Just Me & the Cambodian Countryside

Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap is actually pretty small considering its reputation as a heavily trafficked gateway to Angkor Wat; you can make your way around the city’s edges on a push bike in a couple of hours. It costs $1 a day to rent one of these bikes (you can have it from 5AM-9PM) and I would recommend it to anyone. The landscape is particularly flat so riding is easy. You can bike to temples or follow the winding river through the city and to the countryside. Biking is also an awesome mode of transportation in Siem Reap because of the slower pace; there’s plenty to see that you easily miss speeding past on a motorbike or in a car. You just have to be comfortable with the knowledge that Cambodia has no road rules. It’s every man for himself out here, and nobody wears helmets. 

I peddled toward Angkor Wat, hoping to find the colony of monkeys I’d seen rummaging around in the grass on the roadside the day before. As I made my way out of the city, I found a demolished temple. The faded red and gold-painted arch around the doorway was all that was left of the structure. I locked my bike to a tree and wandered through the uncut grass, my Converses crunching through thick layers of rust and wine-colored leaves underfoot. In the back of my mind I couldn’t help thinking about the large native populations of cobras in Cambodia, but I wouldn’t let that fear stop me from adventuring. I was riding a What-Would-Indiana-Jones-Do high. Just out of sight of the main road I found myself facing an abandoned schoolhouse. It looked like it had either been half-built and construction had suddenly halted or the building had been abandoned and then someone had violently ripped out half the floorboards, walls and chunks of the roof material. There was a surreal statue garden deeper down a pathway away from the road; gold and silver shapes glinted between rotting vines and over dead, overgrown weeds. The figures stood half-visible and half-ruined, overtaken by the surrounding brush.

Once I’d made my way more into the countryside, I ran into a little boy no older than nine herding a group of water buffalo through a marsh. He spoke no English and the only word I knew in Khmer was “akun” (thank you), but he let me hang out with the gentle beasts as they grazed. I watched while he wrestled with a muddy calf who playfully head butted him until the boy rolled onto the ground and let the beast nuzzle him. I’ve heard a few rumors about water buffalos being more than a little dangerous, but these guys were calmer than the local cattle and more friendly, too. 

After the water buffalo, I made my way to Angkor Wat, where I munched on a mango from a roadside fruit stand and waited until the park closed (otherwise I’d have to pay $20 to get into the site). I still wanted to see if I could capture a few interesting monkey photos. I’d been warned repeatedly that they bite and to stay at least a couple meters away, but I figured if I followed that rule then they would leave me alone. What I didn’t count on was meeting one on the road. 

I’d spotted a few monkeys in the trees in a park across the street and was waiting for the traffic to subside when one wandered right up beside me and waited with me. It was big, maybe the size of a toddler, and had fearless, intelligent green and gold-speckled eyes that shone from its pink face. When I crossed, it crossed. Shit, my camera’s still in my backpack and here’s my chance! I thought. I sped up, hoping the monkey would stick around for a minute so I could get a good shot.

As soon as we’d made it to the park, I threw down my bike and tore the zipper of my backpack open. In my haste to grab my camera, I dropped my open backpack. It fell into the dust beside my bike. The monkey was only a few feet away. My trembling fingers struggled with the lens cap. The monkey watched me, recognizing my incompetence, and slowly turned its face toward my open bag. Then it turned back to me, its eyes sparkling mischievously. 

I wondered what it was thinking, and then I remembered that monkeys are known for stealing sunglasses, phones, and food from unwitting tourists. But it was too late. The scoundrel was already lunging for my bag, leaping on all fours and positioning itself with the pack in its lap. Before I could react it stuck its sharp little claw right into the unzipped pocket and began digging around.

I went into panic mode. If that little shit steals my phone…The consequences of pissing off a monkey just didn’t dawn on me at all. I was only thinking of how I couldn’t afford to buy another smartphone. I still held my camera in one hand, lens cap in the other. I slowly clipped it back on. The monkey seemed distracted, its fist full of the empty plastic bag that had held my mango. It unzipped the bag all the way so it could get a better look inside. 

1, 2, 3! My war cry sounded in my head. In a single motion I charged and snatched the bag, clutching it to my chest. The monkey let go, its eyes widening in surprise. I was shocked I’d gotten it back so easily and also stood there dumbstruck, not sure what to do next.

We stared at each other. And as we did, the monkey’s eyes grew chilly and menacing. It lifted its face and howled and when it did, another, slightly smaller monkey bounded over. The two hooted and the first monkey pointed at me. I took a step back. Maybe if I just move away slowly, they won’t-

The monkeys hurtled toward me on all fours, howling and baring their pinkie-finger long fangs. I stumbled back, still clenching my backpack and camera to my chest. The evil imps smelled my fear and sped up, rushing toward me. One snarled and swiped at my ankle with an outstretched claw.

I turned and bolted, letting out a girlish shriek as I fled through the parking lot. When I glanced over my shoulder, I saw they were still close on my tail, lashing out at my calves and gnashing their teeth. The chase lasted maybe thirty seconds, but it felt like hours. Finally, the first monkey called it off with a derisive hoot of laughter. They wandered up the nearest tree, bored with their game. I doubled over, catching my breath. My heart thumped hard in my chest. I shook and checked my ankles. No bites, no claw marks; I couldn’t believe I didn’t have rabies. I thought about that woman in America who was attacked by her pet chimp and had to have her face surgically reconstructed. From the other side of the park I heard tuk tuk drivers chuckling and when I glared at them, they pointed at me and laughed harder.

One driver, who had been throwing rocks at a monkey sitting in the tree above his car, called out to me. When I looked over, he bared his teeth and bit the air. He shook a single, condescending index finger at me. Yeah, I fucking get it, I thought. They bite. 

I still didn’t have my monkey photograph, though. I spent the next half hour crouched behind a tree, snagging photos of them when they seemed too occupied to notice me. I didn’t want to risk another attack.


  • Push bike: $1
  • Water: $0.25-0.75
  • Street snacks: $1-2 

Travel Tips:

  • If you are looking to rent a push bike or moped, be sure to bring your passport or driver’s license with you. They often keep it for insurance purposes while you’re out, and won’t rent unless you give them one.
  • Landmarks are key to adventuring by yourself. Make sure you always bring a map or are taking mental note of everything around you.
  • Don’t step in mud! I had a bad case of itchy bug bites on my feet after the water buffalo incident. Not sure if there are now microscopic bugs living in my Converses or not…