When my partner casually announced over dinner that we were going to take our next holiday cycling through Cambodia I admit I was a bit confused.
The same Cambodia I remember from my first visit many years ago having the worst roads I’d ever seen? The same Cambodia where I had munched on local ‘delicacies’ like tarantulas and grasshoppers? The same Cambodia where one in every three adults owns a motorbike, and isn’t afraid to use it?
“Yes”, she replied. The same Cambodia that boasts one of (if not the) finest temple complex in the world. The same Cambodia whose people’s spiritual fortitude saw them overcome the darkest period in modern Asian history. The same Cambodia that will take us a million miles from our everyday commute, where every ride ends up with us at work rather than somewhere amazing. And with that, the idea became a reality.
When we arrived into Phnom Penh, I was anxious. It seemed like 90% of those 3 million motorbikes had made their way to the city with me, and the thought of riding among them in city traffic had me feeling nervous – something my eagle-eyed cycling guide Is noticed as soon as we met.
With a smile, she explained. “Everything in Asia has a flow, and it’s my job to teach you that flow”.
Over the next 30 minutes, she walked us through the ABCs of cycling in Cambodia’s traffic:
- Always cycle in a group, so you’re visible to traffic
- Ride with confidence
- Don’t expect people to indicate
- Use your hand signals and voice
- Always ride on the right hand side of the road
- Shorts beeps of the horn are drivers being polite, not angry
- Follow me
- Watch out for the chickens
- Have fun!
Wait, what was that about chickens?!
But she was right. There is a flow to cycling in traffic in Cambodian cities, that becomes more apparent when you have someone to lead you through it. What once looked like (dis)organised chaos quickly revealed itself to be an unofficial right-of-way hierarchy with one simple rule: the bigger you are, the more priority you get. Bikes are just above pedestrians, however a whole group of cyclists commands much more respect. Armed with that knowledge, we set off safely into the Cambodian streets.
The beauty of Cambodia is that it really only has one major city. Once you get outside Phnom Penh and beyond the ‘city limits’, it quickly becomes open countryside. It’s here that the true beauty of Cambodia reveals itself, with long open stretches of road, emerald-green fields of rice, and an endless string of small villages. Traffic is light, and the roads flat.
Truth be told, I wasn’t as physically well prepared for this trip as I should have been. Frequent commutes to and from work on the bike have kept my legs turning, however my longest ride in the last six months was a 40 kilometre/25 mile ride – and that ended up at the pub! Before we booked, and even at our first group meeting with our fellow cyclists, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Or worse, that I’d be lost in a sea of brightly coloured lycra. Thankfully, nothing could be further from the truth.
Did I mention that Cambodia is flat? And by flat, I don’t mean undulating or ‘mostly flat’. It’s pancake flat, which makes the distances so much easier to cover. When I first looked at the daily distances, I was a bit worried, but the flat roads meant the riding speeds were reasonable, without being fast, and a 60 kilometre day only meant four hours of actual riding time. Add in frequent rest stops – and a support vehicle that follows you every pedal stroke of the way – and the cycling is much easier than I’d imagined.
Our amazing guide Is was always there with advice and encouragement. “Don’t think of today’s ride as 60 kilometres,” she’d say. “That sounds too far, even to me! Think of it as two rides instead: a nice relaxed 30 kilometre ride before lunch, stop to recharge your batteries with some amazing Cambodian food and drink, then it’s an easy 30 kilometres to finish the day.”
One thing I wish I’d known before this trip was the availability of e-bikes. I’d never heard of them before (and for some reason, my cyclist wife neglected to mention them) but for two riders in our group they transformed their experience. These electric motor bikes (the motor only works when you’re pedalling) were a revelation. No longer worried about keeping up, they seemed free to just enjoy the cycling and stopped whenever they felt like it, knowing they could easily catch up with the group again.
A lot of my friends have asked me what I enjoyed the most about my cycling trip in Cambodia; it’s a tough question. I loved cycling around the quiet roads of Phnom Penh’s Mekong (Silk) Island, through tiny villages, past numerous fruit and vegetable farms and even a silk weaving workshop (that’s how the island got its name). I enjoyed visiting the Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda; even sites that detail Cambodia’s tragic Khmer Rouge past was an experience. While confronting, it also gave me a new insight into the Cambodian people and their inspiring resilience.
But most of all I enjoyed cycling in the Angkor temple complex. I’d been here before, but that was on a guided tour in a minivan. Doing it by bike was a different – and infinitely better – experience. Being on a bike made me feel like I was part-explorer as we rode down small dirt paths far from the rest of the tourist crowds. Riding along a jungle-swathed path, seemingly a million miles away from anywhere, only to turn a corner and ride straight up to a thousand-year-old temple is a surreal experience and one I’ll carry with me for a long time. The yelps of joy from my fellow cyclists quickly showed it wasn’t just me feeling this way.
The longest ride of the trip – 70 kilometres – turned out to be one of the best days of cycling in Cambodia. While Angkor Wat rightly gets all the publicity, it was only when visiting the sublime Banteay Srei temple that I got a true insight into the talents of these Cambodian craftsmen. This was no ordinary temple; it’s one of the most intricately carved temples in the world, and knowing we got there in such an environmentally friendly way was a great feeling. I really want this experience to still be there when my own kids are old enough to do trips like this too.
Another things that surprised me about Cambodia was the food. When I first visited (in 1986, no less) the food – much like the roads – was rudimentary at best, and I was curious how things had changed. And things have definitely changed! What was once only basic vegetable dishes is now a cuisine that has influences of France, Vietnam and Thailand, yet remains uniquely Khmer. Grilled seafood, fish curry, green mango salad, and Khmer Fried Chicken were all favourites, but I also loved all the fresh fruit we were provided when cycling. Being handed a fresh slice of pineapple, juicy mango or sweet lychees comes second only to finding a local stalls selling fresh juices. As Is loved to tell us, “Tastes 10 times better than Gatorade, and 10 times better for you!” (this was usually followed by “… and no plastic to pollute my country!”). And yes, I managed to avoid the deep-fried tarantulas this time.
So what did I learn while riding in Cambodia? I learned that there’s nowhere else quite like it, and that its unique history – both ancient and modern – is only matched by its picturesque countryside and friendly smiling faces of the locals. I learned that it’s a wonderful place to ride a bike, and seeing it by bike gives a unique perspective that most other travellers don’t get to experience. I learned that the knowledge of a local will always trump what you read on the internet. And most of all, I learned that saying yes is the hardest part of a cycling holiday – the rest just comes naturally. Just like riding a bike.
Experience Cambodia on two wheels on our 13-day cycling adventure through Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand now. Full details here.