An eight-day solo cycle adventure in the north of Cambodia
Images Of My Solo Cycling Trip To Northern Cambodia
Let’s Get This Ride On The Road
It was a cool Monday morning in March when I pushed my bicycle out the gates of my house in Siem Reap. The moon still hung in the sky, with a glimmer of light nudging through the darkness. I was about to embark on a real adventure, an eight-day solo cycle trip that would take me north of Siem Reap close to the Thai border skirting around the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the largest protected areas in Cambodia. Along the way, I planned to visit some of Cambodia’s most remote ancient temples, hidden away in less trodden paths.
Although COVID-19 had scuppered my previous plans of cycling through Laos and Vietnam, it had provided the perfect opportunity for real exploration in Cambodia without the hustle and bustle of tourists. I had spent the last three years living and working in Siem Reap, Cambodia and was enjoying a break between jobs. It seemed like the perfect time to hop on my bike and see more of this wonderful country I currently call home.
Day 1: Siem Reap to Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean: 70 km
Exiting Siem Reap through the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, I stopped at Srah Srang, a reservoir dug in the mid-10th century, named the Royal bath. Sitting on the stone steps to eat my breakfast as the sun rose, I saw a friendly face waving to me from the side of the reservoir. It was the bicycle mechanic who had serviced my bike before leaving. I took this to be a good omen.
After a steady 39 km ride, I reached my guesthouse for the night Villa Banteay Srei, named after the local temple. My friendly Khmer hosts surprised me with their perfectly spoken French accents, having spent forty years living in France after fleeing as refugees during the Khmer Rouge over 45 years ago.
Arriving just before noon, I circled back several kilometres to my first temple stop, Banteay Srei, meaning citadel of women or beauty. This 10th-century temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is built largely of red sandstone, with intricate figures of Hindu deities carved into the walls. The temple is set amongst the rice fields, with a multitude of little wooden platforms,
I walk out to watch one of the locals farming and we exchange waves and smiles.
Riding back past the guesthouse, I continued another 10 km in the rising heat to Kbal Spean, quickly realising I had set myself a fairly ambitious first day. With the echo of barking dogs on my heels from the car park where I had left my bike, I began the ascent through the jungle to Kbal Spean. A series of signposts starting at 1500 metres marked the distance, counting down every 100 metres. As the heat continued to build, I could feel myself slipping into dehydration, but the thought of jumping into the cool pool that would mark the summit of Kbal Spean was enough to keep me going.
Reaching the top and greeting the local staff swinging in their hammocks, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at but there is definitely no water to sink into. I spy a roped off area, which seems to be a dry river bed. It’s the dry season. A closer inspection reveals that the river bed is in fact marked with intricate carvings. Commonly referred to as the ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, because thousands of phallic symbols (lingas) have been elaborately carved into the riverbed, alongside carvings of Hindu deities Vishnu and Shiva.
I shuffle back down the hillside littered with boulders to my next stop, Angkor Conservation Centre (ACCB), conveniently placed at the foot of the hill. ACCB focuses on rescuing native Cambodian wildlife and raising awareness on the importance of preserving, not poaching wildlife. The friendly and enthusiastic guide takes me on a comprehensive educational tour of their rescued wildlife. I am particularly excited to see that the centre has a dedicated pangolin facility, one of only two facilities rescuing the critically endangered Sunda Pangolin. Sadly I learned that the Sunda Pangolin is under threat of over exploitation caused by hunting and poaching for both meat consumption and the scales are used for traditional medicine. It’s clear that this dedicated and knowledgeable team are very passionate about saving Cambodian wildlife.
Then it’s time to peddle back 10 km to the guest house to rest and retreat from the sun. All in all quite a long day, with around 70 km covered, I am fast asleep by 7:30 pm.
Favourite snack: half a kilo of steamed sweet potatoes
Day 2: Banteay Srey to Anglong Veng: 90 km
I’ve set myself a daily departure time of 6:00 am because the hours between 6:00-8:00 am are the most magical time of day, with Cambodian nature and people slowly coming to life. Plus it is about ten degrees cooler than midday. It’s also dog wars time. Between these hours dogs love to chase people, especially foreigners, on bikes. But luckily, having lived in Asia a while, I’ve anticipated this very issue and have what I like to call a dog buzzer hanging safely around my neck, tucked into the back of my bum bag. Once activated, this yellow plastic device emits a specific frequency that only dogs can hear, whilst flashing two laser lights. A quick press in the direction of an angry barking dog, usually immediately stops its pursuit.
Scoffing down half an omelette with french bread and tucking the other half into my pannier bag with a bunch of bananas gifted from my hosts. I set off eagerly the next morning, heading further out of familiar territory to the town of Anglong Veng in Oddar Meanchey province, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold. After a couple of hours, I stop at a roadside cafe for my daily dose of ‘bai site dtroue’, a rice and barbequed pork dish which comes with a side bowl of broth, pickles and chilli sauce. This traditional Cambodian breakfast dish, which sometimes comes with a boiled or fried egg, is the perfect breakfast for cyclists. It costs around $1.25 and is, without doubt, my favourite Cambodian dish.
The 90 km cycle ride is marked with neat triangular stacks of cassava along the roadside which have been recently harvested. Cassava is an important cash crop for farmers in Cambodia, with over 12 million tonnes exported annually to the neighbouring countries of Vietnam and Thailand, as well as to European countries.
A side wind about four hours into the ride combined with an intensive heat brings a challenging end to the six-hour ride. I arrive at my hotel, hot, sweaty and about ready to drop. A group of young men, who look like they are in the national army, give me a friendly greeting as they tuck into their shared lunch inside the lobby hotel. Anglong Veng town is set around a small picturesque lake, which presents a relaxed vibe to this small rural town. I manage to find a good meal of tom yum soup and rice, in one of the local hotels then hurry back to lie down for as long as I can. In the afternoon the sky turns dark and after rescuing my damp hand washed cycling clothes from outside, it rains heavily for one of the first times this year cooling the air and dampening the dust.
Favourite snack: Werther’s originals.
Day 3: Anglong Veng to Sra’aem: 80 km
The next morning, after a 5:00 am birthday call back to the UK, I headed east towards the town of Sra’aem in Preah Vihear Province, about 30 km from one of the anticipated highlights of the trip, Prasat (Temple) Preah Vihear. It’s still dark and I zap several dogs who try to chase after me as I head past the market to the roundabout which sends me east. After the rains everything feels completely different, it’s like a tiny sidestep into the English countryside, with a cool breeze, puddles on the road and a gleaming countryside cleaned from the red dust which usually glazes the scenery. Life on the road is starting to feel really good.
I stop at the small town of Trapeang Prasat, for a rice pork breakfast, which comes with an egg, then go searching for the temple. I can’t find it, but I do catch a glimpse of a western looking coffee shop on the side of a roundabout, a mobile coffee unit sitting on a square rectangle of fake grass.
There is no way I can pass by the opportunity to have a latte and I pull up to sit outside and watch the passersby. Gazing at the roundabout, I realise that it is a work of art in itself and it turns out to be a replica of Trapeang Prasat, which I never did manage to find.
Fuelled by the delights of my coffee I head off continuing east with still another 56 km to go. About one hour in and another headwind hits and I find myself spiralling into heat exhaustion, I’m pretty sure it’s not far to go, but I must stop to cool down. An ice cream sign draws my attention and I pull into the gas station to eat ice cream and drink ice cold water. Chatting in broken Khmer to the friendly station attendant who lives there with his wife and child, my temperature drops and my spirits soar. I check the map and it’s only another seven kilometres to go.
Favourite snack: grilled banana and sticky rice parcels.
Day 4: Sra’aem to Prasat Preah Vihear and back to Sra’aem: 50km
The next day I am happy to be travelling light with just snacks, water and a spare inner tube and toolkit. I set off excitedly to the temple ticket office. It’s a quiet road with lush green scenery and a comforting feel to it. Turning off the main road towards the ticket office, which is a further 7 km, I am greeted with diggers working on the dirt road that has just been freshly sprayed with water. It’s the worst. Mud flicks up my legs and all over the bike, landing on water bottles, gears and brakes. Not good. I’m worried about the welfare of my bike and after reaching a dry part of the road, I quickly grab sticks and leaves to undo some of this sticky mud.
Finally, I reach the ticket office where I purchase temple and taxi tickets to take me to the top. I wash off my legs in a bucket outside the bathroom as there seems to be no running water inside. After several minutes of waiting, a motorbike pulls up and after grabbing my cycle helmet, I hop onto the back. It’s a steep and exhilarating ride to the top.
Leaving the taxi driver behind and my helmet tucked into the guard’s hut, I head uphill towards the temple. I’m pleased to have reached this part by 8:30 am. There is a huge crew of workers around the place who are picking up litter, maintaining the gardens and keeping things secure.
Finding solitude on the west side of the temples, I dangle my legs off the hillside and drink in what lies before me. It’s a pinnacle moment of the trip, as I take in what I’ve achieved so far, the amazing view of the surrounding area and ancient temples. I try to imagine what has occurred here over the centuries since the temples were built in the first half of the 11th century. With Preah Vihear Temple and the surrounding area meeting the Thai border, ownership of the Temple has been the subject of much debate since the 19th century. Official ownership was only awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962. The Temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva and consists of a causeway and a series of staircases rising upwards to the sanctuary. The path is punctuated by five ornate monumental entrance towers, or gopuras, which increase in size and grandeur as the journey upwards continues.
There is an incredible sense of peace, stillness and being that can only be found in an incredible setting like this.
I buy a coconut from a tiny shop at the top. The shop owner informs me that she has lived at the back of the shop in this wooden shack for ten years, which I find fascinating.
Wandering back down the steps to the causeway I am greeted by a rotund fella, he hands me something that looks like a small slither of wood and some tobacco and instructs me to chew and not spit, which I do. It’s quite revolting. But I carry on chewing, it reminds me of the betel leaf I tried in Nepal that turned saliva to red. The motorbike taxi ride down to the bottom is exhilarating and I deeply regret, to this day, having not cycled up there purely to enjoy the thrill of freewheeling down the steep hill in the wondrous setting. Another time
Day 5: Sra’aem to T’beng Mountain: 75 km
The next morning I set off feeling refreshed and almost with itchy feet having stayed in the same guest house for two nights. I am heading directly south, heading back towards home, it’s a really good feeling. The ride is incredibly peaceful, with the road cutting close to the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary, it feels like there is no one here. As I carry on cycling I see that the fields are lined with identical small white houses on stilts, about 25 metres apart. Hundreds and hundreds of them emerge along the roadside, sometimes in double lines. Occasionally, I see some that are occupied and have been personalised with a fence and garden around or a modification of some type. I find out later on that these are designated houses for retired army officials.
Arriving at road 64, I see the signpost Koh Ker Siem Reap to the right and turn left towards the foothills of the Tbeng MeanChey Mountains.
It feels comforting to cycle so close to the shadows of the mountains and there is a special feeling along this road. Cycling cheerily the last 10km, I spy the only foreigner I’ve seen all trip driving towards me in a tuk-tuk, with his dog in the back seat. We greet each other with smiles and waves of appreciation and carry on our separate journeys. I stay at Phnom Tbeng Resort, which is set at the bottom of the side of the mountain. To my delight, there is a coffee shop and a restaurant. I can see that a lot of love, creativity and imagination has gone into this place. It is decorated with stylish vintage vehicles, graffiti on the rocks and random playthings made out of recycled tires. I’m impressed.
Favourite snack: grilled corn of the cob
Day 6: Tbeng Mountain to Koh Ker: 47 km
My journey is nearing the end with just one final stop, Koh Ker Temples complex. Today is a short journey of just 47km but I leave at the usual early time nonetheless. I feel so fortunate to be able to watch the sunrise once more whilst riding through the beautiful Cambodian landscape, with people on occasion waving and cheering me on as I go.
Cycling past the entrance to Koh Ker Temples I head on towards Koh Ker Garden Hotel where I will stay for the final two nights. It’s only 9:30 am, but when I glimpse a pizza sign out of the corner of my eye, I think well why not and order a ham and tomato pizza.
Favourite snack: red seedless grapes
Day 7: Day Trip to the Koh Ker Temples: 34 km
I’m excited to visit the Koh Ker Temple complex, partly because it’s only a 34 km ride, but more importantly because I’ve heard great reviews of this place. Within this temple complex are 169 archaeological remains which include 76 temples nestled within forest grounds, dating back to the 10th century. Koh Ker was in fact for a brief time the capital of the whole empire between 928 – 944, under the reign of the kings Jayavarman IV and Harshavarman II.
My first stop is Pram Temple. I am fortunate to have it all to myself as there are no guards or tourists around yet. It’s like something out of a fairytale, the ruins which consist of five small buildings, are slowly being consumed by nature, with the roots of the trees falling around the entrance like strands of hair. It’s a truly magical experience.
Hopping back on my bike and heading anti-clockwise around the temple complex, which is centred around a reservoir, I stop to inspect each ancient temple ruin. I can see that some of the temples are undergoing restoration work, as abandoned scaffolding and even parts of temple ruins hang hoisted in the air.
Eventually, I stop at the grandest temple, which I had previously thought of as Koh Ker Temple, however, it is called Prasat Thom. Leaving my bike unlocked, I wander through the stone pathway until I can finally see the magnificent pyramid stone temple. The prang, or temple tower, is the highest ever constructed by the Khmer, rising 36 metres from the forest floor. Not surprisingly I am joined by other domestic tourists who have also travelled to visit Prasat Thom and slowly we climb the steep wooden stairs to the top of the pyramid. On the way up I meet a fellow cyclist also from Siem Reap, who reassures me that tomorrow’s journey home is not that far. The feeling at the top is one of peace and tranquillity, and the last peak I will reach on this trip.
Cycling back feeling a sense of achievement and in a way sadness that the journey is nearly over, I stop to buy water and feel lucky to find large bottles available instead of all the small ones I’ve had to purchase that are such a waste of plastic. One more stop before heading back to the guest house, it’s time for another pizza.
Favourite snack: bananas
Day 8: Koh Ker to Siem Reap: 104 km
I’ve timed my last ride of 104 km, to coincide with International Women’s Day. I think it’s important to show women solo cycling and for me, this is the longest ride I’ve ever done. I set off at 5:15 am, in anticipation of a six-hour journey ahead. Its pitch black and even with my cycle lights on I can’t see very well, but the echoing of dogs barking around the land resonates very well. It’s a wonderful first hour of cycling as I whiz freewheeling downhill through the countryside trusting the roads to guide me through the darkness and with the song of the dawn chorus reassuring that I’m on the right path.
I plan to smash it back to Siem Reap by noon, with just a few breaks and no sightseeing. I glide past Svay Leu pagoda and see someone selling waffles for the first time on this journey. I circle back to purchase two giant waffles which are shaped into pentagons, with each side cut into hearts. These coconut tasting delights are scoffed at regular intervals with the motto, ‘waffles go in, pedals come out’.
Heading further south past Boeng Mealea temple, which I’ve visited before, I turn off Road 64 and head across the country on dusty back roads, a welcome change from the main roads. Crossing over Road 66 I’m back in familiar territory and very soon I find myself sitting back in Preah Dak drinking ice coffee and eating steamed pork buns with a boiled egg in the middle. The refreshing break gives me the final push home through Angkor Wat complex, back past Srah Srang where I had my first breakfast eight days before at sunrise and then homeward bound through Siem Reap, back to my front gate. Sliding open the gate, I cannot believe I’ve just cycled 550km.
Until my next adventure.