We do off the map. we do adventure. that’s the real part of our tours, stuff that’s very remote"
A map is needed to find Hidden Cambodia Adventure Tours’ Siem Reap headquarters, which is fitting for an adventure company that specialises in sending people to locations so remote that they can only be accessed using local knowledge.
“Yes, we do off the map. That’s what we do. And we love to do that,” says director Paul Hay, “We do adventure. That’s the real part of our tours, stuff that’s very remote, places the guests cannot go to on their own.”
Then he smiles, adding that when it comes to Cambodia, he’s been almost everywhere, rattling off a long lilting list of remote locales he’s visited.
While some companies in Siem Reap that are connected to high-end hotels organise luxury camping holidays in out-of-the-way locations, Hidden Cambodia organises pretty well anything off the beaten track except for luxury.
The company’s brief is to send adventurous travellers anywhere they care to go in Cambodia and the travel can be done by foot, dirt bike, 4WD, and in some cases by mini bus. Mostly that means roughing it, by sleeping out in the open, or in a rural village, or occasionally in a guesthouse or eco lodge.
But it’s the getting there that really counts.
Hidden Cambodia is run by the dynamic duo of Irishwoman Sheila Connolly and Paul Hay. Hay himself is something of a surprise: Over the phone it’s hard to place his accent, which has a touch of Irish mixed with something else. Meet him in the flesh and it’s immediately obvious he’s not barang – he is a Khmer who anglicised his name. He founded Hidden Cambodia in 2000 and in 2004 Sheila came on board, both as a business partner and a “life partner”.
They’re obviously a compatible couple and bounce off each other in both work and play. Paul provides the local knowledge quotient, as well as the blokey skills such as keeping the company’s stable of dirt bikes operational, while Sheila handles the marketing, logistics and the bonhomie.
Sheila is loquacious while at times Paul is taciturn. Paul likes to talk about the great outdoors, but when it comes to talking about the nuts and bolts of the business, he’s quick to call, “Sheila, Sheila, I need you.”
And then Sheila weighs in talking a dime to a dozen, listing the many wild and wonderful tours she has coordinated. But actually, Sheila is a tad put out. In January she and Paul did the destination management for a pair of Canadians who ran from Siem Reap to what was then something of a combat zone, Preah Vihear. Sheila figured this was a big story, but, while a French television documentary crew filmed it, Cambodian media gave the venture scant coverage.
The two runners, Natalie Samson and Jeff Dean from Kempville, near Ottawa, Canada, are both in their mid-40s. The couple trained for months in preparation, mostly through the Canadian winter, by running at least three hours a day and at least 100 kilometres a week. Dean also warmed up by running the 125-kilometre Canadian Death Race, in Grande Cache Alberta, last August.
Back in Siem Reap, Sheila was also on the case. “We worked with Jeff and Natalie very closely in the months before to plan this trip,” she says.
“They had an immense hunger for understanding the people and the villages they would go through, what they would see, the culture and what people may think of them. Their respect for the Cambodian people was so great that they hoped their running gear, shorts and light running shirts would not offend the local people by being too bare.”
Finally, on Thursday January 28 the Canadian duo set off from Siem Reap for the 250 kilometre trek, via Beng Melea temple and Koh Ker temple, to Preah Vihear, which sits on a ledge on the sandstone Dangrek Mountains.
Paul Hay accompanied them with support staff including security, a guide, a cook and a driver. During the night they slept rough, except at Koh Ker village where they stayed at Hidden Cambodia’s Eco lodge.
The run was originally scheduled over six days, but the duo knocked it over in five, averaging 50 kilometres daily.
And when they reached their destination, a film crew from France 2 Television was on hand, plus a group of 10 Cambodian dignitaries including military generals, border police top brass, and Apsara officials, to give a rousing welcome.
Also, as with most Hidden Cambodia sorties, there was a philanthropic element to the run in that some remote villagers received water filters, and funds are being raised to provide a well.
Hidden Cambodia has given out over 180 water filters and built nine deep wells in and around the remote village of Koh Ker, and has a number of other humanitarian projects in the areas that their guests travel.
As Paul sums it up, “We’re not just a tour company. We don’t just take take take money. We also help wherever we can.”
Hidden Cambodia can be contacted by phone at 012-934-412 or 012-440-727, or via email at [email protected].