Countryside Exploration Cycle
The Siem Reap countryside is changing all the time as the town spreads but its not long before the hard road becomes a track and the houses are raised on stilts.
Lors and Taylor cycling one of our mountain bike routes around Siem Reap
A line of trees shades a canal as it crosses the landscape. Dug to control the flooding lake as it advanced across the countryside then channel the receding water to rice fields surrounding the small villages that dot the floodplain.
Rural path shaded by beetlenut palm
Mountain bikes are the ideal way to explore this varied landscape, cycling along avenues of bamboo through the backyard of farms shaded by beetlenut, sugar and coconut palm.
We’ll stop at a smallholding for a coconut, which our more agile guides can climb the palm tree to pick. And meet the family, cows, pigs, chickens, ducks and the farmer to learn a little about how most Khmers live in the countryside.
Taylor getting to know a cow & Water-buffalo feeding on paddy field stubble (below)
We’re cycling through the Angkorian metropolis. A millennia ago this land was feeding the armies of Jayavarman VII as he conquered South East Asia.
Khmer stilted house
Despite the ravages of time, agriculture, war and weather there are many signs of a sophisticated civilization, none more so than the West Baray. It was the largest completely man made reservoir in the world until the 19th century and that’s where we’re going to finish our countryside exploration cycle.
Cold beers and Khmer snacks await as we lean up our bikes and sit beside the water watching fishermen in simple wooden canoes out on the Baray.
The West Baray
We have many routes, which we vary according to the season and how far and long you want to cycle. We can focus on a rural way of life or search out the secrets of Angkor hidden in the countryside. Morning cycle rides with picnic lunches beside the water or sunset beers / cocktails at the Baray watching the sun sink in the West.
Prek Toal on finfoot
The incredibly rare milky adjutant lived in Prek Toal and it was my mission to save it even before I got to Cambodia and realized there isn’t a milky adjutant it’s a Milky Stork and a Greater Adjutant. Undeterred enthusiasm intact, Prek Toal was at the heart of why I’d come and where I was going.
Greater Adjutant inside the Core Bird Reserve.
The Core Bird Reserve did not disappoint. A two hundred square kilometer water world of open forest emerging from The Lake during the ebb, it seemed untouched and unvisited. A haven for the flocks of large birds that flew past our boat; pelicans soaring high on the thermals or sailing galleon like across the lake. Oriental Darters and cormorants flying in formation, plunging into the water with their spear like beaks to pluck out fish. And the storks perfectly poised in the tree canopy, ruled over by the largest of them all, the Greater Adjutant.
Over 200 species have been recorded inside the core bird reserve so every size, shape and color has adapted to take advantage of the hierarchy in the flooded forest.
Cormorant and Oriental Darter colony with their white chicks. Photo Nick Butler
Prek Toal Village is fantastic in its own right, hundreds of wooden houses floating on clumps of bamboo clustered along the river banks in the dry season when the lake is low or spread out into the forest during the flood. The village economy revolves around fishing; subsistence for the poorer families in the floating shacks. Midscale for those that can afford the apparatus and the bribes to fish inside the core bird reserve. And commercial where migrants work for the Bong Thoms (powerful people) with fishing rights to the Lake. In February the fish fences fringe the flooded forest to trap the fish as they emerge from their sheltered nurseries beneath the trees.
Life on the lake is dictated by the annual pulse of water surging down the Mekong River. Silt caught in the current is carried from China through Myanmar, Thailand and Laos then deposited where the water slows South of Phnom Penh. The raised riverbed changes the direction of the flow from South to the sea now North to the great Tonle Sap Lake, filling it like a bath until the King pulls the plug at Bon Om Teuk, The Water Festival and allows the river to regain its normal route.
Prek Toal Village during the flood. Photo Nick Butler
The flood brings life in the form of fish that swarm into the flooded forests of Prek Toal to breed, spawn and grow providing much of Cambodia’s protein.
What can we say to our guests when we take them across the lake from Siem Reap to The Core Bird Reserve and Prek Toal Village?
We can explain the hydrological phenomena at the heart of the ecosystem and describe the adaptations both human and natural but it’s best to let people see for themselves and watch the wonder of this other worldly place work its magic.
That’s the scene set for our trip with Discovery Magazine onboard finfoot to capture the essence of what makes this place so special. Sally had come to look beautiful. Sam was there to photograph her looking beautiful. Daniel was there to write about her looking beautiful. The Core Bird Reserve and finfoot with logistical assistance from Indochine Exploration was the reason she looked beautiful, and incidentally why I was there.
It’s not easy to take a boat inside the Core Bird reserve but Buntha and Bo had persuaded the conservation team in Prek Toal to let us in. So we sailed through the trees to where Wildlife Conservation Society has built platforms in the canopy to monitor and protect the bird colonies. The water was at its height so we could see the submerged vegetation and the fish that swam between the leaves beneath us. It was too early in the year for the star of the show, the milky adjutant AKA greater but the trees were laden with black and white colonies of darters and cormorants with their creamy white chicks.
We paddled back in our kayaks over the yellow mats of saray, a tiny floating flower to where the water hyacinth clogs the channels into Prek Toal.
Kayaking at the edge of the Core Bird Reserve from finfoot. Photo Nick Butler
Clearing a route through the weeds we made it to The Sangke River and paddled across to The Saray Platform where the women of the village weave the dried stems of this invasive alien into handicrafts that are sold for the benefit of the poorest families in the village. There’s also a restaurant, you don’t have any choice, its fish fresh from the lake with vegetables and fruit traded from Siem Reap.
Women from Prek Toal Village weaving the stems of water hyacinth into handicrafts on the Saray Platform. Photo Nick Butler
We were sailing on finfoot, so we forwent the fish and rice in favor of lightly poached chicken and roast vegetable salad back on board.
The kayaks stowed and all aboard we stretched out luxuriously across the day beds on the upper deck, shaded by a canvas awning while the staff laid out our lunch boxes complemented by a chilled Chenin Blanc.
We’d been to the ends of the earth, a forest of flooded trees circled by flocks of birds. We’d paddled through a village untamed by time, as mesmerized by the villagers as they were by us.
Kayaks stowed on finfoot
Indochine Exploration creates a very special day onboard finfoot. The Core Bird Reserve is Indochine Exploration’s flagship adventure, uniquely exploring this pristine environment by kayak with conservation experts.
Route 66 – An Angkorian Adventure
This is the story of a family’s adventures along an ancient Angkorian Highway in search of temples hidden in the forest.
A thousand years ago a canal was dug to ferry the giant blocks of stone that were used to build the temples of Angkor from Kulen Mountain where they were quarried. The canal has long since gone but the road that ran beside remains, now a sandy path for much of the way.
A rural landscape of sugar palm trees and paddy fields
Our mission was to cycle where our families had not gone before, along the buffalo track past bright green paddy fields, between picturesque sugar palm trees and through Khmer villages of wooden houses built on stilts to stand proud of the floods. Children rushed out to get a glimpse of the strange ‘barangs’ (foreigners), shrieking goodbye and hello at random. Boys loosely herded buffalo that gently moved apart to let us through.
The River Bridge across the Kampong Phluk River
The bridge across the Kampong Phluk River was still strong but the piles had sunk to different depths leaving it twisted like a fairground ride. One by one we cycled across and onto our first stop. A hilltop temple with a pagoda in front constructed of stones looted from the ancient site. The 18 stages of Buddhist hell were graphically depicted on the outer walls. Sinners filed up to receive judgment as to how far they would sink into the eternal flames, which included the novel twist of attaching leeches to the nipples of ‘loose’ women.
Chau Srey Vibol Temple
Grey clouds swelled and darkened until too heavy for the sky they fell as torrential rain. We reached the Jeeps just in time and set off for the next stage in our adventure.
Walking single file along the dikes between fields and through forest alongside the old road now flooded from recent rains. We came upon a clearing in the jungle and there lay the ancient ruins of the Tamarind Temple. We were lead through the portals of the Eastern Gate into a courtyard where a gleaming white tablecloth was adorned with flowers and the promise of a delicious lunch. Cold towels to wipe our sweaty brows and chilled coconut water to revive our flagging souls. To complete the cure Tern, in a smart black uniform popped the champagne cork and we toasted our adventure before the gazpacho was served.
Banteay Ampil Temple
The reward for our morning’s adventures
There are many ways to leave a temple, Uri and I walked. The oxcarts were readied for Beth, Julie, Eve and Brian, cushions laid and tarpaulins hung as we bade them farewell. The sound of whirring rotor blades drowned out the crescendo of cicadas as the helicopter appeared over the tree line and settled onto the field next to the temple. We waved as Danny and Eric took off. Cycling is an option during the dry season and we can always kayak if it gets really wet.
There are many ways to leave a temple including oxcarts (above), helicopters (below) and kayaks if its been raining.
Indochine Adventures in Cambodia organizes bike, hike and simple picnics or champagne lunches in the Tamarind Temple with the different options described to return to Siem Reap.
Puok River (that wasn’t) Recce
‘To boldly go where most sane Khmer’s don’t.’
We knew the launch point beside the Angkor Crau Bridge though Sokun (tuktuk driver and Indochineex adventure guide) found it immensely funny that we hadn’t a clue where we were going.
Nick blowing, Sokun pumping and Buntha launching
We inflated the kayaks on the banks of a channel that’s just been dug by Apsara. The channel in best Angkorian tradition aims to stop the town from flooding and restore the ancient water systems preventing the foundations of the temples crumbling.
An old man and a couple of children, a smaller than usual crowd attended the assembly of our spaceship and watched as we lifted off or rather splashed down, plonking our bottoms into the kayak, paddling down stream with Puok vaguely in mind.
The river was covered with a patchwork of lotus leaves and intense lilac flowers, the lush green banks were looked over by a few tall trees.
Our first obstacle was a fishing fence right across the channel, which we unhitched. The next low hanging branches, which we pushed our way through to find a straight stretch of water leading to a dam surrounded by quicksand. By the time I’d sunk past my knees I suggested to Buntha we find a different launch point.
Lilac studded waterway
Back on the road or river, easy sailing or paddling to where we reached the plughole, a narrow gap in the banks that funnelled the river flow, directing it to spill in a big mess across the countryside.
Valiantly we hauled ourselves through the rope like vegetation past flesh ripping rattan thorns and ended up in a leech infested swamp.
I went off to investigate and after 500 m found a small stream presumably heading towards the river, which we had rather carelessly lost at this stage in our expedition.
‘Tow na?’ Buntha asked a passing cowherd. ‘Arrrrgh,’ he was dumb. None the wiser we launched into the stream through a rice field then came to a halt as it too disappeared into impenetrable bush.
Down the plughole
‘Its all part of the adventure!’ I cried. Buntha looked nonplussed. We packed up the kayak and set off along a lovely sandy path in search of somewhere to paddle. A fringe of forest lay ahead, which in all fairness really should be the Baray, confirmed by a man in a ditch. Our way twisted between stilted wooden houses dishevelled with detail emerging on the road by the Baray.
Sokun where are you?’ ‘I can’t get my tuktuk round.’ ‘Nothing for it Buntha, lets pump up and paddle across.’ I said giving him an over cheerful grin, he responded with a theatrical groan.
Setting off across the Baray & the South West Corner (below)
The vast waters of the West Baray stretched into the distance. ‘You said 2km,’ Buntha accused me. ‘2 + 2 + 2,’ I smiled slurping my beer and pulling off a piece of chicken as we swung in our hammocks in the Khmer resort at the South West corner of the Baray just spying the far side where we’d come from.
The Khmer Resort on the Baray
Indochine Exploration has cycling and kayaking adventures around the West Baray and Tonle Sap Lake along recce’d routes but we’re happy to explore and get a little lost with guests on foot, by bike and kayak.
*Puok to give some context is a small market town about 15km West of Siem Reap that tends to get overlooked but is a useful cross roads to adventures in all directions.
A Kulen Mountain Adventure
Our quest was to seek out the Silver Langur in the forests of Kulen Mountain and whatever other wildlife came our way.
‘Nick I’ve been to Corbett, Kana and Tadoba in India. The Serengeti, The Okavango, etc in Africa, but I don’t expect much.’ Hmmm – no pressure then, I thought. Kulen’s steeped in historical significance as the birthplace of the Angkorian Empire with some amazing relics hidden in the forest. There is wildlife including the fabled langur but it’s not, I hesitated, quite in the same league. ‘No worries, no worries,’ muttered John, our guest for the adventure.
Our next hurdle was the army who suspiciously studied our van, even a barang (foreigner) couldn’t need that amount of stuff for one day on Kulen, eventually they let us past the toll. Safely ensconced in the ramshackle Ministry of Environment (MoE) HQ, the different strands of expedition started to come together beginning with strong black Vietnamese coffee from the stall opposite. After the usual pfaff we set off, striding through the forest with Mr Nai our MoE ranger and dog, she hadn’t got a name.
Setting off on The Kulen Trail with Buntha, Nai & John
It was a lovely walk shaded from the sun by the dark green canopies of tall trees still flushed with rain. As we passed Phum Thmei (lit; new village), the stony ground had little moisture so the mixed evergreen gave way to a warmer shade of dry deciduous forest. It was a beautiful morning, the hot sun shining in a blue sky cooled by winds from the North. The humidity had plummeted and sweat vaporised while doing its job.
Dog had stuck with us, prancing with excitement at the slightest whiff of wildlife, which didn’t exactly help our chances of seeing any. She also had a habit of rolling in whatever stagnant liquid we passed by though there was no way she was going near the nice clean cool clear streams we had to cross, so we smelt her presence as well as heard and saw it.
The Sra Domrey was every bit as magical as always. A two-thirds life size elephant carved out of the rock surrounded by three slightly doubtful lions and a distinctly dubious Nandi the bull.
Sra Domrey a VIV century Hindu carving
We let the sense of mystical spirituality soak into our souls as we munched Dean’s sobu noodle salad.
Inexplicably the monks beside the bat cave were clad in fake leopard skin as we passed by a little unsure as to the appropriate etiquette for the situation and entered into the dark smelly dampness. Small bats stirred in the powerful beam of my torch and forayed across the kitch gilt of a Buddhist shrine. More kitch in the form of golden Buddhas, silver stupas and white concrete elephants at Wat Preah Kraal, perched on the crest of a hill with views back over the plains of Siem Reap Province to the Tonle Sap Lake.
Downhill all the way to our campsite where Kuong, our van driver and Chomran from the local village had done us proud and chosen a stunning location perfectly placed above the banks of the fast flowing Kulen River. John’s tent was up and a kettle boiling on the campfire. With a sigh of contentment we drank our tea and ate adventure bars.
The water was cool, deep and invigorating after our long walk. As dusk descended dinner was served, a duck casserole courtesy of Miss Wong with vegetables and rice cooked by Chomran followed by fruit salad.
The trees towering above us appeared vast in the dim light. We caught glimpses of a star studded night sky in between the branches. Dog, who was actually very sweet, was still with us but sensing the seriousness of our quest as we set off on a night walk, kept quiet as our torch beams played through the forest in search of it’s tenants. We walked all the way to the Bat Cave keeping our voices to whispers as we anticipated what we might meet. Are there still leopards on Kulen? I thought, but to no avail.
Our Campsite beside the Kulen River
A couple of sleeping birds concluded out watch list. A scratching sound coming from the ground intrigued me until I shone my torch over a troop of termites marching through the leaves. There were spiders of course but no langurs. The forest magical and mysterious at night was reward enough for our efforts.
John could keep his cot and safari tent, my view of the stars shining bright in the clear sky was more than compensation for the slightly strange angle I lay contorted by the hammock and anyway what were Valium for.
The next morning when we woke the coffee was brewed and the table laid. It was a champagne day. We were in no particular hurry, content to eat fruit, sip coffee and watch and listen to the clear water rushing over the rocks below us.
A forest giant
The Langur Trail is a lovely walk, winding its way under a leafy roof many metres above. The Bat Cave marks the beginning of boulder forest, fantastical formations of sandstone the size of houses. One such known as Mushroom Rock afforded views over what appeared as an unbroken wooded valley. Birdsong rang, squirrels barked and insects of every imaginable shape and form fluttered, flew, crouched, quivered and hung but the langurs remained resolutely reclused.
We’d made it back to where we started from, Preah Ang Thom for another cup of muddy Vietnamese coffee and road kill chicken (so named because its flattened to facilitate cooking over the charcoal fire). John went to look at the linga and reclining Buddha with Buntha while I arranged our pick up with Kuong.
Mushroom Rock in the boulder forest (actually taken by camera trap capturing not only the Silver Langurs but also Pig-tailed Macaque)
A forest of lianas on the way to Preah Ang Chup
Phnom Kulen was an isolated island until the beginning of this century when the road was built. A set of steep steps up to Preah Ang Chup was the only way up before and now our route on our final leg of the Kulen adventure. The more times I walk the different trails the more identity they assume. One is not like another but it’s beyond my ability to describe the difference. Suffice to say our last 5km was not the same as where we had been before and fuelled our excitement and enthusiasm to the end. Who needs langurs.
Indochine Exploration organises day trips and overnight expeditions (or longer) to experience the forest and its wildlife, including langurs – sometimes. Either on foot or on challenging mountain bike rides.
The steps up to Preah Ang Chup, the only entry point to Kulen until early 20th century (compare the current concrete domreys with their Angkorian cousin in the forest)