Phnom Penh is often maligned for being ugly, and those who don’t share that contention are often the people with the luxury of living in the capital’s nicer neighbourhoods. Travelling past the boundaries of the Mao Tse Toung ring road and into Stung Meanchey, it never takes long for the city’s blight to creep out of the periphery and embed itself firmly into the senses. The smell of benzene from the adulterated petrol sold by roadside stalls sputters out from every exhaust. The roads are either unpaved or pockmarked enough to look like relics from a bombing run.
Whichever road is travelled, the outward sprawl ends abruptly after a clutter of garment factories or a new brewery, replaced with the lush greenery of Kandal, the province that rings the capital. It should be a cause for wonder that the traditions of subsistence rice farming continue in relative isolation from the rest of the world, only 20 kilometres from the Independence Monument, amongst some of the most picturesque scenery in the country. At the very least, people should appreciate it in a more thorough way than glancing out of the window of a bus on the way to a Kep respite.
Such was Pasqua’s goal when he founded Blazing Trails four years ago. A long-time resident of Cambodia, Pasqua fell in love with the sights and sounds of Kandal and wanted to share it with those who usually take a more pedestrian route through the country.
“Before I opened the business, I used ride around Phnom Penh by motorbike in my free time,” he said. “When tourists come here, I think it’s interesting for them to see a bit of the countryside, not just Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.”
With a fleet of 14 quad bikes, Blazing Trails offers tours through the back roads which serve an enclave of villages hidden from the sight of the highway leading down to Takeo. Longer rides incorporate a series of local attractions, including the Killing Fields, the breath-taking view from Phnom Chisor temple, and the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Centre.
One of the most popular rides is a tour through the villages around Choeung Ek Lake, beginning at four in the afternoon and ending with a coconut juice rest stop to watch the sun disappear over the horizon. After the cursory disclaimer to absolve all liability in the event of death and destruction – and it must be said, anyone who can somehow die while using the most easily manoeuvred vehicle known to humanity really ought to void their membership to the gene pool – we careen down a dirt path surrounded by rice paddies.
There’s not much of an opportunity to gun the engines, and despite whatever manly temptations might be aroused by a loud engine and a throttle, the engines are set to top out at about 30 kilometres an hour.
The slow crawl through villages gives the experience something of a regal feel – every few metres on the way, young children and toddlers held up by their mothers run out of their homes to wave us along. Blazing Trails have been assiduous in building support for the tours within the local community, and regularly solicit donations from riders for the villagers. Pasqua contends that the reason for the warm greetings is mostly the spectacle of the passers-by.
“They like the tour,” he tells us. “There isn’t so much happening in the villages. Before we started the tours, most of these children had never even seen foreigners before.”
Our Cambodian guide, James, laughs while relating his own experience of this daily grand reception. “Sometimes the mothers say to their children, ‘don’t wave to him, he’s only a Khmer!’”
Having grown up in the outer Dangkao district of Phnom Penh, James is old enough to recall when his neighbourhood looked like the paddies, duck farms and wooden shacks that surround us, before the relentless ever-outward thrust of the city’s booming population. Even now, as we stop to survey the lake that provides irrigation and fishing for the district’s 30,000 people, he sees the influence of this encroachment on the farmers of Kandal.
“Before these people didn’t get to have much schooling, most of them would stay on their farms their whole life. Now, more and more are travelling into Phnom Penh for work in garment factories, earning a bit more, improving their homes and sending their kids to school for longer,” he says.
Without saying it outright, James articulated the best reason for taking the tour. It’s not unforeseeable that this little patch will be swallowed up in the years to come, a more benign manifestation of the ongoing, age-old battle between the urban and the rural. It’s good to see a snapshot of a disappearing way of life so close to a city that so slavishly yearns for the ultramodern, all the better if you’re doing it while watching the beautiful Cambodian sunset that the city’s towers obscure. Better still if you’re doing it while piloting something with all the fun and feeling of a miniature monster truck.
Blazing Trails tours run every day of the year from their headquarters near the Choeung Ek memorial. Tour packages start at $25 with free pickup and return from the city. For more information and bookings, visit nature-cambodia.com or call 012 676 381.