Turning off the main road out of Siem Reap, our bikes crunch across wet gravel towards one of the many small local villages that surround Cambodia’s biggest tourist town. Turning around, our guide Samnang points to four uniformed men and a white Land Rover in the adjacent field. ‘Training to clear land mines,’ he says. ‘They’ve already cleared many temple sites, but there’s much work left to do.’
It’s a stark reminder that this area, and this country, are still suffering the horrific after effects of the Khmer Rouge’s brief but brutal rule. We’re on the road to Beng Melea, an ancient temple site that sits over 50km north of the main attractions of Angkor. Our ride though, which has only just begun, will cover 75km, through lush paddy fields, arid landscapes and tiny villages, as we get off the beaten track and try to find the real Cambodia.
We are being shown this beautiful part of the country by Grasshopper tours. A bike-focused company based in Siem Reap, they run trips across Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, from short hops through the local countryside to five day jaunts from Phnom Penh to Hoi An. For just $48 each, we both have top of the range Trek mountain bikes and Samnang’s peerless local knowledge, not to mention his motivation when our legs start to flag.
Having been shocked by the land mine clearance, we’re soon seeing the everyday side of northern Cambodia. Samnang takes us past two huge cages, housing a pair of massive fighting cocks. ‘It’s illegal now,’ he says, ‘ but that doesn’t stop locals staging fights. Those birds sell for around $100 each.’ Their owner grins as we pass and quickly jabbers to Samnang in Khmer. ‘He’s just told me they’re yours for $75 each.’ With little space on our bikes, we have to decline.
As we ride on, children rush out of seemingly endless stilt houses, shouting ‘hello’ and what we initially think is ‘bye bye’. It’s actually ‘Barang’, a term from the French colonial period meaning ‘white and tall’.
The heat begins to rise, so we pull over at a sugar cane seller, who hands over an ice cold glass of juice that sets our teeth on edge. Fortunately our support vehicle, a tuktuk driven by one of the staff at Grasshopper tours, is not far behind, replete with water bottles and fruit to keep us pushing on past the half way mark.
The final 35km are a real killer. The temperature is now well above 30C and the sun is beginning to peek through the high cloud. Although the going’s flat, this is one of the toughest bike rides I’ve ever done, testament to my lack of strenuous exercise and failure to ever go out on my bike back at home. But arriving at the stunning Beng Melea, the pain and the sweat are totally worth it.
Older than Angkor Wat by over 100 years (making it over a millennium since it was conceived and built), Beng Melea served as one of the earliest Khmer capitals. Nature has now taken over this stunning temple, with fig trees colonising the towers and stunning Bas Reliefs battered by the weather. The wild forest which surrounds the temple used to be carpeted with land mines, the area being close to where the Khmer Rouge holed out until the late 90s. It’s now been cleared, thanks to the UN team we saw at he start of the ride. It means visitors can now roam the vast Beng Melea site and take in the mind-blowing ruins from every angle.
There’s no question for me that this is the most beautiful temple in this part of Cambodia. Clambering over ancient stone and listening to the silence, it’s hard not to be transported back to when this was a bustling Hindu metropolis. Although Angkor is undoubtedly stunning, getting on the bike and making our way here put Siem Reap’s biggest tourist attraction in the shade.