Dirtbiking with Hidden Cambodia

Photo: Gerald and Lis Photo: Beng Mealea Photo: Breakfast stop Photo: Beng Mealea

I have been taking up tons of new sports lately; one that I had never tried before is dirtbiking, so I figured what better place to learn than a country covered in land mines, with no decent hospitals! I’ll just be extra motivated to stay on the bike. And so began my 5 day adventure, dirtbiking around rural Cambodia.

I first got the idea to do this after reading this girl’s trip report about a year ago; I was really excited to do the same when I went to Cambodia, whenever that was. I almost forgot about it when I got here, it wasn’t until a few days into in Phnom Penh that I remembered “oh yeah, dirtbiking!”

I emailed a few places to ask about availability and settled on Hidden Cambodia which seemed expensive but looked like a good operation. Their usual rate for trips with only one rider is $185 USD/day; I was able to negotiate a small discount but it still seemed really expensive considering the local costs of food, shelter and guides. But I knew I’d be in good hands, and it wasn’t any more expensive per day than my liveaboard scuba trip in January, or a day in the Whistler bike park if you need to rent a bike and armor.

I had no experience on dirtbikes before this trip; I think I might have been on my brother’s a couple times when I was a kid, but I don’t think I ever drove it by myself. I didn’t know how much experience I would need to be able to do this trip, so I scheduled a training day a few days before the 4-day trip I had booked later, leaving enough time to add another training day if I needed it.

I had two guides with me on training day and throughout my trip: Lis was the main guide, he led almost all the time, spoke English very well and knew a lot about the history of each place; he guided me around the temples as well. Sophal was the sweeper and mechanic; he rode behind me, ready to pull my bike off me and pick up the pieces when needed. Both of them were really nice and helpful.

On training day, Lis took me to a quiet dirt path, explained how the bike worked, how to shift (kick down once for first, then repeatedly up for second through sixth), then asked me to practice shifting a bit. I have never owned anything with a manual transmission but have driven lots of rentals and friend’s vehicles so I was comfortable using a clutch, so I set off down the path, taking the bike up to 5th or so fairly quickly before turning around to come back. Lis said I had done well but he just wanted me to practice in 1st and 2nd for a while until I got a feel for the bike. oops.

Photo: Gerald and Lis

Then he asked me to practice turning and doing figure 8’s at slow speed in a small field next to the path, which I did after confirming there were no active land mines in the area :)

I cruised around for a while with no real trouble and was ready to hit the road but Lis said he wanted me to practice for another half hour first. Later he said some people had to practice for 4 hours before they could go anywhere, and sometimes they’d have to run along next to the bike holding it up etc.

After practicing a bit more we were off to Beng Mealea, a 12th century temple about 80 km away.

On the way we stopped at a roadside place for some noodle soup which was great because I hadn’t had a real breakfast yet (just a plate of fruit and an espresso back at my hotel), and noodle soup has been my favorite breakfast for the last three months. Lis warned me that some people’s stomachs can’t handle this soup so I might want to skip it, but I told him I’m usually OK with most stuff.

Photo: Breakfast stop

After we ate I asked where the bathroom was, and when I came back I said “oohhhh, my stomach, why did you make me eat that soup?” but then admitted I was just joking.

We arrived at Beng Mealea temple around 11:30, and it was really cool. I wandered around exploring and taking pictures for about an hour; unfortunately it was pretty much the worst time of day to be taking pictures in terms of quality of the light.

This is something I have come to appreciate more and more lately: there are a couple times of day when the light is really nice, just after sunrise and just before sunset. Other times aren’t nearly as good. Here in Cambodia, between 10-3 each day it’s hardly worth trying to take pictures at all.

But this temple is so overgrown that the trees provided a bit of shade, which helped.

Photo: Beng Mealea Photo: Beng Mealea Photo: Beng Mealea Photo: Beng Mealea Photo: Beng Mealea Photo: Gerald outside Library Photo: Beng Mealea Photo: Beng Mealea

These cute girls were hanging out near the entrance:

Photo: Girls Photo: Naga

We had lunch nearby, then headed back to Siem Reap, stopping at another small temple in the middle of nowhere called Ban Teay Ampel. Lis said nobody else goes there besides them. I was delighted to be able to explore these places on my own without a bunch of tourists getting in the way of my pictures.

Photo: Ban Teay Ampel Photo: Ban Teay Ampel Photo: Ban Teay Ampel

On the way in to this temple we had to ride through a little gully that was full of mud and water. I watched Lis go through first and it seemed a bit deep, so I opted to take a skinny bridge off to one side instead, because I like skinnies when mountain biking and usually do pretty well on them. It was maybe a foot and a half wide and about 20 feet long, and I did it with no problem and was feeling pretty smug for having taken a better path than Lis, but later I realized he might have gone through the mud because he didn’t think I could handle the bridge.

I knew the way back over the bridge wouldn’t be as easy because the approach was more difficult from that direction, and sure enough when I tried it my front tire went off one side of the bridge into the mud, so I stepped down into the mud and Sophal quickly ran down to help get my bike back on the bridge, then rode it across for me. On a mountain bike I would have carried the bike back to the top and tried again a few times until I got it, but these things are not as easy to carry, by which I mean impossible to carry.

Aside from that very minor bail it was an incident-free day, though the riding today was quite easy: mostly quiet dirt roads and paths without much traffic or tricky terrain to worry about. But I was very happy it turned out to be so easy for me to learn, and excited to start the main 4-day trip.

By 4pm we were back to Hidden Cambodia’s office for a cold round of Angkor beer:

Photo: Safe return Photo: Lis, Gerald, Sophal

After the training day I had a few days off to explore the temples of Angkor Wat before beginning the rest of the trip.

More photos of dirtbiking in Cambodia…

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