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.