By Mike Baron – FivePax Family Travel
Biking in Siem Reap Off-Road Countryside Experience
Visiting Siem Reap, Cambodia was one of the most transformational travel experiences I’ve had in my lifetime. Biking in Siem Reap was an incredible way to experience the area. To start, the ruins at Angkor Wat are even more breathtaking than they photograph. They are absolutely worth trekking to even in the heat. Witnessing a traditional water blessing by a Cambodian Buddhist monk and peacefully reflecting on it in one of the less trafficked temples alone would have made the trip memorable. Then, seeing landmine amputee survivors, including children, perform for donations, pulled at my heartstrings and deepened my interest in learning and connecting to this beautiful part of the world.
For me however, biking in Siem Reap through the countryside and immersing myself in the local culture really solidified Cambodia as such an impactful experience. It is one of the few places in the world where I returned for more. If you have any questions or comments about biking in Siem Reap, leave a comment below.
Angkor Wat Iconic Cambodia
Angkor Wat is an awe-inspiring feat of mankind that has stood the test of time. The majestic temples that both hide within and tower above the jungle invoke an image of a powerful kingdom with distinguished royalty and rich culture. The surrounding countryside is beautiful, albeit hot and sticky. The surrounding rivers are muddy brown, and they supply much of the sustenance necessary to support the rich and colorful ecosystem of flora and fauna in this area.
Poverty in Siem Reap
The poverty and the painful history of the Cambodian people (dominated by the Khmer ethnic group that accounts for 97% of the population) starkly contrasts with the natural beauty. The conditions have been put on full display by celebrities like Angelina Jolie. She adopted a son from Cambodia and made a movie about the horrors of Cambodian children under the rule of the Khmer Rouge. I am not always certain whether or not celebrities exploit poor conditions for attention or not. Regardless, my experience of visiting and meeting locals in Cambodia deeply moved me.
People I Met in Siem Reap
I found it amazing how welcoming and extremely generous the Khemers were with what little they have. For example, when I was biking in Siem Reap, some Khemers welcomed me into their home, made out of sticks and leaves, and they served me lunch. Meanwhile Dad sat outside and hand-spun a fishing net. Living in New York, I have grown accustomed to people keeping to themselves. However in Siem Reap nearly everyone I met took an interest and the time to talk to me. This overwhelming hospitality led me to wonder two things. First, how such nice people can be involved in such nasty history. Second, how in my short time, I could immerse myself and learn more about the Khemer people and their culture.
Brief History of Cambodia
To answer the first question, it is helpful to briefly understand the history of Cambodia. Without going into too much detail, Cambodia was once ruled by powerful kingdoms peaking with the Angkor Empire.
Back around the 800’s, Javavarman Il was the first of many kings who presided over the rise and fall of the greatest empire in Southeast Asia. In his rise to power, Javavarman Il likened himself to the Hindu God Shiva by calling himself a devaraja, or “god-king,” which galvanized his people. The thing that really propelled the Khmer’s to power, however, was superior technological innovation. A mastery of water, including a massive irrigation network and cutting edge hydraulic systems allowed the Angkors to tame mother nature and dominate the region. During this golden era, the successors of Javavarman Il built all of the temples that make up Angkor Wat today.
Historians are not certain what exactly caused the downfall of the Angkor Empire. However, the Thai and Vietnamese ruled Cambodia on and off until in the late 1800’s the French swept in with gunboats and took control.
French rule continued until the 1950’s when Japanese forces overtook and occupied much of Cambodia during WWII. The Japanese returned home after the war. Thereafter, the new and inexperienced leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, led Cambodia. Socialism was a central ideology of the new government as was neutrality in foreign policy. However, the Vietnam war was raging on right next door, so local politics became increasingly polarized.
When the war was over, the Japanese returned home. Afterwards, Cambodia was free of both Japanese and French rule. Thereafter, a new inexperienced leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, was at the country’s helm. Central to the new government was socialism and neutrality in foreign policy. Unfortunately, with the Vietnam war raging next door, local politics became increasingly polarized. Backed by the US, a military coup ousted the socialist Sihanouk in 1970. All while he was in exile, Sihanouk established a shadow government dubbed the “Khmer Rouge.”
Many members of the Khmer Rouge were loyal to Sihanouk. However, other leadership, including Pol Pot exploited his name for sake of recruiting hardened communists. The U.S. attempted to weed out these communists by employing a secret bombing campaign. However, it backfired and only served to further strengthen the resolve of these members.
When the US bombing ended, members of the Khmer Rouge, now led by Pol Pot, fought a savage battle. Ultimately, they overthrew the US-backed government. Fighting was merciless on both ends including mass executions. The Khmer Rouge eventually gained control. Once that happened, they began brutally cleansing what was left into an agrarian state. What followed was a despicable 4 year period where over a million people died by either execution or starvation.
In 1979, Vietnam, supported by the Soviet Union, invaded Cambodia. Consequently, Cambodia became even more unstable. The usual players, the United States, the UK, China as well as Thailand, heavily influenced the instability. Meanwhile, average Cambodians had to fend for themselves amidst the bloody ideological struggles of external states.
Modern Day Cambodia
Peace in Cambodia has been a slow process. Guerrilla tactics from the Khmer Rogue involved indiscriminately planting landmines throughout the country. Many of these mines still have not been located. Consequently, until relatively recently Cambodia was not exactly a safe place to visit. Even still, while the current government is technically a kingdom with an elected parliament, the prime minister is a former Khmer Rouge commander. Occasionally, he maintains his position through violence and oppression.
So why visit such a ravaged country? Because in addition to the beauty of the countryside, culture and the majestic temples, the surviving and shell-shocked people of Cambodia are not only gracious and kind, but they deserve and need it!
Biking in Siem Reap – Ways To Experience Cambodia
Tourism is one way to inject life into a broken economy in desperate need of some stimulation. The best way to get a truly immersive experience is by an extended stay. One of the most affordable ways to do that is by backpacking Cambodia. This will allow you to visit more than just the major tourist destinations. For many, however, including myself, holiday time is more limited. Thus, I choose do go biking in Siem Reap.
There are valiant short term “voluntourism” efforts in Cambodia. However, in much less than a few months, it is difficult to have a sustainable impact. Another way to have an impact is via immersive educational tourism run by local responsible businesspeople. Locals have founded organizations such as Off Track Cambodia. They are a great way to learn about the culture, and essentially donate directly to those who need it.
In addition to the fact that locals own and operate Off Track Cambodia, they use 100% of their profits to support a local non-profit called Khmer for Khmer Organization (KKO). Khmer for Khmer is a school that teaches English to roughly 300 students in the 7 surrounding villages. The first time I interacted with KKO and Off Track Cambodia, I was so impacted that 2 years later I, along with a group of friends, came back when we were in the region.
A Countryside Tour
From my first countryside experience of biking in Siem Reap from a few years ago to my second, the route and activities have definitely been cleaned up for tourists. I actually preferred going a bit more off-road on my first tour. However, the current tour still covers a lot of ground and includes an equally immersive experience.
The guides are all locals. Consequently, the conversation about basic daily life ends up being one of the best parts of the tour. On my first tour, I really enjoyed trying to explain the scale of New York City to my guide, Lyna. He had never seen a building taller than a few stories high. In return, he introduced me to one of the most bizarre culinary experiences in my life. All the while we chatted about his life aspirations and my experiences riding the subway and driving on a highway. Aside from the chat, below are some of the highlights of the current route.
One of the first stops on the bike ride is a family farm. The farm supports a stand at the local market. We stopped at a pretty standard vegetable farm but with water buffalo roaming the fields. Surrounding the farm is an irrigation canal. It doubles as a water trough for the buffalo and a fishing canal for the family. At one point we stopped to watch a family walk thigh-deep in thick, black mud. We observed them reaching, by hand, for Snakehead Murrel, one of the indigenous fish. Whenever someone caught a fish, they would toss it up to the road. Then, one of the children would scoop it into a basket. I was invited into the mud to help out, but this time I declined.
Our next stop was a female-owned and operated mushroom farm. During the dry season when harvesting rice is not producing income, crops like mushrooms are a good additional revenue source.
The next rather interesting stop we made while biking in Siem Reap was at a lotus farm. Lotus grows in water. It is hard to tell from my images below, but the farm is basically on a giant swamp covered in lilies. The farm we visited is also a bed and breakfast. The huts all have beds in them, although I’m not sure how appealing sleeping over a swamp sounds. When we arrived they were grilling fresh frogs, which ended up being a needed protein jolt for the morning.
Our next stop was a pagoda. At this point, I had already spent a full day at the Angkor temples including Angkor Wat. Consequently, seeing and interacting with monks was no longer super novel. The pagodas were very interesting nonetheless. Although, the thing that fascinated me the most was the size of the pigs roaming around. They were about a meter high.
After the pagodas, Lyna brought us to a Buddhist cemetery where funeral rituals are carried out. We had an interesting conversation about ritual and religion. In Cambodia, families take care of their own dead before a ceremonial cremation near the Pagodas. Lyna spoke with sincere reverence when explaining the open-air cremation process.
The highlight of the tour is without a doubt the market. The bike ride rolls into a single story tarp and metal-roofed building at the end of a dirt road. Not much seems to be going on from the outside. All you can really see is a BBQ stand called “Happy Chicken.” Their setup is modest with only an umbrella and a few hastily gathered mismatched tables and chairs.
Inside is another story. Anything and everything needed is available from individual merchants. In the narrow aisles, a woman rode a motorcycle past a merchant who sells cooking oil, lawn chairs, and cleaning products. Next to her is a woman who sells live snakes out of plastic bags. At another stall, a woman was selling live fish. They were still flipping and flopping in a metal bin. She was also selling some sort of mysteriously large eggs. I’m certain they could not have possibly come from a chicken. Behind me was a butcher. She sat on a cardboard box carving very fresh meat alongside her child. This place would not pass a health inspection where I am from. However, in terms of providing sensory overload, it exceeds expectations.
All this time, while clearly out of place with my fancy bike helmet and DryFit sports gear, nobody batted an eye at me as an outsider. I actually walked up and bought a few things.
Traveling to Cambodia evokes both awe and emotion. The circumstances and the people inspire a call to action. Many of the problems of the country are too big to be resolved on a personal holiday. However, patronizing some locally and responsibly owned businesses and thus being able to return home with new knowledge and deeper cultural understanding is a good place to start.
Mike is a software engineer and father of three young boys. He works closely with a study abroad program at a large university in New York City, so he gets a healthy dose of culture at home and gets to travel to amazing places for work. When he’s not staring at a screen trying to figure out why a semicolon is causing an entire system to malfunction, he enjoys spending time with his family outdoors immersed in culture and nature. You can find more of his and his wife’s travel tips on their website FivePax Family Travel.