Wanting to explore the Cambodian countryside with a hit of adrenaline attached, editor Marissa Carruthers tries her hand at dirt biking.
A look of surprise flickers across Kickstart Dirt Bike Adventures co-owner Dave Scott’s face when I reveal I’ve never sat in the driving seat of a scooter, let alone a motorbike, in my life. The sheer shock on mine is evident when he rolls out the beast of a dirt bike on which I’m about to spend the next five hours hurtling around Siem Reap’s countryside.
To even the semi-seasoned pro, my bike – a Honda CRF 150F – is a baby reserved for amateurs. To me, as I watch it being loaded onto the back of the truck, it’s intimidating, and as I climb into my protective gear and squeeze into the chunky helmet, I quickly start to question what on Earth I’ve got myself into.
A 10-minute drive later to a dusty track on the outskirts of Temple Town and it’s time to swallow my nerves. Scott, a British bike fiend, talks me through the basics, making it sound so simple, before letting me loose. My first attempt sees me tootle, very slowly, not too far into the distance before losing control as I try and step down a gear to turn around.
With a skid, surrounded by a large cloud of orange dust, I land with a thud on the ground – a move I was to become familiar with during the next 30 minutes as I drove up and down the track, gaining confidence with changing gears and picking up the pace.
“Safety is number one,” Scott says as he pulls up next to me, seemingly comfortable that I’m ready to hit the roads. He then runs through a list of ride rules and regulations, such as hand signals to abide by, slowing down when passing through villages, keeping to single file and, most importantly, respecting the roads.
“We don’t want to ruin the dirt bike reputation, and Cambodia is not the place to get injured,” he adds.
Hailing from the congested English capital of London, Scott harboured a passion for motorbikes from a young age. But it wasn’t until he moved to Cambodia more than 15 years ago and went on a trip with a Khmer friend to Anlong Veng in Oddar Meanchey province that he first dabbled with dirt bikes. “I started getting more and more into it and started using them to explore the country,” he says.
Within a year, he had travelled to all four corners of Cambodia, and everywhere in between, via dirt bike, and was hooked. After spending several years working for a dirt bike tour operator, Scott and Cambodian biking buddy and experienced mechanic, Jek Keyla – commonly known as Mr La – decided to follow their dream. In March last year, they launched their own dirt bike business in the form of Kickstart.
Offering a series of bikes, from the robust and reliable Honda XR 250 and Honda CRF 230 used for standard tours, to the high performance Yamaha WRF 250/450, Honda CRF 250/450 and KTM EXC 250/450, the rides range from half-day to intense 11-day trips, depending on the group and experience.
“Cambodia is a dirt biker’s paradise and is so unique,” says Scott. “It’s got some of the best roads in the world and such a variety of conditions, from flat fast single tracks through the forests to technical mountain trails on the border regions. You’ve also got the Khmer hospitality and the amazing culture.”
We pull up at our first stop-off – a crumbling temple about a one-hour ride from Siem Reap city centre – and the adrenaline’s pumping through my veins. I’ve managed to get the hand of the gear changes, and it feels like I’m racing along the tracks that twist and turn through dense jungles and open paddies, swerving to avoid giant potholes that taint the roads, and slowing down on slippery, sandy paths. As we wind through villages children scream “hello” as we overtake them on their push bikes.
“Living in Siem Reap, you can be on great trails within 10 minutes,” Scott says, adding popular afternoon and weekend rides take in the Tonle Sap Lake floodplains, around Phnom Krom Mountain and on to Koh Ker. Longer tours go as far afield as the jungle tracks of the Cardamom Mountains, which Scott says has the most technical rides, and Kampot and Kep, with a day for rest and recuperation on Rabbit Island.
Exhausted after almost five hours on the road, we take a short break at an expanse of water. “Do you see Angkor Wat,” Scott asks, pointing across the shimmering West Baray towards a faint silhouette on the horizon before adding it’s a rarity as the haze usually hampers the view.
Feeling lucky to both have seen the temple at such a distance, and having successfully explored Siem Reap’s countryside at an exhilarating pace, with just a few minor bumps under my belt, we return to Kickstart’s HQ to dust down and enjoy a refreshing and much-needed cool beer.
For more information visit kickstartcambodia.com.