When we got to Siem Reap (strategically avoiding the burrito restaurant Viva) and took our first bike ride around the city (free bike rentals from our hostel The Siem Reap Hostel), we were immediately in love. We biked under the weeping willows along the river, found refuge from the heat on the beds at Peace Cafe and soon discovered our love of Sister Srey (one of the best cafes of Southeast Asia, one of seven best meals of Southeast Asia but still a point of international development controversy).
Not surprisingly, we loved visiting the temples. But the crowds, heat and overpriced everything made it a less than ideal tourist attraction. We only went once, skipping the three day pass and opting for a one day pass. Although after our second day we had already checked off the main attraction in Siem Reap, we loved the city and wanted to stay for longer. But we had nothing to fear, there is much more to do Siem Reap than just visit temples! Bloggers at Never Ending Voyage have an excellent guide for alternative activities. Unfortunately for us as backpackers with a tight budget, we couldn’t afford to do most of the things on their list. Although it was pricey, we were drawn to their description of horse riding at Happy Ranch.
Erin and Simon of Never Ending Voyage describe their horse riding excursion with Happy Ranch as eye-opening. They received great information and while on their horses saw rice farmers, water buffalo, and a Buddhist ceremony. The photos they published were stunning – just the thing my sister and I were looking for. Knowing it was going to be worth our time, we didn’t mind paying $46 for a 2 hour ride (that’s a huge sacrifice for a budget traveler; my typical budget was between $20-$40 per day).
What happened when we finally did go on our two hour ride was very different than Erin’s and Simon’s experience. Although we kept a good attitude and tried to goof around with our guide, it was nonetheless a very disappointing experience. The photos below were taken while on the horse which unfortunately was a bit more challenging than I had anticipated. Please excuse the poor quality.
The tour promised a cultural experience, visiting villages that aren’t typically tourist destinations and getting to know the people there. The above picture is a temple we passed. It took us over 30 minutes of horseback riding down paved roads and through a construction site of luxury hotels to reach this.
We continued past the temples without explanation. As we passed, many people were sitting in shops and watching small TV screens with a big antennas. The stores were stocked with packaged, manufactured snacks. Sometimes I saw fruit.
We continued walking along the road. By this point it had become a dirt path. The horses easily got scared by reckless motorbikes and tuk tuks. The houses were small huts, sometimes made of precarious materials and other times of concrete.
A few people started to notice us. This was the best part of the whole tour. Children would see us from afar and sprint to meet us at the edge of the road. They waved and jumped and the littlest ones would just scream and run in circles. The more outgoing of the bunch would scream “HI HOW ARE YOU” without fail. Although the adults were often more reserved, if their children were with them they would encourage them to wave and smile at us. Moments like this made us feel very welcome prancing about on a horse through their village.
Our guide spoke very little English. We are very lucky that he spoke any at all. However, we were paying a large sum, especially for the local prices. He was kindhearted, but it started to become irritating when we had questions. For example, as we rode through the village, we passed many women all in one building staring at us. A group of around 15 children were outside playing in a field across from them. There was a school, a few more convenience stores selling junk food, and more houses.
“What do most people do here?” I asked our guide. He started to laugh. He crinkled his forehead and shook his head. “I don’t know!” he shouted as if I asked the dumbest question possible. “This isn’t MY village!”
When he said that, I realized we wouldn’t be getting much cultural information. Still hopeful, I asked questions throughout the tour but got the same responses. How dare I be asking him these things! Either that, or he didn’t understand my question and ignored it.
There was one good piece of information that came from our guide: Cambodian women. We commented how there are many Westerners living in Siem Reap. “Yeah,” he said, “Cambodian women love Western man, because they pay for everything. We say ‘no money, no honey.'” At least it’s no secret why there are so many tiny women gallivanting about with European men in Siem Reap.
When we reached the village, our guide told us to get off our horses to have a break. Jennifer and I had to stretch our crotches out (painful!) so we walked a few feet down the path where the cows were grazing. This part, despite my annoyance at lack of information, was breathtaking. It was golden hour, my favorite part of the day, and it turned the fields glistening green. Everything became more radiant, and therefore more magical.
The man in the above photo was limping, he appeared to have a prosthetic leg. Even so, he was busy tending to his animals. He smiled at us and I attempted the Khmer I had watched in a YouTube video. He nodded and kept walking.
Even though I was disappointed with the tour with Happy Ranch itself, I was amazed by the warmth of the people we passed. I would get so sick of tourists if they walked through my neighborhood on horseback. Even though people pass through their villages all the time, they were kind, smiled, and didn’t appear to be bothered.