Don’t Look Back in Angkor

Come on Jules, let’s hitcambodiabikes_450x250 the road,’ shout my new-found companions Mike and Dan, who are just back from a test spin on their own motorcycles.

The two boys and their bikes are totally covered in mud and I suspect, as I try to kick-start my Honda XR250, that I will be soon, given the road ahead is a barely passable series of potholed broken tracks.

Welcome to motorbiking Cambodia style, where the boys and I have decided, for a few days at least, to eschew the relatively new luxury hotels and the well-trod Angkor Wat by heading into the far north of the country on the trail of the once-fearsome Khmer Rouge.

To do so, we’ve roped in the expertise of Cambodia Expeditions and legendary local biker and tour guide Zeman See.

He can hire you a bike, take you on a traditional itinerary or totally customise a tour.

And, while in this age of guidebooks, global positioning systems and Google Maps you could probably navigate the country by just hiring a bike on the cheap, it’s hard to find dirt bikes powerful enough to take on the rough roads.

Ancient carvings

Later, rather too many bum-numbing hours out of the capital Phnom Penh, we pull up in a small village near Kbal Spean – an Angkor-era site in the Kulen Hills that were one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge.

As the dust cloud around us settles, it reveals a curious crowd from which emerges a small girl who speaks broken English. She leads us across makeshift ladders and, by means of a Tarzan-style vine, to the site by the side of the Kbal Spean river.

Here, as the muddy brown water swirls around, we see why it is also called the Valley of 1,000 Lingas (symbols of the Hindu god Shiva): the riverbed and surrounding rocks are covered in ancient carvings.

Many have a phallic theme and were designed to bring fertility to land downstream.

Our next stop is Preah Khan, a temple hidden in thick jungle. On full throttle, we hit the main logging highway north to make for the original Angkorian road that runs east to west through the heart of the country.

I say road, but it’s the rainy season and the potholes have already turned into motorcycle-swallowing craters. This, combined with deep sand, several river crossings and no clear route, make it a challenging ride.

To make matters worse, the guys have raced on ahead, I’ve run out of water and my only food supply is two roasted and MSG-coated tarantula spiders that I’d picked up as a joke in the village of Skuon.

As the Sun begins to set, I’m forced to munch on one and find the legs taste a little like ginger biscuits.

Monuments to faith

By nightfall, I catch up with the boys at Preah Khan just as they set up camp and, as I decide to explore the temple by torchlight, I keep to the main pathway. As a permanent and deadly echo of the civil war, landmines still dot the area causing hundreds of casualties each year.

At first light, we head upland to Preah Vihear – a mountain top temple perched on the border with Thailand.

Reaching its stone walls, I discover the 1037AD site, built 100 years before Angkor Wat, also boasts exquisite Buddhist and Hindu carvings along with a view that stretches far across Khmer country.

Our final stop is Anglong Veng, where Pol Pot died in April 1998. The Cambodian government plans to turn the site into a massive macabre tourist attraction using former Khmer Rouge soldiers as personal guides but, while they speculate as to its tourism worth, the region continues to struggle under crushing poverty.

Back in Phnom Penh, I reflect on the stone temples that remain defiant amid the jungle shadows of Pol Pot’s Killing Fields.

As monuments of faith and beauty, they have survived the worst of human nature and the vagaries of Mother Nature. With any luck, the better side of both will preserve these unique sites for another 1,000 years.

Or at least until motorbike seats are made more comfortable and Cambodian roads more passable. Direct flights to Phnom Penh from London with Korean Air and cost from ?613.

For bike tours, visit From $150 (?77) per person per day,including bike hire and accommodation. Make sure your insurance covers.


Adventure travel writer Julliet Coombes went on tour with us, proving that the girls can keep up with the guys! First published in the Metro Newsapaper, UK, on January 25th, 2008. To read the article in full go to

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