In our last post we stood on the sidelines cheering Cambodia on as it participated in the tourism triathlon.
The race is moving out of Phnom Penh and into the countryside. There are several options for getting around the country; you can fly, but that kind of feels like cheating, dropping into one town after another without getting a sense of the connection between them. If you’re heading to Siem Reap, the launching point for the Angkor temples, it’s possible to take a boat, but in the dry season this can be a very slow journey. Your option on the road doesn’t look much better, with potholes and unpaved tracks. However, wishing to see life in the countryside, rather than city hop, this is the route we took. Those with a sensitive derrière should take a cushion – it’s a bumpy ride that lasts about six hours.
Although a tourist hotspot, Siem Reap is a city of charm with art markets, wide boulevards and pavements to walk on. Angkor Wat, the most visited site in the country, is a few kilometres away, and a trip at dawn is a must-see. You can go by tuk-tuk or taxi, but for a real insight into these special temples get on two wheels. There are hundreds of temples dotted around, and a bike is the perfect mode of transport. When you’ve seen one temple you haven’t seen them all. Built at different stages, with different themes, in different locations, you can spend days peddling around the 400km-squared site: from the iconic towers of Angkor Wat, to the many faces on Angkor Thom, to Ta Prohm, the root-bound crumbling temple featured in Tome Raider.
Another advantage of booking with a cycling company is knowledge. The temples are so complex and beguiling you need a guide to help you make sense of it. Just to understand a little about the intricate carvings and the different types of temples enriches your exploration. And it’s suitable for all ages. From my four-year-old on a tag along bike, and my seven-year-old on her own little bike, to my retired parents, the route and pace were tailored to suite the whole group. We booked with Grasshoppers and our guide, Sam, really gave us an insight into the importance of the monuments, without turning it into a stuffy museum tour.
In my option Cambodia is ahead in the tourism triathlon. It might not win medal for “glitzy tourist experience”, but if you’re looking for a destination that stays connected to its cultural routes, and doesn’t get tripped up by mass tourism, then take the time to explore this beautiful country, by taxi, tuk-tuk or tyres.
The practical bit: Siem Reap
Where to stay:
Shinta Mani Club and Resort: ask about the hotel’s Foundation, set up to help make unemployed Cambodian’s employable. Junction of Oum Khun and 14th Street. Www.shintamani.com
Where to eat:
The Apsara Terrace, Raffles: outdoor pan-Asian BBQ buffet with classical Khmer dances. 1 Vithei Charles de Gaulle Khum Svay Dang Kum
What to do:
Cycling: Grasshopper Adventures offers a range of cycling tours from half, full and multi-day trips for all ages and abilities. www.grasshopperadventures.com. Try the Angkor Sunrise Discovery to see Angkor Wat at its best.
Where to shop:
Artisans Angkor: Cambodia fine arts and crafts. www.artisansdangkor.com
I Love Cambodia: Describes itself as giving “jobs for women in ultra poor families” by creating “handicrafts to fight against poverty”. #46, Taprum Road, Tropearng Ses, Kokchork.