Tell a Khmer friend that you can’t ride a moto and that you intend to learn by riding 70 kilometres on the back roads to Beng Melea, and you can expect a look of disbelief and perhaps mild amusement. Tell your expat friends the same thing and prepare for incredulity and enquires about how robust your health insurance policy is.
Undeterred by the above possible reactions I booked a trip with the moto company Khmer Ways out to Beng Melea for myself – someone more used to zipping around town on a little automatic scooter – and two complete moto novices.
The guys at Khmer Ways assured me that if we could all ride bicycles then we’d be fine on something a bit more powerful. Apparently it’s not uncommon for them to get bookings from tourists who’ve not yet mastered the art of balancing on two wheels, let alone balancing on two wheels whilst changing gears with the left foot.
My two companions were palpably nervous, skeptical of my promise that it would be just like riding a bicycle. It was only when we got going that my own doubts surfaced: I’d taken my boyfriend and my best friend, two people who had never ridden a moto before, on a trip into the countryside of a place with patchy healthcare. What was I thinking?
In actual fact our worries were unfounded. In addition to our own semi-automatic motos, lunch, entrance fees and all the cold water we could drink, Khmer Ways provided two patient guides who gave a thorough introduction to riding and coached us through the trickier parts of the ride, which included a steep muddy track and a rickety wooden bridge.
We passed through villages, rice fields and cassava plantations, with my friend struggling just once with a deep puddle, a minor fall which didn’t even cause her to get her jeans muddy.
On arriving at Beng Melea our guides were knowledgeable enough to give us some historical background to the temple. Contemporaneous with Angkor Wat, the complex is in a fairly ruinous state, set amongst dense forest. Impressive tree roots simultaneously destroy the masonry and hold it together. The raised wooden walkways mean that visitors are able to get a sense of the original layout and the remarkable scale of the site.
On the way we’d stopped at a riverbed quarry site, where the builders of Angkor had carved out chunks of stone and transported them to the spot where we now stood.
We took a different route back to town, stopping at Chau Srei Vibol temple, which is on top of a small hill, 24 kilometre west of Siem Reap. Although much of it is collapsed, one of the towers and portions of the entrance ways are still intact. It’s a quiet atmospheric place and a newly painted Buddhist pagoda sits at the foot of the temple, featuring a vivid mural depicting the punishments of hell which await sinners.
Now confident enough to ride at some speed, we managed to make it back to town in good time, by which point all of us were buzzing over our new found ability. My friend Rachel confessed, “I was riding the bike with one hand, the other taking pictures, and felt like I had been riding all my life.”
My boyfriend was a little more enthusiastic his new-found skill, telling me, “By the end I felt like I was pretty much a moto cross stunt driver as I rode over bumps and pot holes. It was fantastic”. As for me it was great to get out of a tuk tuk and see some more of rural Cambodia.
And this insight is really what makes moto-ing so fun. Yes, bicycle rides are good, but on a moto you can go further and see more. After all, this is how many Cambodians travel through the province and many places are only accessible with two wheels and at least 125cc.
Buoyed by surviving with all limbs intact we’re not only signing up for an even more ambitious two-day tour of Phnom Kulen to see some of the remnants of the recently uncovered city of Mahen-draparvata, but we’re also contemplating upgrading our machines to something with even more power.
Khmer Ways offer a range of tours, from half-day countryside tours to multi-day trips to Preah Vihear and Kratie, so if you fancy taking control of the handlebars and feeling the wind through your helmet, have a look at their website www.khmerways.com