What does the seasoned world traveller do when they want an adventure but don't have the time to ride from the front door and head for the horizon? They get online, choose an exotic location and find an adventure travel company that has the right balance between the gear, guide and exploration.

Dave King did just that, booking in a week long trip through the heart of Cambodia with Red Dirt Tours. We caught up to find out more about a trip that took in the dirt but also embedded him in the culture and community of the 'Kingdom of Wonder'.



TRF:

Hi Dave, great to meet you. You've taken your motorbike all over the world, what have been your standout trips?

Dave:

It is very difficult to say; all trips have their adventures and moments of wonder. Travelling the length of Africa on a Suzuki DR600S in 1988 and 89 was a profound experience, partly because I was travelling for seven months and partly because at times it was like being in a different time period, if not on a different planet. Spending seven weeks riding the Trans Am Trail (TAT) with Danielle on our KTM 690Rs last year was also outstanding. It really brought home how large and varied the USA is and also how sparsely populated it is away from the main cities. In terms of organised trips, riding around the middle of the Sahara with Chris Scott in 2007 stands out because we were riding through areas with no evidence of human passage.

TRF:

You're obviously a seasoned traveller and handy on a motorbike. So what attracted you to Cambodia? Why not just book some flights and take yourself off on your own?

Dave:

We had not travelled South East Asia before and it had always intrigued us. It appeared to have a history and culture quite unlike anything we had experienced before. I looked at several trips on the internet but it was Tim’s Red Dirt Tour in Cambodia that grabbed me. It would have been nice to fly the KTMs out and spend longer in the region but there is only so much time away from work that we can get away with and supported trips mean that you can do and see a lot in a relatively short time.

TRF:

There's plenty of bike tours on offer in that part of the world that cater to all sorts of experiences. What attracted you to Red Dirt?

Dave:

The description of the trip and the (excellent) photos on the website covered the culture of the country as much as the riding. Talking to Tim confirmed that he had a real love of the country and its people and one of his aims was to share this with other riders. I got a good vibe from him; which turned out to be correct.

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Packing light, the key to success
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7 days through the heart of Cambodia

TRF:

Did you do much preparation before you left? I imagine your travel experience has taught you what to take and what to leave behind.

Dave:

We always take the minimum possible, indeed we have a standard checklist to which we refer ever trip, to make packing easier. The most important thing on any trip with off-road or dirt-road content is lightweight but protective riding gear, plus a backpack with water bladder. I used a Gore-Tex Klim Traverse jacket and trousers plus a Dainese one-piece mesh body armour with integral body belt. Most of the time this worked well but on a couple of days the high temperature and humidity resulted in me leaving the jacket off. Maybe a Forcefield body armour shirt, without a jacket (as recommended by Tim in his rider notes), would have been a better choice for the conditions. Gareth, one of the other riders, used this and thought it worked well.

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TRF:

So Cambodia. What's it like?

Dave:

Cambodia appeared to us to be shaped very much by two periods in its history. The first was at the height of the Khmer Empire, around AD800 to AD1300, when the great temples, such as Angkor Wat and Ta Promh (of ‘Tomb Raider’ fame) were built. The second was in the 1960s and 70s, with the Vietnam War, Cambodian civil war, Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot.

Strangely, for a country with such a troubled period in its relatively recent history, the people have a real warmth and kindness to them. An example of this is the traffic in the bigger towns and cities. Although it looks manic, it is all very co-operative, like a strange dance, and road rage is virtually inconceivable. Most Cambodians are Buddhist and this does seem to have a very positive effect on the way that they look at things.

Dan and I spent a few days in Phnom Penh, prior to the Red Dirt trip, looking at museums, markets, palaces, etc. and about a week in Siem Reap after the trip looking at temples, museums, and more temples. Our Christmas dinner was a bowl of Cornflakes outside Angkor Wat. We would recommend to anyone doing one of Tim’s tours to visit some of the temples around Siem Reap afterwards as they really are interesting. You actually come across temples in the jungle during the trip, one of which we camped at overnight.

TRF:

And the riding, it must have been pretty unique - especially to anyone who has only really experienced Europe?

Dave:

Away from the towns there are areas of real ‘Apocalypse Now’ jungle, which can be challenging to ride for the inexperienced. It certainly helps to be bike fit and to have some previous off-road riding experience.

Although the distance ridden each day was not massive, the riding was quite technical in places, often with tight, twisting tracks and surprise obstacles: holes, rocks, tree stumps, roots, ruts and washouts. You needed to concentrate.

In some areas we crossed areas of paddy fields by riding on the narrow banks that separate them. The tricky bit is trying to do a ninety degree turn at the junction between such banks; it is very easy to end up in the water.

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We also crossed some very interesting bridges. One, on the last day, was around fifty feet long, around fifteen feet above the water, four planks wide and with no guard rails. Only it was not four planks wide all the way across; sections were broken and missing. I crossed it by visualising riding along the white lines on the motorway, which I spend too much time doing back in England when the traffic jams up.

Red Dirt did an excellent job of getting us through this terrain, with first class guides and mechanic. The bikes they used were Honda XR250Rs and XR400Rs, which are tough, reliable and well suited to the terrain. A backup truck carried our main bags, following us where it could and meeting up at an agree point for the places where only bikes could get through. Most small towns have cold drinks, even when they have limited or no electricity, through the use of truck-delivered ice blocks and insulated containers.

TRF:

Do you think your experience was unique to Red Dirt's approach to operating tours in Cambodia?

Dave:

I have no experience of other operators in Cambodia but based on my experience of tour operators in other countries, I would not hesitate to recommend Red Dirt to anybody wanting to ride a bike in Cambodia. Tim has actually married a Cambodian woman, Fon, who he met while travelling in the country a few years ago and they now have a son. Tim has really embraced the Cambodian lifestyle and wants to share it, and his love of riding the country, with others.

TRF:

It sounds like you had a great time with the Red Dirt team. What's next?

Dave:

After our amazing trip to Arunachal Pradesh in India last December, We will probably be going back to the Himalayas or surrounding area this year; possibly to Nepal, Tibet or Tajikistan. Our biggest problem at the moment is too much World, too little leave. However, we certainly want to return to Cambodia at some time, maybe also riding to Vietnam, Thailand or Laos.


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TRF:

Hi Tim. Where are we chatting to you today? Sunny England or scorching Cambodia?

Tim:

Hi Greg, much as I’d love to be in Cambodia right now, I am busy organising the future of the Red Dirt Tour from our UK base in the southeast.

TRF:

It seems as though Cambodia has become the destination of choice for adventurous motorcycling. What's the situation on the ground over there?

Tim:

Well, to put it into perspective, it’s a country that only started opening up to tourism in the late 90s, a country largely undeveloped after years of civil war and foreign occupation. As a result of over 40 years of zero investment in infrastructure, the transport network really is an adventure rider’s dream! I just can’t emphasise enough how exhilarating the riding is out there. The are over 44,000 kilometres of roads, yet only about 3,000 of those are paved! That’s just 8%. The remaining 92% is made up of wide open red dirt graded roads – most of which run through huge plantations up in the northeast – flowing riverside tracks, tight single jungle trails, ancient sandy oxcart tracks, and simple path systems too. The river crossings are amazing fun, and most of the rural bridges can certainly get the pulse racing!

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The most hardcore off road riding can be found in the Cardamom Mountain range in the southwest, which during the wet season is impassable. Cambodia offers up a mix of everything terrain-wise; sand, mud, rock, river, mountain. Whether you are an adventure biker, trail rider, rock hopper, mudslinger or roost hound, Cambodia has it all.

I love riding trails in the UK and Cambodia, but out there you can ride for hours without hitting the black top.

There are plenty of options, logistically speaking. There are numerous motorcycle rental firms (though often the local police can shut these down and ban rentals for tourists periodically), day trip motorcycle tours, and several off road organisers. In fact the number of motorcycle tour companies in Cambodia has grown from just 1 in 1997 to 2004, and up to 26 in recent years!

So there are a lot to choose from, to suit all budgets and expectations. However I cannot stress enough how important it is in Cambodia to ensure your chosen operator has some basic legal obligations covered, and some basic form of medical support. If they’re covering the basic requirements, they are more likely to be taking their duty of care to you seriously.

The downside for clients is that the cost of doing things responsibly often means the tour cost reflects that. But hey, sometimes in life you get what you pay for. I know where I’d put my money if I was putting my safety in others’ hands.

Make sure they have a tourism license. Make sure if the tour is promoted online or in the UK that they have some form of trust account or bonding in place to protect your money in the event of supplier failure. And ensure the organiser has the appropriate Tour Operator’s Liability and Indemnity cover. It’s kind of like public liability for Tour Operators, means you will be covered against negligence by anyone in their supply chain.

This all might sound overly cautious, but when you are taking part in a high risk activity in a long haul destination, you really should cover these basics. You have to remember that the healthcare system in Cambodia is the same as its economy and education system – still in it’s infancy. Cambodia is not the place to become a healthcare tourist, so the absolute minimum you can do for yourself is ensure you have appropriate travel cover for riding off road out there.

Most operators are Western owned and run, using local guides, but naturally I’d have to say Red Dirt uses the most experienced guides out there (our teams having been putting dirt bike adventures together since the days Cambodia started opening up to visitors in 1997). We are also a family business, and hope to remain so in the years ahead.

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The Red Dirt Tour was set up as an annual event specifically to take place every December. As December is the first month of the dry season, it is also typically the coolest month of the year out there, so we felt riders would have a much more comfortable time in the saddle. Bear in mind that Cambodia can see temperatures in excess of 40C in the dry season, and when we hit the jungle trails on Day 3 of Red Dirt, the jungle temperatures are generally 10 to 15 degrees higher than the rest of the country. We want riders totally immersed in the experience rather than battling dehydration.

It’s also quite a good time to hit the tourist meccas before or after the tour ends, as they tend to be a (little) bit quieter around Christmas time. Most of our riders seem to prefer places that aren’t swamped with tourists, but my wife insists if you come to ride Cambodia with us, then you must take in the awesome temples in Siem Reap at the end of the tour. She is indomitably proud of that most famous Cambodian National Treasure, the almighty Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument on the planet, just like her fellow Khmers. We always spend Christmas Day there as a family (usually 25 of us), I call it a Buddhist Christmas. And it is a bustling, living place of worship every day for Khmer people. We make a point of making merit there at least once a month whilst in-country.

TRF:

How long has Red Dirt been up and running? I understand that Cambodia is more than a business location for you.

Tim:

Yes you understand right. Cambodia is our home primarily, then our business location second. My wife is Khmer, and we have an infant son who has just celebrated his first birthday! My family in the UK is far smaller and so much more nuclear than our Khmer contingent, so as a result we spend a lot of time out there, and will soon be based there permanently, mainly so my son forms a strong sense of connection to his family there, and also as it will simplify the adventure planning, and enable us to expand our offering.

As a specific tour Red Dirt was established in 2013. But the Red Dirt story really started back in 2009 when I met my wife out there. Her family invited me to stay with them for about two weeks (we had met on a previous trip to Southeast Asia). My wife showed me round the country, mainly by bus, boat and taxi. But being a dirt bike photographer and loving the green-laning and off road scene, I couldn’t wait to get back out to see her and the family again (and ride a dirt bike out there!). 2 months later I was back, establishing links with the riding community, and going on my own bike adventures with the full support of my father-in-law (a driver in Cambodia for 30 years) and brother-in-law. They did a great job of guiding me to all the cool places that Cambodians hold dear.

Cambodia is a place like no other in my eyes. The people are amongst the friendliest, most life loving and sincere that I have met in my travels. As an expat child, I have always had a bit of a wanderlust, but when I visited Cambodia, it was like I’d arrived home – again. I guess that was down to the state of development, landscape, climate and nature of the people reminding me so much of my upbringing in Zambia, central Africa in the 70s and 80s. In fact it was when I was a mere toddler in Zambia that my Dad took me to a national scrambling event in Ndola. I remember the thrill of watching these guys drop off into old river beds, and launch over old anthills. The noise of the bikes and the smell of mixed dirt, smoke, fuel and hot oil have stayed with me through the years, though I never got to ride dirt bikes in my youth, my wife encouraged me to reconnect with that passion, and hence the seed of Red Dirt was sown. So in a way, I guess Red Dirt was crystallising way back then in 1977, thanks to my dear Father!

Buddhism has always struck a chord with me too, from an early age, and visiting Cambodia really showed me how positive a Buddhist community can be. A lot of people come away with quite profound experiences out there, I am definitely not alone in my passion for the country and its people. For me, my profound, and life changing experience, was that I learned how to trust. Not people, or fate, but myself. The culture and the people showed me how to let go a little of the worries and fears that up till then had usually held me back from making worthwhile choices in life. Now because of that, I run a business I enjoy immensely, I have a closer connection with my family back here in the UK, and have made some great friends, but most of all have a happy wife and son! Cambodia really has been the catalyst in all of that, along with my wife’s words of wisdom… Don’t think too much!

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TRF:

When I spoke to Dave, one of the things that really struck me was that even though he was a very seasoned traveller, he was looking for a package experience that helped him get a little deeper into the culture of the country and community. Something that's difficult to pull off for someone who normally travels independently. How do you think Red Dirt managed to help make this happen?

Tim:

You know, I don’t really have a straight answer to that, I guess a few factors of how we run our tours contributed to Dave’s experience with us. But in a nut shell it would be down to the Red Dirt mission my wife established as the reason behind our business.

Adventure bikers and off road riders tend to be quite independent by their very nature, and seem to prefer self sufficiency as we often feel more accomplished when we have reached our destination independently. That thirst for challenge is what may hold some clients back from signing up to a tour, but that’s a shame. Most riders don’t have the time or cash to co-ordinate their own motorcycle adventure in a long haul destination like Cambodia. So that’s where we come in. Everyone on our team is an adventurer at heart, so we all share the same thirst as our clients.

The Red Dirt mission “To share the real Cambodia with the world one ride at a time, and help a Cambodian one ride at a time” was established by my wife. She said she wanted people to know the true Cambodia, not just what they read in books about the dark days during the Khmer Rouge regime, or by frequenting only the tourist hotspots. She wanted a business that would aim to support the poorer parts of Cambodia.

The whole point of our tours is to immerse riders in the real Cambodia. The Cambodia that is a world away from the mainstream tourist scene there. The dwellings and subsistence living out in the rural heart of Cambodia remains fairly unchanged for the past 1000 years.

The Red Dirt team and supply chain enables us to achieve that. Our guys create motorcycle adventures that confound any preconceptions of organised tours. The combined experience they have under their belts is unsurpassed out there.

The daily start points and destinations of Red Dirt remain the same for every tour, but the exact trails and routes we ride to them are never identical. We feel that if we travel through the same villages and farms without fail, that the sense of discovery on both sides of the bike would diminish over time. Most rest stops we use are not pre-ordained. We don’t fuel up at the same places every ride. That’s for 2 reasons. The first I have mentioned is that it would get old pretty quick for the Red Dirt team and the people we meet along the ride, gradually eroding that sense of adventure, and in my mind at least, that would inevitably be apparent to our client riders, and take the sheen off their authentic engagement with Cambodia too. Secondly, my wife would string me up if we did that! Bear in mind the second part of the Red Dirt mission is to help one of her fellow Cambodians on each ride. Now that’s no great statement of charitable aspiration. It’s just a Buddhist principle my wife insists we practice. Share the good fortune with everyone. The remote places we ride to, the poverty is absolute. If we turn up with a group of riders that all buy drinks or food, often the rest stop has just made more than it would in a month with our clients’ spend in one visit (especially if we’ve ridden them hard and everyone’s real thirsty). If we used the same guys each time, it wouldn’t be the Khmer way. It wouldn’t be Cambodian. And that’s the heart of our business, we want a mutually beneficial takeout for our riders and the communities we pass through.

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Currently the main tourist epicentres of Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, claim most of the tourism dollars, and the majority of the tourism industry is foreign owned, so the real benefits aren’t reaching the folks that really need it. My view is, it’s their country we are enjoying, so surely they should be benefiting the most as a collective.

We also involve everyone on tour and make decisions as a group. So if something comes up on the ground, our clients come first and we consult the group on the way forward. It is an adventure after all! We are there to facilitate their experience, not dictate or define it.

I strongly believe that when you travel to a country, the more you engage with its language, food, culture, customs and people, then the richer your whole experience will be. And that’s what we strive to bring to our clients. There’s always an omelette available for breakfast, but why don’t you try the spiced pork rice porridge once whilst you are out here?

TRF:

It sounds as though you personally have been quite moved by your connection with Cambodia and this is something that you are trying to help your clients experience. What are the key ingredients of a Red Dirt Tour? What do you want me to take away after I've spent a week with you?

Tim:

The key ingredients?

Sincere people. Great riding, great terrain, great adventure. Great shower every night. Great eating. And maybe the odd surprise.

Obviously I want you to leave us with a head full of awesome memories, and a desire to return. The smiling faces that greeted you along the way, and the sense of achievement you gained during your time with us. Hopefully you will leave with a new perspective on life, in some way or another, and with a hunger to share your experiences with those nearest and dearest to you.

But most of all, I want you to have thoroughly enjoyed your Red Dirt Ride. I want you to feel sad that it’s at an end, but happy to continue on to your next adventure, with some valuable saddle time gained in the Kingdom of Wonder. Who knows, that next adventure might be with the Red Dirt team once again.

TRF:

Finally, what's next for Red Dirt?

Tim:

Who knows. There are plans, and aims for the future of Red Dirt. But one thing I have learned out in the Kingdom of Wonder, is that John was quite right, life often happens while you are busy making other plans.

I have an Advanced Wilderness Medical Training course to complete in May, that improves my first aid skills up to being able to administer injections, and carry out minor emergency invasive techniques if ever needed. I am looking forward to that, and you never know in Cambodia when those skills might be beneficial to the communities we pass through, or in my family network out there.

The immediate future holds exciting potential, running big bike tours as well as the pure off road, and also getting involved with trekking too when the wet season is too challenging for dirt bike adventure. Offering bespoke tours to suit individuals or exclusive small groups will be more practical too — once we are living in Cambodia full time by the end of the year.

Our hopes for the future are setting up workshops to train young Khmers in the field of preventive maintenance of motorcycles, mechanic apprenticeships and medical training similar to the First Aid courses run in the UK by the St John’s Ambulance.

Also, as the developing of the road network is in full swing at the moment out there, lots of tracks are disappearing fast, as the locals start to favour the smooth stuff over the cross country routes. So there is an inkling we will get involved somehow over the coming years in preserving some of the favourite and most ancient highways and byways, a bit like the TRF maybe…



This article has been sponsored by Red Dirt Tour. All proceeds go towards helping the TRF conserve Green Roads in the UK. For more information about advertising with the TRF click here