of Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran and the UAE.
“Every day was an adventure; it made me more curious about the world. My goal was not to break a sports record, it was to discover people. By far the best aspect of cycling is the freedom; you are independent and you can go anywhere,” Tony says.
Six months of travelling India was followed by cycling in the Himalayas in Nepal – a portion of the trip he considers among the most memorable for its natural beauty.
“I left Kathmandu [the capital of Nepal] to head back to India on 300km journey cycling through the Himalayas where there are no roads, but only tracks."
“I was struggling and pushing my bike most of the time. But despite this, the most memorable thing about it was the views and the scenery, how high up we were. I spent ten days alone sleeping in the mountains eating instant noodles and biscuits, it was a great time,” he says.
Averaging 70km per day and carrying approximately 35kg of luggage (a tent, a stove, tools and clothing), the trip was a feat of endurance. The most crucial take away from this experience, Tony says, was learning to be attune to the needs of both his body and his bicycle.
“Travelling on a bicycle you understand that your limit is what your body can handle. If you don’t sleep you don’t move. If you don’t eat, then you don’t have enough energy and you don’t move. These are simple things that make you feel more human,” he says.
“It was the same with my bicycle; I had to look after it. Despite snow, rain, wind, 45 degrees Celsius heat over long distances, the bicycle rarely had problems because I took care of it.”
Leaving mountainous South Asia behind and cycling through tropical Southeast Asia, Tony arrived in Phnom Penh on August 3, 2018, almost two years older and many kilograms lighter.
It’s a country the Frenchman says he has always felt an affinity with.
“I went to Cambodia for the first time in 2011. It was my first trip abroad without my parents and also the beginning of my love for the country."
“I enjoy changing and transforming objects and you see that every day in Cambodia. People show a lot of creativity with few resources here, it’s a very inventive society and I can relate to that,” he says.
Wanting to settle in the Kingdom for a period, and feeling inspired by the durability his bamboo bicycle displayed, Tony decided he would remain in Phnom Penh, where he would embark on his next project.
“My trip was a huge success. After 17, 000km my bike was working well and was still like new. I decided that maybe I could do something with this idea and make more things with bamboo,” he says.
For the past three months, in collaboration with childhood friend and business partner Astinee Jacolin, he has been developing his SOBEN – Advanced Bamboo Composite project.
They have already developed a second prototype, a kick scooter.
Bamboo is a material the pair believe has the potential to be an eco-friendly and sustainable alternative in the production of many everyday items, and they view Cambodia as the perfect environment in which to explore this concept.
“Cambodia obviously has a lot of bamboo, but it is also a really start-up and innovation friendly country. We have met lots of people who are interested in what we are doing here. The idea is that with bamboo composite, we can make everything,” says Astinee, who serves as communications, marketing and events manager for the business.
Tony and Astinee are currently engaging in bamboo product research and development, as well as searching for a larger workshop and seeking local partners through which they can expand the production of bamboo goods.
You can find more details of Tony’s bicycle journey online (aubamboudemesreves.fr) or on Facebook (@aubamboudemesreves). You can also find details on SOBEN – Advanced Bamboo Composite online (soben-bamboo.com) or on Facebook (@SOBENBamboo).