A bumpy bike ride
and other responsible activities in Siem Reap Cambodia
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I had been in Siem Reap for days, wandering sweaty and dumbstruck around the temples of Angkor, marveling at their awe-inspiring grandeur, history – and uncanny ability to attract the most significant number of tourist crowds I’d seen. Traveling to Siem Reap at any time of year means entering into the daily melee of tour buses and groups. And fair play to them, why not? Angkor is undeniably one of the most fascinating places you can visit, and unmistakably Cambodian.
But perhaps that’s the part I was having trouble with. Angkor represented Cambodia as it once was, but was this place along with Siem Reap, its nearest neighbor, really representative of modern-day Cambodia? I had a niggling feeling I was missing something that was there but just out of sight. And as it turns out, I was right.
So the next blazingly hot afternoon, I found myself atop a hard bike saddle desperately trying to keep up with Joo, my cycling guide, who deftly weaved his way past green rice paddies, fields of mango trees, and blissfully empty roads. Joo was guiding me to his own village, a 20-minute ride from Siem Reap and a world away. I coaxed my squeaking bike over bumpy, dusty paths, past bored cattle lazing in muddy pools, unseen barking dogs, and endless lush green fields vibrant in the afternoon sun. We regularly stopped for water and a chat. I asked Joo if many people took the time to explore beyond their hotel and the temples, “Not too many, but we are getting more and more customers now. I think people just really want to have a unique experience, something different.” Joo was a guide at a locally owned and operated tour company which promised to show travelers a different side to Siem Reap by taking them on rides to nearby villages and the floating communities of nearby Tonle Sap lake.
Our first stop was just outside the village at a wooden stall-come-shop, where a woman welcomed us with what looked like a handful of limes, which turned out to be tiny sweet oranges. We sat together while Joo translated my questions. She was an old family friend, and her stilted wooden house stood behind, with its upstairs sleeping area and everything else from the kitchen to the laundry area underneath, open to the elements. She, like Joo, had lived in the village all her life, her husband working on their farm most days while she looked after the children and sold drinks and snacks by the side of the road. Joo told me that more than 70% of Cambodians work as farmers, their biggest crop being various fruits which were sold locally at weekly markets.
We rode on past a raucous field of hysterical ducks; I held my breath against the smell as Joo called back to me, “The duck farm! We don’t eat chicken eggs; the duck eggs are bigger and tastier!” We passed his mum, dad and older sister waving as they sat outside Joo’s house before arriving at a mushroom farm. Guiding me past the irate guard dog, Joo explained how the mushrooms are grown using rice, which is put into bags, heated and left to germinate the mushrooms inside. The bags are then moved into dark sheds where the mushrooms grow through holes in the bags like little fungal aliens. The whole practice is completely organic and has minimal impact on the environment. The finished product was sold at a local market and business was booming.
The sun was starting to set, so we headed out to one of the many ‘hammock bars’ that line the roads out of town – little thatched huts each equipped with hammocks and a beautiful view across the land to Tonle Sap lake. Joo ordered us local fish in sweet and sour sauce, and we drank beers while he told me about his many impressive performances for his local football team and his plans for the tour company. “I don’t want to do what my father does, but I want to stay here. It is very quiet here, I couldn’t live in a city. We have always had tourists and now there are many Chinese groups too. I think that people want to see something else apart from the temples now.” As I watched the sunset across the fields, cold beer in hand and not a tour bus in sight, I had to agree. He was on to something.
SEE – Photos & Videos
GO – Getting There
Siem Reap hasn’t been a sleepy backwater for some time and is well and truly on the traveler map. Fly into Siem Reap international airport or arrive by local bus or minivan from other parts of Cambodia and Asia. You can also reach Siem Reap by train from Bangkok. Tuk-tuks around town cost from as little as a dollar. Be sure to tip handsomely if you can afford it.
Do – Activities & Attractions
Eat at Sister Srey Cafe
Opening in 2012, this cafe with a purpose was established as a place where young Khmer students could work and simultaneously train in hospitality, learn English and banking skills, and help them feel more empowered and confident. A portion of the profits also goes to APOPO Humanitarian Demining, which works to remove the thousands of mines that still lay in Cambodian land. They seriously deliver on the coffee and cake front too.
Shop responsibly at Fair Trade Village
Give the central market a miss and head over to the Fair Trade Village, just a five-minute tuk-tuk ride from the middle of town. Here you’ll find only locally made products, from beautiful clothing to ceramics, jewelry, and homewares. You can even watch the potters at work.
Support the artists and musicians of Phare Circus
Expect gasp-inducing acrobatic stunts along with music and dance infused shows at Phare Circus. The Sokha show tells Cambodia’s history using a combination of dance, music, and paintings. All artists are graduates of the Phare Ponleu Selpak Association, a non-profit circus school opened following the fall of the Khmer Rouge back in the 1990s.
Stay – Accommodation
There are many unique homestays in and around Siem Reap, offering anything from a basic mattress on the floor to something more akin to a mid-range hotel with private bathrooms and terraces. Phnom Krom Eco Resort – located in Krosang Roleung village near Tonle Sap lake – is a great place to base yourself. The ‘resort,’ which is more like a small community, houses a hotel as well as the chance to get involved in countless activities run by local villagers and 50 other communities nearby. Camping, cycling, trekking and ox cart rides are all on offer.
Eat – Restaurants
Cambodian food is a delicate balance between spice and sweetness, using more herbs than its neighbors over in Thailand and Vietnam. Loc Lac is a favorite dish, usually made with beef, which is stir-fried and served on a salad with a side serving of raw onions, plus the unexpected addition of a fried egg. Its dipping sauce of limes and pepper tops it off – choose a Kampot pepper and be prepared to feel the heat. Another readily available Cambodian staple is nom banh chok, a delicious mix of rice noodles, banana leaves, cucumber, mint, and basil finished off with a serving of green fish curry. Your tastebuds will thank you.
Time – Seasonality & Schedules
If it’s cycling you’re interested in, the best season by far is the dry season, from November to April when the route will be mud and rain free.
Safety – Possible risks
Cycling along roads and unstable ground is inherently risky. Make sure any bike you use is road worthy and has decent tires that will grip to any slippery ground you might be riding over. Always wear a helmet, no matter how hot it feels.
Please Note: Travel inherently comes with an element of risk (just like crossing the road does). You are putting yourself in elements that are unfamiliar and foreign to your usual lifestyle and with that, become more susceptible to fall victim those who try to play off those unfamiliar to their local scams. There are also potential dangers in the environments to which you may not be accustomed to.
Please take extra care in travelling, ensure that you have adequate medical insurance (accidents seem to happen when you least expect them), and have let a trusted colleague, family member or friend know your whereabouts and activities.
Where Sidewalks End travel advises you to travel at your own risk, and to be extra aware of your surroundings (without letting it spoiling your time).
Pay – How much does it cost?
Locally-run excursions to villages and Tonle Sap lake are generally cheap, often coming in at under $30 per activity. Most include water and a snack, or even dinner. Bear in mind that the people running the tour are often poorly paid, and a tip is always welcomed though not expected.
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Responsible Travel – Best Practices
Go for smaller local tour companies and support those who are just starting out and still waiting for those all-important positive online reviews. Cycling and hiking are both easy on the environment and a far more responsible way to get around than on a scooter or bus.
Reality Check – Be Aware
Getting out into the countryside and partaking in locally-run activities is a fantastic experience, but you will also be away from some of the conveniences you might be used to. Any toilets you use will likely have a pail and a tub of water next to them as a manual flush. Internet access is also limited in rural areas, and power can come and go. Mosquitoes and other biting insects are often abundant and irritating. Any discomfort you feel is all part of the experience though – nothing worth doing is ever entirely pleasurable!
JOIN US! WSE Travel Packages
This sounds like quite the adventure, right? We thought so too! Though we realize it can be pretty intimidating to get out there into the world on your own, especially when travelling to some of these off the beaten path locations. We love it when our readers give it a shot and try it for themselves! In fact, please leave us feedback if you do!! If trying something ‘this’ adventurous on your own is just a bit outside of your comfort zone, WSE Travel is here to help!
Follow this link for our ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ Tours – packages that are highly personalized and tailored at your request.
Have you ever been to a city that had a really unique historical or cultural feature? Where was it and what made it so unique?
Please feel free to share your stories and thoughts in the comment section below!
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