Cycling is a vigorous activity usually taken up by more adventurous travelers. Whether in the city or on the open road, cyclists in Cambodia can see a lot from the seat of their bike. And with several cycle groups offering tours, it’s no longer a niche activity. Can more road users be convinced to swap an engine for a helmet and pedals?
Want a way to see panoramic views of the country at your own speed, and get fit in the process? Then cycling may be the activity for you. From the streets of Phnom Penh to the Cardamom Mountains, two-wheeled travel is a fantastic way to soak up some scenery and visit hard-to-reach locations.
There’s no better way to see the country than from the seat of a bike. Being out in the open air gives you a more intimate experience with the scenery around you, offering stunning views unobstructed by windshields or fellow passengers.
And Cambodia’s landscape makes it an ideal country for cycling. Not only are the endless rice paddies and half-submerged farmlands beautiful, they are also very flat. Most of the country is a vast plain, punctuated by limestone karsts and only rising into rolling mountains at the borders. This makes cycle tours much easier, as you don’t have to worry about scaling hills. Plus, these days the main roads are fairly reliable. There is usually a wide shoulder available that makes it easy to avoid motor vehicles. With a pair of thick tires, any route is possible.
And if you are after an authentic experience, traveling by bicycle is a great way to explore local life. On a bus or train, you are taken from stop to stop without really seeing the places in between. But on a bike, it is all about the in-between as you cruise through the landscape at your own speed, without a noisy engine accompanying you.
In Cambodia, life is lived beside the roads. You can stop and meet friendly people, visit the markets and shops, or pick up a refresher – you’ll never be far from a cold drink or some nutritious fruit to keep you going. Plus, most towns have massage shops so after a hard day on the road you can stop and get those muscles stretched.
Brett Seychell, founder and host at Social Cycles, can’t stress enough how cycling engages you with your environment. “Traveling by bicycle just breaks down all barriers. The slow travel means you get to see more. Stop at that local village and eat that incredibly local food, or meet that local person that you’ll remember forever. It is the unplanned and unintentional interactions that often provide the richest memories. You just can’t experience local culture looking out of a bus window.”
For those who want companions on their trip, there are several cycle groups operating out of Phnom Penh to get you going. These tour companies have tailor-made tours to take in the best of the Cambodian landscape, and can provide bikes, helmets and guides to make sure your trip runs smoothly.
Cambodia Walkers, as the name suggests, does walking tours but also operates a number of cycling trips, from in and around Phnom Penh to further afield. Cyclists can ride around the city by night, explore islands on the Mekong, or travel to Udong Mountain through the countryside, all with an experienced guide to show you the way.
Some of the views you can enjoy on a tour with Cambodia Walkers
A quick ferry crossing during a trip with Cambodia Walkers
Mr. Thong Chea is the owner of Cambodia Walkers, and he is an expert on routes around Phnom Penh. According to him, the cycle group aims to provide an active, experiential, and stunning travel experience in Cambodia. “We go local. With passionate people who travel adventurously, the customers enjoy themselves more and get a real life experience in Cambodia.”
At Cycle Island, founder Seny organizes tours for a large group of avid cyclists. He can usually be found riding around Koh Pich and Riverside in the evening. He customizes events and adventures and does a longer tour once a month, cycling out to the provinces. His motto is “Cycling for fun and good health.”
Social Cycles also puts emphasis on local experiences. “The purpose is to add a deeper element to your holiday by engaging with local NGOs and learning about local challenges and future strategies. It’s a great balance of adventure cycling, social impact and relaxation.” Brett says he started Social Cycles to give people the opportunity to learn about doing good without doing any harm in the process.
So what are some good routes to travel by bike? Chea recommends taking the back roads to Mekong islands, Udong, Phnom Chisor, Kampot, or Kirirom National Park. “But if you want to take a longer journey on the main roads and mix with off-road cycling, you can take a trip from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap around the Great Tonle Sap Lake and cycle the Mekong trail.”
Brett recommends getting off the beaten track. “If you live in Phnom Penh and are looking for an interesting destination, head south to Phnom Chisor. It’s about 60km from the city. Just ask google to give you a ‘walking’ route and you’ll find a way that avoids highways.”
And let’s not forget Cambodia’s world-renowned tourist destination – if you want to see Angkor Wat in your own way and avoid the crowds in the process, renting a bike is a great way to do it. By taking a bicycle you can design your own route and explore the places the standard bus or tuk tuk tours don’t reach.
Experiencing Khmer life with Social Cycles
Of course, traveling by bike is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint. Many cycle tour operators reflect this, stressing the environmentally-friendly nature of cycling. Chea says that not only is changing your mode of transport is the best solution for fighting climate change, it’s also good for sustainable development. “We are sensitive to the environment and interested in promoting sustainability wherever possible. Our tours bring many benefits to local farmers who can sell their products when we arrive.”
Social cycles also takes a sustainable approach, and their values attest to this. “We believe in two things. Learning from local experts to create a positive impact in the world by supporting transparent, ethical, sustainable and community based projects; and adventure travel.”
Seny stresses that cycling is not just beneficial to the environment – it’s also a fantastic way to get fit. Part of the objective of Cycle Island is to help people keep fit by exercising on their bike, rather than falling into patterns of work and sleep with no physical exertion.
Cycling can help fend off Alzheimers, can help you to concentrate, alleviates joint pain, and can reduce blood pressure. It’s particularly good for those who can’t usually find the time to exercise. By integrating cycling into your daily routine – for instance, by cycling to work or to the supermarket – you can kill two birds with one stone.
Cycling is a great way to keep fit
What does a new cyclist need to know? First off, you want to get insurance. That way, any damage to your bike is covered. You can get this from independent providers, or from the store where you buy your bike.
On long journeys, always carry a spare tube, pump, set of allen keys, and a little oil to get you out of sticky situations. And if that doesn’t work, someone will always be around to help. Most towns have roadside mechanics who can pump your tires or perform small repairs.
For spare parts or full services, it’s best to stop off in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, where you can find quality bike shops and experienced bike mechanics. Street 105 in Phnom Penh has many mechanics who can provide repairs or replacements.
While conditions in cities are good all year (though very busy during rush hour), it is best to avoid country roads during wet season June-October. Floods and muddy conditions can make traveling difficult.
• Get a good set of safety gear, including a helmet, lights and a bell. A helmet should have a strap under the chin and fit well so that it doesn’t move when you shake your head. Lights should be white at the front and red at the back, like on a car. And a bell will help alert other drivers and pedestrians of your presence.
• Reflective or brightly colored clothing will help drivers to see you on the road.
• Keep your bike serviced. Pumped tires and tight brakes will help you stop quickly if you need to.
• Always stop at a red traffic light.
• When stopped at traffic lights, watch out for motorbikes close by. Their exhaust can burn your leg!
• Make eye contact with other drivers at intersections to make sure they’ve seen you.
• Don’t overtake large vehicles on the inside, especially at intersections. They might turn into your path.
• If an intersection is very busy or dangerous, you can always get off your bike and cross the road like a pedestrian.
• Indicate by raising your arm when you intent to turn or pull out.
• If it’s raining, ride slower as surfaces may be slippery and it takes longer to stop.
• Watch out for potholes or drains at the edge of the road.
• Cycle a few feet away from parked cars to avoid being hit by doors opening.
• Don’t listen to music while you cycle, so that you can hear other vehicles.
• Try to plan your journey on smaller, quieter roads, or through parks.
If you’re starting out, Chea’s advice is to make a reservation for a tour with an established cycling group. “Customers will get more information about their trip, and more information for their preparation.” Initiate yourself into a group, and you will be surrounded by people with knowledge about routes and bike maintenance.
Build a network of cyclists and you will always have someone to fall back on for advice. Seny started his cycle group this way. At first it was just a few people taking cycling trips together, but soon more and more members gravitated towards him as a team leader. “I take good care of new members who don’t know how to use a bike or cycle in the right way.” Seny has even started a channel on Youtube, for those who want to learn before setting out by bike.
To buy a good quality bike, head to Giant, Cannondale, Merida, Trek and Specialized, all of which are available to buy in Phnom Penh. Check out Flying Bikes 2, Giant Bicycle Shop or Scott Bicycle Shop. You can even head over to the bike stores at Orussey Market to get a second-hand model.
If you aren’t ready to buy, you can always rent a bike. Cambodia Walkers offer Cannondale mountain bikes and helmets for rent for $7 per day. You can also hire a bike from Vicious Cycles or Giant stores.
So get up, get out, and get pedaling!
BY: OLIVIA DEHNAVI