A life changing adventure in Cambodia
It was my first time in Asia, let alone Cambodia, and … I loved it! It was January and I had decided to tour Cambodia on a dirt bike and booked on a guided trip with Ride Expeditions. It has to be one of the best things I’ve ever done. I would say that I am intermediate rider, with a number of years off-roading under my belt, but in no way am I an expert – particularly when it came to riding in sand, which saw me fall a number times! Always up for a challenge I had booked myself onto a ride with a level of ‘medium/difficult’ which was to last ten days.
The day before the tour was due to start, I grabbed a TukTuk and made way across Phnom Penh, to my pre-booked hotel. I was looking forward, with some trepidation to meeting the rest of my riding companions for the next week and a half. I hadn’t checked anything out about who was in the group so didn’t know if they were individuals or a group of friends or what level of experience they all had. In the evening I made my way down to the hotel bar where I was welcomed by the Ride Expeditions staff, by the other tour members and pitchers of cold beer! Toby, the tour leader, then gave a talk about the upcoming ride and how things worked. He clearly knew his stuff and highlighted not only all the really exciting stuff but gave very clear expectations regarding the safety elements of the trip. After the welcome briefing we all strolled down Riverside to a beautiful restaurant for some really good local cuisine, served in banana leaves and coconut shells and the opportunity to get to know the group. They were all really friendly. So far so good.
The tour we were undertaking headed around the North East of Cambodia, starting in Phnom Penh and finishing up in Siem Reap. However the trip itself was so much more than just ‘riding a dirt bike’, it was an amazing experience.
Kitted up we headed out through the bustle of Phnom Pehn and were soon leaving the road behind and beginning our trip out onto some incredible off road trails, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the local culture and experience a slice of life in the tiny villages buried deep in the jungle. This was a great way to ‘get off the beaten track’ and see the real Cambodia. Each day provided something quite different to the last. The locals were genuinely pleased to see us, which was lovely. Although there was a language barrier in the more rural places, it was great to just sit around and ‘chat’ with a good deal of mime and gesture on both sides. Numerous school breaks were disrupted as children ran and crowded from the wooden huts to wave and shout ‘Barrang, Barrang!’ (Khmer for ‘white man’) as we drove by. The organisers had already told us that they call in at one of the more remote schools to drop off pens, pencils and small toys, and although there is no pressure to join them in this I cannot see why anyone wouldn’t want to. The teacher and children alike were truly grateful.
Clearly though, it was the riding everyone had booked up for, and we weren’t disappointed (an occasional sunrise swim in a lake was an ideal way to start the day as well). The trails were a good mixture of steep hill climbs, rocky terrain, tight jungle trails, river crossings, red dirt roads and sand. We travelled through dusty farmland, flat fields of rice paddies and into remote hamlets. The group of us were mixed, but generally of a similar standard, and there was always plenty of support and advice on hand if needed, not only from Toby and crew, but also from each other. Our itinerary also included the main tourist hot spot of Angkor Wat, located on the outskirts of Siem Reap. These temples are beautiful and leave you in awe, but they can get quite busy and you need to get there early. I must admit I much preferred a lesser known temple we visited on our tour called ‘Preah Kahn’. Situated outside a small village deep in the jungle it is a semi derelict yet fantastic temple. There wasn’t a single other tourist in sight, and it was quite incredible to have this peaceful place all to ourselves. The lack of tourists we encountered throughout the tour was definitely a feature. One of the villages we passed through was so remote that the hill tribe did not even speak Khmer, but had their own dialect altogether. Our tour leader told us of a time he was out exploring new trails, and the villagers would not accept a $20 note for a chicken they had killed and cooked for their lunch. He had to rustle up a couple of dollars in riel (the currency used for smaller purchases). Theara, the mechanic explained that the village was too remote to have a use for dollars.
There are a few other motorbike companies which run tours across the country but Ride Expeditions have very high western standards, particularly with regard to the safety of the group. The company proved to be a really good choice. The staff were friendly and approachable but still very professional, and the routes were well planned and well organised. The tour price was pretty much all inclusive, including breakfast and lunch, all water, entrance fees to temples (on all riding days), boat/river crossing fees, petrol, and accommodation. Oh and of course a free t-shirt! The only extra money I needed to take was for beer, souvenirs and for the rest days. However, airfares were not included. The group I was in varied in age and ability. There were eight of us altogether, and it was a great mix of people, mainly from Australia with a few guys from the US and the UK thrown in for good measure. The fact that some riders had more experience than others (me included!) wasn’t a problem, as on days when the route was extremely challenging, there was the option for us to take an easier trail, while the hard-core riders ploughed on ahead – which suited us all fine. Although we could all go wherever we wanted for dinner, nine times out of ten we would all go together to the same restaurant, staff included. It was great to all relax together, going over the day’s riding, and discussing who fell off the most! The places we stopped at for lunch and dinner were quite varied but all provided good food, even comparatively basic ingredients were blended to make some incredible flavours. My personal favourite was in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere called Osaom – I don’t know how she did it but the sticky pork that lady cooked was one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Luckily we were staying there that night, so I ordered it again for breakfast. I still dream about that pork!
In Phnom Pehn and Siem Reap you could find almost anything you fancy, as they do tend to cater for westerners. It was in the rural villages where rice / noodle soup was the standard breakfast. It’s funny how quickly your body gets used to certain things and for weeks after I returned home I found myself hankering for some egg friend rice of a morning. The meals were all heavily rice based. So long as you like rice this is brilliant, as the carbs provide the much needed energy to complete the days on the bike. On an average day we covered 250km. The heat was sometimes a challenge, especially at midday. However, we would stop frequently throughout the day, buying ice cold water from the red roadside ‘eskys’, or necking a ‘Royal D’ whenever we felt we needed a glucose boost. Chewy sweets handed out by the tour leader at the start of each day also helped to keep up the energy levels. Again, your body soon gets used to the heat, but you must just remember to drink three times as much water as usual!
Cambodia’s countryside was so much more beautiful than I had imagined it to be. I had pictured it having the odd palm tree and I knew there were some nice beaches, but in general I had expected it to be a dry and barren place. Although quite dusty at times, Cambodia was in fact an extremely green and lush place. When we rode deep into the jungle, apart from the evidence of a single track in front of you, it was hard to believe that anyone had ever been there before. There were numerous river crossings to tackle during the tour, which was always highlight. Not only did they provide a chance to cool off by dunking your head in the clear water, but invariably they gave us a good laugh.
There are numerous alternative routes of varying duration and by the time our trip ended I was disappointed that I hadn’t elected to take a longer tour, which continues past waterfalls along a single track before eventually arriving on the sandy beaches of Sihanoukville. This trip apparently ends with the group ‘camping’ in circular beach huts, mere feet from the sea. However, Siem Reap was my ultimate destination on this occasion, and as each night before, we arrived tired and dusty to find the support truck had arrived before us. Our bags were already waiting for us in our rooms as well as some cold beers. After a shower and a relax we ventured to the bar and sat around the pool chatting with some really good new friends. Outside the hotel, strings of lights began to twinkle across the roads as the street markets came to life and I thought to myself, all in all it was pretty good adventure.
If you fancy a similar trip I highly recommend you get in touch with Ride Expeditions.