Being a naturally active person, I sometimes find the often leisurely nature of travelling frustrating and at times, even boring. As much as I love the travelling lifestyle, I am not good at sitting for long periods of time, whether that is on buses, trains or simply chatting to people at hostels.
So, when my sister, Fi, came to join me for two weeks in Cambodia, we thought we would do something a little different, we decided to do a mini cycle tour.
Initially we had no real idea where we were going to go, as there is little to no information online. The only blog we found detailing a cycle loop was out of date by some seven years and recent comments suggested it had become a dangerous and unpleasant route.
However, we were undeterred and instead studied various mapping applications (google maps, maps.me and navigator) to find an approximate 270mile (435km) loop from Siem Reap. It was not our first cycle tour together, and we were confident that we could achieve this distance in 5 days.
Our Route at a Glance:
- Day 1 – Siem Reap to Svay Leu, 75km
- Day 2 – Svay Leu to Kulin (Kulean), 60km
- Day 3 – Kulin to Sra Aem, 75km
- Day 4 – Sra Aem to Anlong Veng, 80km
- Day 5 – Anlong Veng to Siem Reap, 135km
We didn’t have, or want to carry, camping gear so we needed places to stay along the way. When we finally decided on a route, we had accommodation every 60 to 80km for the first four days. Unfortunately this still left one long leg of 135km for our final day.
We set off in high spirits and excitement from Siem Reap with mountain bikes, hired for just US $6 per day from “Angkor Cycling Tours”, a company that I would highly recommend.
The bikes were Giants (the brand, not the size) and we were both fitted to the right size of bicycle (unlike some of the other bike hire places we had checked out the day before, they might be cheaper at around $3 per day, but they are all the same size and the quality is less than half). Both bikes came with water bottle holders which enabled us to stay hydrated in the heat as we cycled. We were also given a helmet each and I bought a water bottle for $5 and cycling gloves for $13. They come with a well-stocked shop selling quality gear, and knowing how much more comfortable they would make my journey, I couldn’t resist.
Fi, my sister and cycling companion, had brought a bicycle pump, tyre levers and multi-tool from home, but we were offered all three to take with us before we left. What we didn’t have was spare inner tubes, so the shop gave us two each in case we got a puncture on the way. They really set us up for our long cycle ride well, and at no extra charge which was incredible. We, luckily, didn’t need any of this, but were grateful for their help.
Our first day took us to the tiny town of Svay Leu where we found a single guesthouse, as promised by our map. It was a little outside of the town itself and, after eating lunch at a small restaurant in the centre we were forced to retrace our steps, asking directions from the locals all the way in the form of extravagant hand gestures miming sleep. It was not a particularly nice place to stay and cost us $8 for the room which, though not a lot for a private room, felt expensive for a room that was still dirty from the previous occupants. However, our maps told us there was nowhere else to stay for another 40km, so we stayed anyway and just hoped it didn’t have bed bugs…
Luckily we escaped the following morning bed bug free and set off early at 6.30am, in an attempt to avoid the afternoon sun, the hottest of the day. We stopped at the market for a breakfast of sweet cakes made from rice and sticky rice and began cycling to our second stop, Kulin. We arrived, as planned, in time for lunch, and an afternoon wander around the small rural town.
Kulin charmed me, with its dirt roads built in parallel lines and small stalls selling fresh coconuts along the way. It is clearly a town for locals only, and I doubt if they see many foreigners, except perhaps to visit the various NGOs that were present and working in the town. It too has only one guesthouse, and, though better and more reasonable at $5 per room per night, than the night before, was still basic.
There are currently not many paved roads in this region of Cambodia so, having chosen a relatively simple route on main roads, it made for easy navigating. We stopped regularly on our first two days at small villages for delicious snacks on route of bamboo sticky rice, sticky corn on the cob and fresh coconuts on the way, but that was all to change on our third day.
We had become accustomed to stopping often and refilling our water bottles with fresh, cold water from one of the street side stalls. About 20km into our third day, on route 62 on the way to Sra Aem, the road side shops disappeared. There was no sign of the large orange and red cool boxes that housed iced drinks, and at first there was nothing at all except jungle and woodland.
When we reached settlements, the ramshackle villages were replaced by endless identical houses, set back from the road at equal intervals. We realised after some time that we were cycling through an enormous military zone. By the time we got down to half a litre of water between us, we were forced, nervously, to stop at one of the small military bases to ask for more water. Thankfully the uniformed men were incredibly kind, and we set off again amidst waves and smiles, and with two fresh bottles of water each, and later in the day, the road side stalls began to reappear.
Arriving in Sra Aem immediately felt different. It is the closest town to the Prear Vihear temple and as such there is a developing tourist trade. There was a choice of 5 guesthouses here and evidence of more being built. They ranged in price from $5 for a room per night to $75. Being on a budget, but also after a good night’s sleep, we opted for a room at Piseth Pich Guesthouse, in the centre of town. It felt extravagantly luxurious compared to the previous two nights and we were happy with the $10 room!
We had made the halfway mark, and sure enough we saw a sign for Siem Reap, a whopping 200km away… all of which we had to cycle in the next two days.
Our penultimate day saw us cycle along the single road connecting Sra Aem to Anlong Veng. It was, as with all of our days, reasonably flat and easy cycling, though the road was a little busier than we had been used to. Nevertheless, it was still enjoyable cycling as we passed through small towns and villages, and saw various vehicles laden with a vast array of goods for sale, presumably making their way to market.
Arriving in Anlong Veng, we checked into our most expensive hotel yet, the Sophea Guesthouse. It cost $15 for a room for the night, but it came with air con! A small luxury, but worth it when we knew we had a long day’s cycle coming up on our final day.
That afternoon, we went for our first coffee since leaving Siem Reap, inside the small supermarket (a strange place for a coffee shop, nestled in among the aisles, but we weren’t complaining!). There, we were surprised to meet our first Khmer man since leaving Siem Reap who spoke English. We had been discussing our bowel movements, an important thing in any traveller’s life, but particularly when you then have to cycle a long distance, when he suddenly asked us where we were from.
Somewhat embarrassed, but seeing the funny side, we laughed and told him we were British. It turned out he spoke excellent English, worked for a local NGO in the day and volunteered teaching English on an evening. Though we never asked him, I’m pretty sure he understood every word we had been talking about!
Luckily, it didn’t put him off and soon we were invited to join him that evening at the English class, as they were having a party.
Of course, we couldn’t say no to such an offer!
We met him again at 5pm and got a lift (threes-up) on the back of a motorbike. That, in itself, was fun, but only a taste of what was to come! That evening, we enjoyed a hearty meal of noodles with the students, and afterwards a party with a lot of dancing and a little singing. It was great! Perhaps not the most ideal way to prepare for our longest day of cycling the next day, but totally worth it!
Luckily, Khmers party early, so it wasn’t a late night and by 9pm we were both in bed and asleep, which was just as well as we had a 4.30am start the next day!
Our final day took us from Anlong Veng to Siem Reap via Angkor Wat. We had previously cycled and looked around the temples in and around Angkor Wat, but we couldn’t think of a better way to end our tour than returning through such an iconic monument. Normally, we would have had to pay $20 just to cycle around it, but we were lucky enough to meet a local on the way who directed us to the back way, which was also free. It was the perfect end to a beautiful, albeit long, hot and exhausting, day of cycling!
We arrived back in Siem Reap about 5.30pm, tired and elated from our five day cycle tour. It had taken us completely off the beaten tourist track, so much so that we hadn’t spoken to, or even seen another foreigner on our whole journey. It had been fantastic, but I was glad I had had the company of my sister along the way. It might have been a more lonely experience alone. Having said that, each and every Khmer we had met along the way had been so friendly, and we were cheered on every day by kids and adults alike shouting “Hello” to us as we cycled past. Cambodia is known for its beauty, its culture and its hospitable and friendly people. Now I know why, and I loved it.
About the writer: Laura is from the UK but has been travelling and working abroad for 2 years now. She loves visiting and living in beautiful places and writes about her journeys and adventures on www.wanderlustforwildplaces.wordpress.com As well as writing and travelling, she loves cycling, swimming and rock climbing.