Besides the world-famous temples of Angkor, I arrived in Siem Reap without much knowledge of the city at all. I hadn't had much chance to research things to do before arriving and it was the first time I'd really been travelling completely solo since starting this journey. Luckily for me, a woman overheard a conversation between myself and some new friends about things to do off the beaten track here. I was beckoned over and handed a wrinkled paper card which read 'SIEM REAP MOTOR MYSTERY TOUR'. "If you're looking for something different, this is it," she told me, and I was immediately intrigued.
With two days set aside for the Angkor temples and just three days in the city, the following day was the only chance to get on this tour. I arrived home at midnight and eagerly sent an email to the only point of communication on the card, worried that I'd missed my chance. 1:00am I received a reply from Bun, the creator of this weird and wonderful mystery tour, "Thanks Alex! I'll pick you up at 2pm tomorrow!". That was it. Still a complete mystery, but that was absolutely fine with me.
At 2pm I was greeted outside my hostel by Bun, a friendly 30-something local, full of laughter and animation. As we started our journey I asked him about the mystery tour and how it got its name and his reply left me feeling both apprehensive and excited. He said, "I call it a mystery tour because neither you or I have any idea what we're going to do in the next four hours." He explained to me that he had grown up around the jungle and the slums, and in turn the outskirts of the city. He had practiced locally as a monk for two years before educating himself and studying at university. He knows this place better than anyone and when people visit his home, he wants their experience to be as authentic and as real as possible. It was at that point I realised today could either be a disaster or it could be magnificent.
On scooters, we travelled outside the busy centre of Siem Reap and within a couple minutes, Bun had us speeding away from the city and into the vast open countryside. We stopped at a small farm area and he proceeded to tell me the story of the family that were working around the crops. The mother had been married twenty years ago and had children, but during the Khmer Rouge regime, her husband was murdered. He pointed to a tall palm tree and told me that he had been hung from this exact tree. The smile left my face instantly. He told me that she had eventually re-married and had three more children and before I knew it, I was being introduced. The youngest girl grabbed me by the hand as I helped her harvest the field and led me through the farm she had worked on since she could walk. All of my apprehensions about the day vanished and I was certain that in four hours time I would have experienced things no regular tour could have offered me.
We set off once more through the neighbouring villages, following the dirt roads that connected these small communities. We passed by a group of women cooking and after a few words from Bun they beckoned us in to join them, laying down bowls of rice soup before us as soon as we sat down. I asked Bun how he knew them and he told me he didn't, and that this was simply the Khmer way. After eating I walked into the garden and found an elderly lady hanging her washed clothes up on a line. She was so famished and thin. The lines of her face spoke a thousand words, but her lips were tightly sealed in a knowing smile. Bun joined me and worked as translator, explaining to me that she was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and had lost many family members to harsh terrors of this genocidal campaign. We shared a moment watching each other as Bun spoke, and I suddenly felt so small. So greedy. So lucky, and ungrateful for everything I've had at my feet back home.
We worked our way through the villages, heading further and further away from the centre of the city and out into the country side. We passed by temples and pagoda's, families and workers. One man was chopping up a snake he'd come across in the fields to make snake soup for his family while his son walked around wearing the most incredible Mickey Mouse one-piece. The best thing was, we never just passed by. Bun, as intrigued as I was, stopped everywhere to talk to these people and share their stories and experiences with me.
Eventually, we left the villages behind us and entered the slums of Siem Reap. A bleak and impoverished part of the countryside, covered in dry sand and half-destroyed houses. As soon as we arrived into the open stretch of the seemingly empty slums, kids started to run towards us from out of nowhere, smiles stretched across their cheeks. Guests meant food. I reached into my bag and pulled out the huge bag of Oreo's I had bought in anticipation for a moment like this and started to fill the empty outstretched hands of these children who looked up at Bun and I as saints. One of the older boys donning a Argentina kit told us of a football match about to commence. I gave Bun a nod and the kid jumped on his scooter to show us the way. Soon enough we arrived a bumpy, open lay of land. A collection of teenage boys stood in the sun, topless and sweaty with a football in the centre, waving at the foreigner to join them. I took of my t-shirt and shoes and head onto the 'pitch', but after half an hour of intense football under the raging sun, Bun and I admitted defeat and left the game to continue our adventure.
We rode fast through the bumpy serpentine roads of the slums until we reached a long stretch, bracketed by tiny wooden houses with vast lakes and fields behind them. Bun sped ahead as I took my time on this road, watching either side of me as families greeted this unfamiliar outsider. The kids yelled hello's at me with great teethy smiles as their elders nodded in welcome. Almost every single family stood out to watch me ride by on my bike and I shared smiles with all of them. It felt so surreal. I've been through places similar to this, not quite as real. The difference was, I'd always gone with a group, or on a tour, most often to places that tourists have passed through many times before. This time around I was completely on my own, and the way the people looked at me, I couldn't help but feel like visitors didn't come this way very often.
I finally caught up with Bun at the top of this stretch. He'd settled at a small area in the middle of this road, the perfect sunset spot. We stopped and watched and talked about the day as I took photos of the landscape as Bun meditated. As we made our way back home against a deep amber sky, I felt really happy to have met Bun. A single Dad, he didn't have the time or money to travel, although it was his biggest passion. Instead, he spent every day sharing his world with people from all over the globe. I would recommend his tour to anyone visiting Siem Reap, but don't expect the same experiences as I had. It will still be one big mystery for the both of you.