Many people heading for the iconic temples of Angkor will hop on a plane for the short flight from Bangkok. There is, however, a more leisurely and engrossing option.
I may have cycled as a child growing up near the Peak District in England but, even as a skinny teenager, you’d invariably find me moaning and groaning up those Derbyshire hills.
So the prospect of a five-day journey from the Thai capital to Siem Reap – the gateway to Cambodia’s Angkor temples – filled me with notions of endurance tests, the company of fitness fanatics and the prospect of nights spent in shacks invested with dinner plate-sized spiders. As departure day loomed, my apprehensions mounted.
On the first morning, we assemble in Bangkok for a three-hour drive to a small, sedate beach town far from the bustle of one of the world’s most vibrant cities.
As with any group tour, your companions are a lottery. For this, 200km adventure mine were to be four charming Australian ladies. I could have easily felt the odd one out but the “we’re all in this together” attitude quickly had me part of their posse.
The next five days would see us cycle along coastal routes, through orchards and gem mining towns, past well-preserved French architecture, and meeting the ever-present charming people of a land that blends a turbulent past with a positive, vibrant present.
On this first leg, the morning provides us with time for a quick swim in the Gulf of Thailand before a charming ride to the regional town of Chanthaburi where our friendly host awaits to introduce us to his cosy guesthouse – and to his pride and joy, his exquisite fruit and vegetable garden.
Cycling enables you to experience places you wouldn’t when flitting between airports. In a world that can appear relentlessly manic, our journey happens at a wonderful leisurely pace. And, of course, it is more environmentally friendly, with all the Cambodian vehicles operated by Grasshopper Adventures being run on recycled cooking oil!
At the Cambodian border we complete formalities and make for our hotel, set among the hills of Pailin – a town famous in extremes for the quality of its gem mining and for having harboured senior members of the notorious Khmer Rouge.
Any fears I may have had about “roughing it” are soon dispelled. It becomes obvious the days will be rugged but, as we arrive at a succession of four- or five-star hotels and boutique properties with swimming pools, en-suite bathrooms and air-conditioning, our evenings and nights are spent in considerable comfort.
I’m no gym bunny so fatigue – and the heat – was a concern, but Lot, our guide, had a sixth sense when it came to scheduling breaks. With legs starting to burn and body temperatures on the rise, the tour van seemed to magically appear in the shade of a tree or outside a village hut with snacks and a box of cold towels.
During one break, Chhay – our mechanic – regaled us with tales of his cycling through northern Laos (a hilly and challenging terrain), leaving us all rather glad we’d elected for Cambodia – and now viewing those slight inclines we’d been calling “hills” with fresh eyes.
Each day presents us with delightful vignettes of Cambodia. From a man-and-wife making rice paper for spring rolls by the roadside to a colourful, ramshackle village temple, and from a flock of uniform-clad school girls to a street-side vendor selling deep fried insects, our attention is constantly diverted and our senses permanently engaged.
The next day we head 40km to Battambang. Leaving Pailin there is real sense of freedom and fun as we discover an area into which tourists may now venture but where locals still hold a friendly and welcoming curiosity for visitors.
Later that afternoon we get to ride one of the area’s more unusual attractions – the Bamboo Train. The term “train” needs interpreting with some flexibility as, in truth, it’s a flat wooden board that sits on two barbell-style bogies and makes a 30-minute journey along warped rails, across bridges and through rice fields.
It’s all wonderfully authentic – and great fun – and as the sun sets, our day ends with an ice-cold Angkor beer and crunchy deep fried crickets. Beer and cricket – that certainly appealed to my new Australian friends!
This is a country where the scars of the past are evident but it’s also a place where there is a tremendous sense of positivity.
We’re taken on a tour with Soksabike – a programme of vocational training created by an NGO. Students introduce us to local villages and to various goods and products, predominantly food. We tuck into dried bananas and the tasty snack of Kralanh (a sticky rice served inside a bamboo stem – sweet and delicious) washed down by a glass of local (and lethal!) rice wine.
It’s time, temporarily, to trade-in our bikes for the three-hour drive to Siem Reap – and the anticipation of visiting one of the “wonders of the world”.
Although Angkor is now a tourist mecca it’s still possible to experience its magic while avoiding the worst of the crowds. One of the best ways to do this is to take local advice in bypassing the most popular spots and uncovering a quieter place to watch dawn rise over the majestic towers.
The days when you might have had this iconic experience largely to yourself are long gone but the soft light and kind temperatures of early morning present these magnificent Khmer Empire remains at their most atmospheric.
We take advantage of the cool early morning to explore the world’s largest religious monument before taking our bikes to a secluded spot where breakfast awaits. Before saying goodbye to Cambodia and my new companies, we head off one last time to cycle the hidden trails of Angkor and visit some of its best-kept secrets, along with the notable sites of the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Angkor Thom.
Although there were times I’d questioned my sanity in signing-up to cycle from Thailand to Cambodia, there is little doubt this mode of travel – especially with proper support and comfortable, quality spots to rest the head – offers a way to see places and meet people that many of us miss when simply ticking a “to do” list.
Words and images: Holly Barber
Grasshopper Adventures – grasshopperadventures.com; +4420 8123 8144 – offers an extensive programme of cycling tours and holidays around Asia. The five-day “Slow Road to Angkor” costs from £1080/ USD$1418 per person based on two people travelling excluding flights. There is no single supplement for those prepared to do a (same sex) accommodation share.
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