If you love the wind in your hair on tuk tuk tours but feel the need for a little more freedom and speed, Vespa Adventures allow you to hitch up behind an experienced driver who’ll weave through crowded streets or whiz through the countryside, all the while shouting interesting tidbits about the scenery. You’ll get a whole new perspective on the region.
There’s a tour of the temples which promises new angles and insights from the company’s founder, who was raised by the last Chief Monk of the complex. The After Dark Foodie Tour offers feasts of spiced wine, beer and bugs, exploration of night markets and an evening shrine.
I went on the Countryside Life tour, mixing the best of both worlds, including copious local food and ruined temples, as well as getting an idea of everyday local life. We started with a demonstration of the terrifying job of climbing trees to harvest palm wine (with tasting of said cold, sweet juice of course), then scootered away to a local market.
The crowd pouring past stalls overflowing with fresh fruit, veg and meat was both universal and totally local. The gossip and haggling and shouting could be in your home city half a world away, but the young monks in orange singing prayers for offerings are completely Cambodian. There was delicious caramalised sticky rice wrapped around tiny sweet bananas in banana leaves straight from the barbecue, rice and beans in bamboo, as well as sweet, hot, rice flour waffles...excuse me a second...
The tour whizzes through a monastery and onwards and upwards to a ruined temple on a wide open plain. Your guide, like mine, might try to explain what the place really is while you’re driving with the wind in your ears but it won’t work because if it sounds impossible, it is impossible.
The ruined temple, it turns out, stands in the centre of a reservoir, an enormous artificial lake that took 80 years to dig by hand. Something clicks as the guide explains that, “No, the edge is not over there where the grass and flowers begin, that's just the dry season bloom. No. That line, the treeline in the distance there. So far away that it’s just a grey smudge. There.”
Honestly, it somehow makes the scale of the Angkor complex, the thousands of years of cities and infrastructure and art feel more real, the hugeness of it all hitting home. Then it’s time to zoom off on the scooter over the wide flat basin, wrapping a scarf around your face to see more local cooking and crafts, many of which won’t have changed from the time the lake was dug.
In the evening we head to Phare, a Cambodian circus. It’s worth arriving early to see the beautiful art on sale and to watch the story of the organisation play out on screens above the stage as you find your seat.
Phare’s 20 year mission has been to offer education and employment in the arts for disadvantaged families and orphans while supporting the rebirth of Cambodian arts. It began as an arts school for children in Battambang, many of whom had fled or suffered under the Khmer Rouge, but the founders soon realised that for many of the children they served, physical arts were a more effective therapy than fine arts, and the circus was born. The fine art school is still going strong, as the piles of beautiful paintings on sale in the foyer will attest.
The circus itself is lively and fun - the one I saw had a single plot about a ghost terrorising a group of schoolboys, who seek all kinds of solutions for their inconvenient haunting problem. The plot gives space for lots of physical jokes, and for abrupt and refreshing changes of tone. The slow, elegant, luminescent rope work of the painted white ghost tumbling through the dark contrasts wonderfully with the brightly coloured, characterful schoolfriends’ haphazard attempts to defeat it using (and always eventually throwing, flipping over or balancing on) whatever school equipment comes to hand.
The design is colourful and fun, and the tricks build up gradually, from relatively simple juggling and flips interspersed with a lot of slapstick at the start to truly astonishing acrobatics near the close. Circus and physical arts fans won’t see anything they haven’t seen before, but it’s glorious fun, with great jokes and some jaw dropping moments, and costs a fraction of what you’ll pay for circus elsewhere in the world. Absolutely worth a visit, especially in the knowledge that you’re supporting an incredible organisation.
Believe it or not, you can run out of patience for temples, even in Siem Reap.
The Flight of the Gibbon is advertised EVERYWHERE in town. It might seem impossible that repeated, controlled falling can justify the lavish reviews and the prices, but it does. It really does. Who wants to jump off of a wooden platform 60ft up a tree to zipline down a budget rope?
Flight of the Gibbon will pick you up from your hotel early for a solid few hours of quality ziplining. You’ll turn up expecting some ziplining, but it’s worth clarifying quite how much there is. They have you ziplining for so long that there’s a break in the middle for a drink and a doze in a treehouse.
After eight ziplines and multiple skybridges of swaying planks and rope bridges you’ll find coming down to earth a strange change. The excellent design keeps bringing new vistas and views; there are short, steep lines which take your breath away, and long ones where the guides will challenge anyone who seems to be getting the hang of it to try out dances and poses, to grab a selfie or to simply stare and take in the height, the view and the ocean of treetops that seem to stretch forever.
Even if you enjoy climbing or heights in other circumstances it’s hard to know how you’ll feel climbing up a solidly built but swaying spiral staircase up through a tree canopy haunted by the unplacable screams of birds and insects. Fortunately the guides are slick professionals when it comes to safety, keep the group moving fast without ever feeling rushed and are sensitive coaches and entertainers who know how to spot and manage a group’s fears with no hint of patronizing anyone.
On our way up they distracted one couple who were struggling by pointing out birds (what do you mean you can’t see it, it’s right there! No, there!) that we only realised at the top of the stairway didn’t exist. When a reviewer who will remain nameless found the view between the planks of a skybridge a bit much, the two guides got her involved in their mocking of one another’s hapless love lives.
The view of the forest from above is extraordinary, and Flight of the Gibbon is actively involved in improving it. In 2014, they released a pair of gibbons that they'll be proud to tell you have already had a baby - the first of all those released by conservationists that year. Pictures of mum and dad and growing baby gibbon adorn the site’s entrance.
Apparently, zipline groups spot the family every now and again, but even if you’re not one of the lucky ones, there’s a lot to see in the treetops and the day ends with a ten-minute walk through the forest during which guides will weave in facts about the smaller forest life into funny stories.
A huge, multi-course mid-afternoon lunch for the group is included, where you and the three to eight (group sizes vary) new friends you’ll have made that day can get your stories straight about exactly how brave you all were.
A lot of things might bring you to Siem Reap. There are the bars selling beer for 50 cents for starters, and then of course, there's the temples. Oh, the temples.
It's difficult to do textual justice to the complexes that fill the jungle just 15 minutes’ tuk-tuk drive from downtown Siem Reap. You can tumble out of a restaurant serving cold beer for said 50 cents at 11am (which you will because somehow the beer takes the edge of the brutal heat better than coke can, don’t ask why) only to be standing under two hundred gigantic, ancient, and (importantly if you have been enjoying more than one of those cheap beers) wonderfully serene, gentle faces of the Buddha at Bayon temple by 11.15.
Angkor Wat itself is so enormous that it shocks you despite the ubiquity of its silhouette as you wander around the country. As you explore the halls and admire the extraordinary carvings of kings riding elephants into battle under a dozen parasols, the shock might even cause you to lose yourself, imagining the royal processions across the causeway and over the wide hand-dug moat.
The region’s more recent history makes itself known in the bullet holes peppering carvings of dancing girls at the temple entrance. Clambering through the hallways of the relatively tiny Banteay Srei, you will keep emerging from dark passageways into sun so bright that you’ll struggle to focus on the impossibly delicate carvings of complex myths that adorn every pillar and arch.
Finding Ta Prohm and Ta Som half-swallowed by jungle will feel similarly unreal. If they feel like a film set it might be in part because, as every local will keep telling you, Lara Croft was filmed there, but it is more likely because of the whole trope of movie jungle temples that they obviously inspired. Like someone coming to Lord of the Rings too old, having read literally any other fantasy of the last 50 years, you might swallow a comment on cliche.
A day with a good tour guide will confirm that most of the monuments, like so many all over the world and throughout history, essentially represent a series of generations of violent men struggling to outdo one another.
A good guide - and every one I met or overheard was good - will point out details of a temple being rushed to be ready in time for a king’s funeral, describe how the terrace of Elephants would have been packed with ordinary people looking down on royal ceremonies and succeed in making the whole thing seem more human, and that's an essential factor when presented with something so wondrous.
(You can rent a tuk-tuk by yourself for the day for $15, or take a group tour in an air conditioned car with a knowledgeable, funny guide from Siem Reap Shuttle Tours for $13-15.)