Ellie Dyer and Anna Clare Spelman take to two wheels with cycling tour company Grasshopper Adventures.
Breaking to a halt in a shady mango grove, green teardrops of fruit drooping from branches overhead, it seemed hard to believe that just a few hours earlier our cycle trip had begun amid the petrol fumes of central Phnom Penh.
The ride had kicked off at 8am, with our 11-strong tour group biking down from the Street 144 headquarters of Grasshopper Adventures and onto the capital’s frenetic riverside – whizzing past cafés and restaurants in single file, a guide at the head and a mechanical expert at the rear of our crocodile-like line.
We soon found ourselves streaming down a ramp to board the Arey Ksatr ferry. The commuter boat would traverse the mighty Mekong, leading us to the network of sleepy back-roads that we were to negotiate during our 20-odd-kilometre trip through the river’s islands.
Led by our ever-knowledgeable guide Sreymom, the next few hours saw us steer through dusty backwaters and bumpy riverside tracks, passing villagers, street sellers and waving children, as drumming echoed across beautiful rice fields populated by watchful scarecrows.
Swerving past stately-looking cows and lazing dogs on the way to Koh Dach, we kept a sedate pace as the heat ramped up, stopping off to visit a silk weaving workshop where we ate a banquet of ripe tropical fruit and sipped on cold water before watching wriggling silkworms munch through mountains of mulberry leaves.
But whether peddling past a village market or navigating rock-strewn country roads – at one point a member of the Grasshopper team dealt quickly and expertly with a punctured tyre – the gentle tour provided an insight into day-to-day life outside of the Kingdom’s major cities.
“Many people come to Cambodia thinking that Angkor Wat and the temples are going to be their travel highlight, but for those who venture beyond the temples, they almost always say that the highlight was actually engaging with Cambodian people in their village environment,” says Peter Lawrence, Grasshopper Aventure’s country manager for Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Cycling enables you to do this in such a subtle, low impact way that you really do get to experience the real Cambodia and not just a glossy travel brochure version,” he adds.
Grasshopper should know, having offered tourists the ability to experience Southeast Asia on two wheels for more than a decade. The professional-led tours started in Thailand in 2004, when Australian Jason Williams set up the business after spotting potential demand for organised bicycle travel in Asia.
The Melbournite first set-up shop in Bangkok, personally leading tours to neighbouring Laos and Cambodia before expanding the company’s geographical reach and range of adventures with the support of fellow Australian Adam Platt-Hepworth.
Grasshopper has since grown into a well-established operator that offers day-trips in seven locations across Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, alongside longer journeys that include a mountain biking in East Timor and excursions through the Himalayas in Bhutan. In total, it runs tours in 14 countries.
Yet Lawrence says that it is Siem Reap – where the company offers a variety of options, from temple tours to a one-day cycle to Beng Mealea and a two-week ride through northern Cambodia and the Vietnamese highlands to Hoi An – that has changed the most.
“It wasn’t that long ago that there were some serious limitations on the variety of food and accommodation that was available,” he says. “That is certainly no longer true.”
Down in Phnom Penh, visitors can bike with Grasshopper to the ancient capital of Oudong or head down to the coastal waters of Sihanoukville on a five-day tour. Yet back on our, less taxing, half-day excursion, our group was slurping coconut water and sugar cane juice at a local café while preparing to catch a small ferry back to the mainland.
After crunching on pieces of sour green mango to a cacophony of engine noise, we spun our way down the final three-kilometre stretch of the tour and exchanged high-fives as we parked up by the Grasshopper mini-van that would transport us to a slap-up lunch at a city restaurant.
Trundling back to the confines of Phnom Penh, I couldn’t help but reflect that cycling on the Kingdom’s village roads on a cool January morning might just be the ideal way to appreciate Cambodia’s natural beauty.
Hopping on two wheels can take you out of the city and into rural life in a trice, with few pesky hills to challenge your calves and a new idyll – from tall fields of corn to vast riverscapes and serene temples – around almost every corner.
For more information on the tours, including the half-day Islands Of The Mekong trip, visit grasshopperadventures.com.