The narrow bridge wobbles as we walk unsteadily from our small boat towards a house on stilts. It looks like any other in the village sprouting from the muddy brown water of the river feeding into Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s largest lake. Women tend floating gardens, children paddle small boats and brightly coloured motor vessels roar past as we climb the steps into the unmarked restaurant.
The owner greets us warmly and we’re soon seated over a delicious fish lunch. We talk to her through our groups “fixer” Thy (a local who is a mix between a guide, translator and general problem solver on our tour) and she tells us about her daughter’s wedding after we ask about a picture on the wall. The exchange gives us an insight into Cambodian life which would have been otherwise out of our reach.
It’s a far cry from the bustling temple complexes of Angkor Wat, which tens of thousands of tourists march through daily with standing room only. While spectacular, there’s more to Cambodia than temple ruins and the killing fields – but the other side of this vibrant country is harder to see.
We’re touring Cambodia with Escape Adventures, a Nelson-based company owned and run by couple John Etherington and Mandy Richards which focuses on getting people into the unseen parts of some adventurous developing countries throughout the world. While this may sound slightly intimidating, trips are set up to be approachable for nearly everyone. Escape Adventures currently offer tours in seven countries including Madagascar, Kyrgyzstan, Colombia and their core trip to Kenya and Tanzania.
We’re cycling 550 kilometres over 13 days through the back-country roads of Cambodia, starting in Siem Reap and heading south-east to the coast before finishing at the capital Phnom Penh.
Biking is a great way to understand the sights, smells and sounds of the country, and the mostly flat terrain makes for pleasant riding. Most of the population gets around by cycle, motorised or otherwise, so travelling like a local helps to break down barriers and lets us strike up easy conversations.
Our trip doesn’t include the Phnom Penh Killing Fields and only rides briefly through the Angkor Wat temple complex, but the start and finish points lets us visit these major attractions on our own.
The tour is focussed on getting into parts of the country that tourists rarely visit, though we do swing through some increasingly popular tourist towns like Kampot, Kep and Battambang.
The popular attractions we do visit, such as the stilt villages and the bamboo train near Battambang, have a more authentic twist than standard for tourist fare.