Having used a company called Grasshopper Adventures in Bangkok for a short but very enjoyable and professional cycle tour of the city we had a look at what else they offered at some of our future destinations.
The answer was a lot, and we were particularly interested in tours around Siem Reap as it can be a bit of a tourist honeypot and cycling could offer a way to see the area slightly off the beaten track.
We are delighted to find out that we are the only guests and therefore have a private tour. The reason why is probably to do with the fact the tour is a 40 mile ride out of the city, which would put a lot of none cyclists off, particularly in blistering hot conditions (the latter would make the journey a challenge for anyone).
The advantage of the long route is that it takes you through some beautiful Cambodian countryside and a chance to see a side to the country we have not seen so far. We cycle past rice paddies, along dusty rutted tracks masquerading as roads, through a herd of water buffalo and even have to pause in a local village to allow a wedding procession to get past!
Our guide, Chamchay, stops on a number of occasions to show us examples of rural Cambodian life. We see a family group riding on the back of a trailer attached to strange tractor device, a small family dwelling where they are making palm sugar and stop for a strange palm drink served over ice and in a plastic bag!
Whilst it is amazing to see all these sights, it’s difficult not to be taken aback by the level of poverty on display. Houses are self constructs of varying quality (many without water or sanitation), children run round partially clothed and barefooted. It is clearly a hard life, but not that you would known it from the laughter, smiles and overall friendliness of all the people we meet.
Our destination is the extraordinary Bang Melea temple. Built in the 12th Century by King Suryavarman II, surrounded by a moat approximately 1km square (though mostly dried up), it must have looked an imposing structure in its prime.
You have to guess what it’s prime may have looked like as this former Hindu temple was abandoned centuries ago and the jungle, that was cleared for its construction, has claimed it back. In addition the main tower was toppled in the 1970s by a Khmer Rouge mine detonation, as they sought to get their hands on gold buried ceremoniously under the main tower.
Toppled stones, engraved columns and tree roots and vines strangling the structures that remain create a truly mysterious feel that wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. In fact there are a couple of areas of the temple that were used as scenes in the early 2000s film adaptation of the famous Lara Croft Tomb Raider games.
Tourist numbers are small and you feel as though you have the place to your self, even more rewarding after cycling for a number of hours in the heat. Almost all of it is open for a free to roam experience (our guide assures me that it’s structural integrity has been assessed) and as we prepare to head back it is wonderful to see groups of local children playing in the area, enjoying the worlds most magical “adventure playground”.