Cambodia: Beyond the temples

By Max Wooldridg

Whizzing through dusty country tracks on the back of a Vespa is a great way to see the 'real' Cambodia, discovers Max Wooldridge.

Riding Vespas down long dirt tracks through rural communities.
Riding Vespas down long dirt tracks through rural communities.

Every tourist in Siem Reap is heading toward the famous temples at Angkor Wat.

I'm riding in a small group going in the other direction, whizzing through exotic countryside on the back of smart, gleaming Vespas. Our fetching orange helmets match last night's sunset.

We're soon bouncing along red, dusty tracks lined with tall sugar palms for a glimpse of country life beyond the temples.

First, we stop at the local Goktrochan market where tables groan from the weight of mangoes, pineapples and pungent durian.

Then, after a farmer's wife teaches us to weave baskets and wicker items, we head along country paths to the edges of West Baray Lake.

Here, we get off our bikes, remove our helmets and walk up the steps of the 11th century Wat Svay Romeat pagoda.

"The monk is waiting for us up there," says Akim Ly, our guide, and founder of Cambodia Vespa Adventures.

In the temple's main spiritual hall, a monk performs a special blessing ceremony for us: to welcome good luck and chase any bad omens away.

Akim is no stranger to monks, and at every stop she shares her fascinating life story with us.

She was raised by monks at Angkor Wat and grew up in the shadow of the famous temples in the Khmer Rouge era.

In war-torn Cambodia, she had no access to school, but aged 5, her grandfather Loung Sak — the chief abbot of Angkor — told her she could live and study at the pagoda.

Many generations of Akim's family had been senior monks at the temple complex.

While living there, monks taught her Pali rituals and scripture on bamboo scrolls.

She also had to shave her head and behave like a boy because girls were not allowed to live and study there.

"I was a very lonely child," Akim recalls.

"I didn't have any friends because all the boys knew I was a girl. They didn't like to play with me."

Bamboo bridge of Koh Paeng island on the island river, Kompong Cham (Kampong Cham), Cambodia, Indochina, Southeast Asia. Photo / Getty Images
Bamboo bridge of Koh Paeng island on the island river, Kompong Cham (Kampong Cham), Cambodia, Indochina, Southeast Asia. Photo / Getty Images

She lived at Angkor until she was 11, when she left to attend school. Aged just 14 she opened her first restaurant, close to Angkor Wat. The building is now owned and run by Artisans d'Angkor.

"It takes longer to tell you the whole story," she laughs.

"If I tell you everything no-one will need to do the tour!"

In addition to our countryside trip, Vespa Adventures offers tours of Angkor Wat's three main temples, and night food tours of Siem Reap that includes samples of red ant salad and local rice wine.

"I want to show visitors real Cambodia on cool and stylish motorbikes," Akim says.

"It was always a dream to run a business which shows visitors the places where I grew up."

She launched Vespa Adventures in 2013 with the help of her Dutch expat husband Chris Wijnberg. It is a sister venture to Vietnam Vespa Adventures, which friends started in Ho Chi Minh City in 2007.

My Vespa driver, Chesda, speaks good English and seems to enjoy the experience as much as me. He picks me up, and will later return me to my hotel when the six-hour tour is over.

You get a feel for everything rural on the back of a classic Italian scooter. We zoom past stilt houses, the sound of snoring coming from some hammocks. We pass three generations of the same family on one motorbike on quiet back roads. We see trussed-up pigs and crates of live chickens on the back of Honda motorbikes.

Later, we stop in a village where an old fortune teller is happy to explain our futures. We sit cross-legged on his floor as Akim translates the monk's wise words. He maps out our destinies on a whiteboard with a marker pen.

Akim Ly, founder of Cambodia Vespa Adventures.
Akim Ly, founder of Cambodia Vespa Adventures.

"Your numbers are very good and in a previous life you were a son of a dragon.

"You also have dragon blood, which is very powerful, so you can do anything if you want. Your best time will come when you dream about dragons and the sun."

Slightly confused, I am soon back atop my sleek Vespa, riding long dirt tracks through friendly rural communities.

Children wave at our convoy of gleaming motorbikes riding through their villages.

But no sign of any dragons yet.

Unusual tours

Segway tour — Thailand

Zip around the streets of Bangkok on a Segway tour. Segway Tours Thailand offer tours of the Old City, with stops at the Phra Sumen Fort, famous street Kahosan Rd, the City Pillar Shrine, Royal Gardens, and more. The company also offers tours of the historic ruins of Ayutthaya, a Unesco World Heritage site. If you're visiting Chiang Mai, Segway Gibbon offers a tour around the city's temples, restaurants and markets — this can be combined with a zipline tour through the rainforest.

Jeepney tour — Philippines

Travel the Pinoy way in a "Jeepney" — these pimped-out jeeps are the most popular form of public transport in the Philippines. While the original jeepneys were surplus Jeeps left by American troops after WWII, they're now built from second-hand Japanese trucks. A tour in one is an ideal way to see the sights, with Jeepney Tours offering trips around Manila and the greater countryside. They can also take you to the islands of Batanes, Ilocos and Banaue. The vehicles are air-conditioned and even include an onboard karaoke system.

Cyclo tour — Vietnam

A Vespa tour of Cambodia.
A Vespa tour of Cambodia.

These three-wheel bicycle taxis arrived in Vietnam during the French colonial period. Passengers sit in a double seat between the two front wheels. While they're not really used by locals anymore, they remain a popular tourist attraction in the cities. If you're riding by yourself, make sure to negotiate a price before you leave, as you may get ripped off. However, companies such as Hanoi Cyclo Tours offer structured group tours around the Old Quarter, with stops to try some of the best food the city has to offer.

CHECKLIST

Details: Vespa Adventures offers a six-hour Countryside Life tour. Wendy Wu's 18-day "Ankor To The Bay" tour takes in Cambodia and Vietnam.

- NZ Herald

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