A Taste of Cambodia
Hopping on an authentic tuktuk and buzzing along the streets of Siem Reap is an exciting experience. The tuktuks are little 4-seater carriages hooked precariously on the back of mosquito bikes, named after their buzzing engines. Tuktuks are often draped with lace curtains that were once bright pink or yellow, but which the red dust from dirt pavements has since dulled.
But after two days in Siem Reap, eating the very same fine dust that hug the roads every tuktuk rides, the romantic image of being crowned the Cambodian Cinderella in a carriage will fade. Every bump in the road - and there are many - chips away at that daydream, leaving you longing for the comfort of Singapore’s air-conditioned taxis.
1. Coaching Along
The temples here are awe-inspiring. Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon Temple were the three our group was shuttled to by the tour bus that day, and it is understandable why Siem Reap draws over 1.1 million tourists every year.Of the three, Bayon stays with me. There was a moment where I got separated from the group of other tourists in the twisting-turning corridors in a tiny gap between cool moss-covered sandstone walls under the open sky.
Dust-motes swirled in the air, and the golden sunset just kissed the stone faces of Buddha above. I felt completely alone, as though the first explorer to trek through the Cambodian jungle and chance upon this forgotten ruin.Two of the 200 faces of Buddha at Bayon temple as the sun sets.
However, magical moments like that are hard to find in the temples of Angkor, with roughly 7,000 tourists visiting its ruins daily. The day is spent in and out of a chartered bus, getting delivered and picked up from each temple. Exploration is limited to the well-beaten path, whose history tour guides have memorized in - not kidding - a dozen different languages like Japanese, Russian and, of course, English.
The tour guides are impressive. Whether travelling solo, or in a group, hiring a tour guide for temple tours is a good investment. All the tour guides that work in Angkor wear a brown uniform, a sign that they have been through training to learn about the history of Angkor and its temples. Photo credit: Wu Bing Yu. Chiva, a tour guide of Angkor, who uses his orange Krama scarf to wipe his brow in the heat.
The Angkor temple pass costs US$20 a day, or US$40 for 3 days, so it depends how in depth you want to explore the temples. Tour guide rates can differ, but you can usually hire them for a day for about US$30. My tour guide, Chiva, had a never-ending stream of information, and it was fascinating listening to him explain the vicious battles described in the intricate wall murals carved into Bayon Temple and Angkor Wat.
But jumping into the bus to be shuttled around also means being protected from the dust of the outside world, and missing the gritty charm of local life. Looking out of the window as we drove away from Angkor Wat, there were two children swimming in the moat that surrounds the temple. But before I could figure out what they were doing and why, the bus was already hurtling away to the next item on Chiva’s agenda, and away from that snippet of real life.Local children playing in the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat.
2. Tuktuk The way
Disappointed with the scheduled day of tours, I stepped out of the hotel and was comforted by the few tuktuk drivers who called out to me. At least on a tuktuk, some dust in the eye is guaranteed.Tuktuk drivers wait outside most hotels in Siem Reap, waiting to give you a lift.
In a way, tuktuks define Cambodia: grandly decorated carriages pulled by run-down, rusty motorbikes that nevertheless get the job done and traverse the lawless, riotous symphony that is Cambodian traffic.
All along National Highway 6, the main highway that runs through Siem Reap down south to Phnom Penh, huge sprawling resorts named Angkor-something-or-other are interspersed with tiny little motorbike repair shops with rusty corrugated iron roofs, street food stalls sheltered by sagging umbrellas, and brightly-lit 24-hour marts. The country is full of polarities, so at first glance, it's daunting trying to get a real feel for it.
But tuktuks, especially in tourism-fueled Siem Reap, are also a bit of a hazard. Walk within a 5-metre radius of either end of Pub street, the backpacker street of Siem Reap, and be ready to be attacked by a herd of over-eager tuktuk drivers. At first this initiative on the part of the drivers is forgivable - funny even. One hopeful driver asked "Tuktuk madame? I stay with you tonight?" which I politely declined, deciding that this was not going to be that kind of holiday.Tuktuks in Phnom Penh are much better, though not so dolled up as their northern cousins. Phnom Penh is a grittier city concerned with its own affairs, and tourists are just a distraction. Tuktuks here come with a metal cage, rather than lace curtains, to “Stop grab,” tuktuk-driver Ban said, while motioning to the bag slung on my lap.
When taking a tuktuk, decide on the price BEFORE hopping on. Don’t make the mistake of letting the enthusiastic driver whisk you away to your destination, and then being trapped feeling obligated to pay him an exorbitant rate. Most hotels in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh will have a list of acceptable fares to and from popular tourist sports, and if vying away from these well-trodden routes, feel free to ask the concierge what is a reasonable price.
Furthermore, some hotels have arrangements with tuktuk drivers who will bear the hotel’s logo on their tuktuks. These drivers are more trustworthy, and it may be worth hiring them for a day, maybe for US$10, and letting them take you wherever you want to go.
3. Bicycle Riding
However, in the whole time I was in Cambodia, the most dust was eaten, and the best time had, was riding a bamboo bike around Kampot. Neil Wilkinson of Odyssey Trails, an eco-tourism company based in Kampot, led a 10km bike ride off the main roads and down the dirt paths, where dust is in no short supply.
If you’re picturing a rickety bike made of slim whittled bamboo branches, like I did, you’re wrong. These are mountain bikes any macho man would swoon over, except for the fact that their frames are thick bamboo tubes lacquered to an impressive shine. “They’re really strong, like steel,” said Neil, picking up on the group’s doubtful glances.
After cycling for about 20 minutes, moving to progressively smaller roads, passing railroad tracks, paddy fields, and banana tree groves, a bend around a corner revealed an ornate gold and cream pagoda nestled in a courtyard with white granite benches.A pagoda tucked away from the main roads of Kampot.
There was not a soul in sight, aside from our panting, frazzled group, and we hesitated to venture out alone. But I decided to explore a gazebo in the distance, which has a line of flowerbeds leading to it, and a wooden bridge with missing floorboards that did not inspire confidence.
Then, all of a sudden, Bokor Mountain lay ahead, a deep misty navy. There were two skies, one above, blue dotted with fluffy white clouds, and another reflected in the natural mirror of a river gliding past the gazebo, which in itself was a beauty with its bright red roof and aquamarine hand rails. The world was completely still and at peace, and all the toil and aches taken to get to this spot of perfection lay forgotten behind in the red dust courtyard.A gazebo for the monks that maintain the pagoda to relax in, with a view of Bokor mountain.
And that’s the thing I realized. Sure, while riding the bike, I got sunburnt and covered in dust. I could even feel the grains of dirt grind against my teeth. But although coaches may be more comfortable, and tuktuks more cosy, biking is like backpacking: where you rough it out, and then karma rewards you with the secret paradises the main stream of tourists zoom by. So the only real way to get a taste of Cambodia is to wander off and literally bite the dust.
All photos used in this article are the author's own unless otherwise stated.