Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Happy Ranch, Siem Reap, Cambodia

(Adapted from Rachel's 2008 Cambodia travelogue. Unfortunately there are no photos!)

There's something vaguely, charmingly dodgy about Cambodia. The roads are dusty, the traffic is of that genially lethal quality that you get when large numbers of insouciantly ridden motorcycles are combined with rattle-deathtrap cars running on the village's bootleg fuel. The fields were undulating, a verdant emerald green that made you think of Vietnam war movies, dotted here and there by a pensive water buffalo. The people were almost uncommonly friendly: I don't think I've ever had a child wave a giant spider at me by way of greeting before or been treated to a lengthy discourse on corruption in schools by a driver named Phat.

Most people go to Siem Reap to take in Angkor Wat, but after three days of sculpture and stone we were quite templed out and other diversions were accordingly sought out.

Accordingly, we went riding on two of the days, our nice guides and instructors hailing from Siem Reap's Happy Ranch. Everything in Cambodia is called "happy something" for some reason; I theorised that this is because being "happy" is something of great novelty and importance after the Khmer Rouge.

The Happy Ranch, founded by Mr Sary, touts itself as "the only Western-style horse ranch in Cambodia" and is 20 minutes away from the main streets of Sieam Reap by tuk tuk. The tack was of good quality, though a bit makeshift: some of the horses had rope for bridles and stirrups that looked like they were made out of what used to be rubber tyres. The horses were of a small, intelligent Cambodian breed, and there were well fed and groomed.

The first occasion was a rather ambitious one for the Boyfriend, him being the equestrian virgin than he was. We went on a two-hour trail ride together with two Cambodian guides to Wat Athvey, a cluster of small temple ruins way off the beaten tourist track. The ride took us through landscape that looked like it came out of The Killing Fields, with paddyfields as far as the eye could see; random loud ethnic music, complete with drum and cymbals, issuing from a house under construction in the middle of nowhere; some guy riding a motorcycle to which a horse was conveniently tethered. There was the odd water buffalo wading through the paddy. It was utterly beautiful in that rustic simplicity sort of way.

The countryside was dotted with all sorts of interesting sights, from plots still being de-mined to roadside vendors hawking all sorts of weird and wonderful things. We passed Nissen huts donated by Japanese charities, boys leading cows to the fields and then back home again, children leaping into muddy pools and pulling out small fish, women carrying their babies and shouting out the usual litanies of "Hello! Bye Bye! Bonjour!"

Unfortunately the Boyfriend got into several sticky situations, especially one involving the horse tethered to the motorcycle. His mount, a horse named - yes, you guessed it - Happy, decided it didn't like the tethered chap and they both got into a bit of an altercation. Nevertheless, Boyfriend managed to stay on and look appropriately terrified.

The second time we went, it was for a lesson with one of the European instructors. Unfortunately I cannot remember her name, but she was relaxed, competent and - a rare quality in riding instructors - not at all shouty. It was mostly flat-work, and the Boyfriend picked up a lot while I aptly demonstrated my rustiness with the canter.

The Happy Ranch provides several trail and lessons options for its riders, including day trips to Phnom Krom. More experienced groups can canter and gallop, but less confident riders are also catered for and have the option of enjoying the scenery at a comfortable trot. My only regret is that I didn't get to ride for longer!

For Information and Rates:
The Happy Ranch, Siem Reap

Trail rates start from US$19 for an hour to US$64 for four hours
Classes start from US$19 for a one-hour group lesson to US$25 for a private lesson

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