Golden Temple Villa
Coming to Siem Reap, the major tourism hub in Cambodia, we were certainly spoilt for choices with the wide range of accommodations available. From the luxurious 5-star hotels catered to fulfill every whim and need of the pampered tourist to the budget guesthouses suitable for those who are on a shoestring budget, selecting a place to stay, suddenly, proved to be quite a challenge. A quick glance at the Golden Temple Villa website revealed pictures of a hidden oasis tucked in a quiet street that is, also, ironically & unbelievably just a stone’s throw away from Pub Street, the heart of Siem Reap’s nightlife. The Balinese garden, complete with a water lotus pond and Buddhist structures, portrays such a picture of tranquility that I WAS SOLD immediately. Paying only USD18/night for a superior room with en-suite shower facilities was simply the icing on the cake! What a bargain!
The good: Free 20 mins Khmer massage (pay only USD3 more for an hour of Khmer massage but do take note that you get what you pay for :p ). Swaying in the hammock & lazing on the day bed in the evenings. Chilling in the lush green garden. Mouth-watering Khmer cuisine (only USD 7/set for 2 pax) at the guest house’s restaurant. The price.
The bad: Getting attacked by countless of mosquitoes while chilling at the alfresco area. The low water pressure from the shower.
According to the many reviews on TripAdvisor (my best friend when it comes to travel research), riding a horse through the picturesque Cambodian countryside has often been described as “a wonderful way to experience the real Siem Reap” and “an experience any visitor to Siem Reap should not miss”. Most tourists would begin their trip to Siem Reap with an unforgettable visit to the magnificent Angkor Wat; however, we decided to place our hopes in the #1 rank attraction – Happy Ranch – ( according to the rankings at Trip Advisor at that point of time) and settle on riding into the sunset to kick off our vacation. Boy, there were no regrets.
Aside from having a blast on our trip, my other intention (inspired by Shannon) was for us to give it a shot at picking up a new skill in a new country. Attending Khmer cooking classes is an insanely popular option amongst many tourists/travelers but honestly, I have never been quite the cook. Coming from a cosmopolitan and urbanized city like Singapore, the idea of riding a horse in the scenic countryside was indeed extremely tempting. Besides, this opportunity provided me with the perfect excuse to put those fundamental horse riding skills that I had picked up during a crash course in Malaysia to good practice. So, our goal = To learn a new skill in a new country!
MK’s views: Made our way to Happy Ranch via tuk tuk again! Had a fabulous time riding a horse all by myself. Holding the reins, I tried my best to control my naughty stallion that tried to bite other horses. Trotting was difficult at first as I felt out of control but it got better as the minutes passed. Before I know it, I was moving faster and faster with the wind in my hair in the countryside. The 2 hours long ride through the vast paddy fields in the countryside made me realize that I haven’t been slowing down my steps in Singapore and take the time to appreciate the things around me. The sight and smell of nature, made me feel at zen with myself.
Try picturing this sight: Clear blue skies. Lush green paddy fields. Palm trees that line the rocky pathway. A sunset on the horizon. This is a sight that city slickers like us find mesmerizing since we do not get to enjoy such a peaceful and serene view back home. Riding and trotting through the local villages and paddy fields, we caught glimpses of farmers working hard on harvesting rice, tied-up cows grazing in the fields (well, that’s what they seem to be doing all day long!), flocks of ducks waddling in the muddy ponds, villagers going about with their daily routines in the community and even a lady leading her water buffalo out of the fields. There was even once when a daring calf came within an arm’s length and started chasing after us and our horses. Young but very spirited. It was such a hilarious sight that I immediately burst into laughter. The pictures speak for themselves.
Breathtakingly gorgeous scenery aside, we were greeted by enthusiastic and friendly children from the villages throughout the 2.5hrs ride although the greetings were pretty limited to the following phrases, “Hello!”, “How are you?”, “Where are you from?”, “How old are you?” and “Bye-bye!”. Very often, it was a one-way conversation (the children are unlikely to understand your answers in English) but non-verbal and body language is universal. The smiles and waves were real & sincere. Riding a horse in a rural setting might be a novelty experience for both MK and me but I truly believe it’s the welcoming reception and hospitality that we received from the villagers and children that truly made this ride such a highlight. To me, it’s always the people that makes the difference – the difference whether it’s an ordinary or extraordinary experience.
Constructed: Late 11th Century C.E.
Style: Angkor Wat
Reign: King Suryavarman II
At one point of time during our countryside trail, we made a pit stop at the relatively untouristed and overlooked temple, Wat Athvea. Come to think of it, Wat Athvea was actually the only temple that we visited where we were the only tourists! So rare! According to our Siem Reap Angkor guide book, this sandstone temple, which is located a few km from the town, was probably left unfinished hence the lack of carvings and elaborated structures. Well, our first glimpse of a Cambodian temple in ruins (though I must say that it is in a pretty good condition for a temple that was constructed 1000 yrs ago) and a teaser to the majestic and spectacular temples & ruins that we are expecting to see in Angkor Park for the next couple of days.
Must see factor: ** out of 5 stars
Needless to say, we ended the memorable ride by enjoying the sunset on the horizon. It was our first beautiful sunset in Cambodia and who’s to know that we would end up viewing the sunset together for the next few days of our trip! FYI: I would strongly recommend interested parties, especially those living in the city, to take up either the sunrise or sunset horse riding package offered at Happy Ranch. Trust the reviews, there is no other reasons to explain why Happy Ranch is often rated the #1 or #2 attraction in TripAdvisor.
Upon our return, we were greeted by none other than the owner, Mr Sary Pann, himself. To be very honest, prior to meeting Mr Sary, I had this assumption that Happy Ranch is another “money-money machine” that was founded by an entrepreneur with the intention of capitalizing the country’s rapid tourism growth. After all, it is the only ranch in the whole of Cambodia that gives people – locals or tourists – the opportunity to ride a horse in the country. Of course, I soon realised how wrong I was to make a judgment so soon because to the contrary, Mr Sary turned out to be a real horse lover. It was clear that he has this burning passion for horses and that the welfare of the horses (and not blind profit-making) is of top priority. Taking some time out of his busy schedule, Mr Sary spent a good half an hour telling us about his story, the origins of Happy Ranch and its stable of 46 horses, introducing to us some of his stable-bred horses and the importance of importing good quality medication from Australia/Singapore/USA instead of neighboring countries.
Mr Sary had a dream of having his very own horse one day and through sheer determination and faith, he is now the proud owner of a highly successful horse ranch. 🙂