As with most tourists, my trip to Siem Reap was purely motivated by the visit to the famous archaeological park—Angkor Wat. I wasn’t sure of other things to do besides that, so I followed a recommendation from a teacher friend for a Cambodia bicycle tour with the company Butterfly Tours. She said it was a unique opportunity to experience the Cambodian culture away from all the “touristy” things.
I took her up her offer, and it was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in Southeast Asia.
Butterfly Tours is a company that provides a multitude of tours around Cambodia utilizing tuk tuks, scooters, and bicycles. The tour guides are local university students who have a great knowledge of the English language and use this work opportunity to expand upon their communication. The money you spend on the tour goes right back to the community (I literally watched the guides hand the village people envelopes as we toured).
The experience you get with Butterfly Tours—priceless.
I chose the “Off the Beaten Track” Tour which came to $33 USD and lasted around 6 hours. The tour’s itinerary included a stop at the rice fields, a basket-weaving village, a rice wine distillery, a clay-making village, and a local market. A mountain bike, helmet, and water were included. Transportation to and from your accommodation was also provided. Vuthy was the name of my tour guide, and I was accompanied by another lady traveler from New Zealand (Kate).
After testing out our bikes and getting a quick run-down of the schedule, we peddled off to our first stop—the rice fields. Vuthy took us through the back country-side roads of Siem Reap. The trek went through red-dirt roads, along rivers and streams, and passed the simple shacks of the local people.
Children waved and said “hello” as we rode by, the sun shown down through a blue cloudy sky, and I was in a state of pure bliss cruising along.
When we got to the rice fields, Vuthy began a conversation about Cambodian culture and historical facts, and was able to answer every question our curious minds threw at him. As we were chatting, a group of local Cambodian children ran up to us through the fields with no shoes on. They greeted us with “hellos” and smiles. We shared simple sentences, hugs, and a few photos. Then an older child came through on a motorbike, piled them all on, and they were off.
I carried their innocent presence with me as I continued cycling along.
Next stop was at a local basket-weaving village. We rode into the property of a woman whom we found sitting underneath her home, making a basket. Her three children were swinging in a hammock beside her, reading books.
Vuthy explained to us that this woman wakes up at 3 AM everyday, takes a four-hour ride (one way) to get the basket-making materials, then comes back and makes two baskets per day.
I was blessed with the opportunity to sit beside this woman as she showed me her craft, and helped her weave a few layers of a basket. The connection I felt with her was effortless. I could feel her sense of joy in having a life that is simple, yet hard.
This moment opened my eyes to the way that most Cambodian people live, and I was truly humbled.
Stop three was at a rice wine distillery. The set up was simple, but intricate in design. We investigated a load of rice spread out on a slab of concrete as Vuthy explained the wine-making process while pointing out the different “machines” that were used.
We were greeted by the family who owned the property, and their farm animals (which included three of the cutest little piglets I’ve ever seen). After the entire process was discussed, we had the opportunity to sip the final product—boy is that stuff strong!
Vuthy shared some snacks with Kate and I, and explained to us how it is common in Cambodian culture to eat snacks while you drink (in the same way that most people use “chasers”, Cambodian people use snacks instead).
Next was a stop at a local clay-making village, where entire families make clay piggy banks—from the young children to the grandparents.
We saw nearly hundreds of piggy banks sprawled out in the front of the house, next to their clay molds. As we toured the family’s property, we witnessed a woman mixing the clay, and another pouring some into a mold. I was able to peek into the brick kiln and saw piggy banks of pig, frog, elephant, and Minion characters.
We continued along to the area where they painted the vivid-colored piggy banks, and I stopped for a quick picture when I found my prince charming (a frog piggy bank) hidden in the pile.
We got back on the bikes and rode along through the jungle-lined, back-road path, passing by more talkative children and local Cambodian people.
Vuthy stopped us on the side of the road and treated us to a fresh coconut (the first one I’ve had since I moved to Southeast Asia, believe it or not!).
After we drank the hydrating coconut water and scraped the sweet jelly from the shell, we began heading to the next stop—the local market.
As we rolled along, the thunder rolled in; and just like all storms in Southeast Asia, we were soon greeted with a monsoon of rain within seconds.
We packed all our valuables in Vuthy’s waterproof bag and peddled along the puddles to the market. Drenched in the warm wet rain, we took cover at the market and chatted with the local vendors. When the rain slightly gave up, we made our way back to the Butterfly Tours office.
Biking along through the storm, I began to reminisce on my day. I experienced for the first time how another culture lives life with so little. I witnessed people sleeping in hammocks, children running around with no shoes on, and families eating on the dirt floor—all with a genuine smile on their face, and in their eyes. In every person I could feel their happiness with the simplicity of this way of life, and the resilience in their hearts.
I rode past children playing in rain puddles, covered in dirt, as I too was covered in rain and red clay. A moment that may have seemed physically uncomfortable to an outsider was a moment of pure gratitude and joy for me.
After making it back to the office and saying my goodbyes, I got into the tuk tuk and rode back to my hostel. My clothes were soaked from the rain, but my heart soaked with grace from this unforgettable experience.