DIY Bicycling to Silk Island in Phnom Penh

Several Phnom Penh travel companies offer tours to the bucolic Silk Island started at about $25 per person. A couple of my friends highly recommend it, but my brother and I have a bit of an aversion to guided tours and spending money on things we could do on our own. With that in mind, Mark and I ventured on our own for a loop that included three ferry rides, 50 kilometers of riding and less than $15 spent total after we stuffed ourselves with all sorts of snacks.

Here’s a map I made pointing out some of the key locations.

silkisland

Leaving the City

City bicycles can be rented for about $2 a day or less, but they’re no fun on potholed dirt roads and long distances. I own a nice mountain bike already, so we splurged on a rental mountain bike (Giant Rincon 2012 model) for Mark from Vicious Cycles on st. 144 for $9. From there, we rode north to National Highway 6a and the Japanese Bridge.

A new bridge is being built adjacent to the old one. Making it up the existing bridge – which is one of the only hills in Phnom Penh, requires effort on a bicycle. Before we reached the crest, Mark’s water bottle holder broke and his drink tumbled on the ground in heavy traffic. Superstitious types might see that as an omen of things to come. They’d be wrong in this case, as that was the extent of our problems.

Finding the Ferry to Silk Island and Okhna Tei Island

Phnom Penh beyond the Japanese Bridge is rife with development and strangeness. Massive hotels and condos seem to be mostly empty, while the number of upscale Cambodian restaurants do good business on the weekends with well-to-do government officials. I can’t imagine the many isolated luxury developments will do too well, but at the moment they have a shiny brand-new look.

On the way to silk island

The ferry is 5 kilometers away from the bridge but there are no signs if you stay on the unpleasant highway. When I went this route before, I went way too far and ended up riding on the busy road for 14 kilometers before I found another ferry. The trick is to turn into the large temple a couple kilometers away and then head north on the side road adjacent to the river. You might be lucky enough to see some kids training as dragons for parades. You know you’re on the right path if you see lots of restaurants along the way.

The Silk Island/Koh Dach ferry is easy to find on this small road. We were charged about 1,000 riel to board  the boat and we were dropped off on the southernmost tip of the island.

Cruising Around the Silk Island

Silk Island gets its name from the many families weaving silk from their homes. Almost every other house seems to have a loom underneath their floors. Young sellers often wait off the ferry to offers their wares and tours. It’s all quite interesting if you’re into that thing, but we were there to ride. Past the few shops and restaurants near the ferry are wide open fields and beautiful river views. Farmers plow the land with water buffaloes and kids shout “hello!” whenever they see a foreigner.

mark visits-4069

We rode all the way to the top of the island and school was getting out. At least one hundred kids were bicycling in the opposite direction of us, and most of them said hello as we rode by. The kids ranged from older teens to youngsters just starting school and all of them seem amused by us pasty barangs on our big mountain bikes.

silk island beach

The northern tip of the island features a  lighthouse-like hotel and a small cafe. It costs 50 cents to get into the area, which during the dry season has a large beach with thatched huts to relax in. In December, the high waters went right up to the huts and there wasn’t much to see in this time of year.

Doubling back near the ferry, a bridge connects Silk Island to the smaller Koh Okhna Tei. We saw the skyscrapers of Phnom Penh from this bridge. The distance is tangibly close, after just a couple hours it felt like a world apart. Maybe it was the abundance of cows and a lack of heavy construction. Or perhaps it was the horse drawn carriages and dirt roads. We stopped for a moment to take it all in then continued to the other island.

Past a colorful temple on the riverbank is a tiny ferry that took us back to the mainland to the Areykasat Commune for 12 cents each. Look for the collapsed walkway/pier and a wide open field to see if you’re in the right area. That collapsed walkway stood out considering the lack of development on the islands. Some of the roads were paved, and there were a few beautiful homes and temples. Mostly, it was open space and modest traditional homes. I’m surprised the area hasn’t devolved into some Laos-like 4,000 Islands (Si Phan Don) backpacker dystopia considering the natural beauty and prime location. The three hotels with signs in English suggest that full-blown development is still a ways away.

The view from the ferry.
The view from the ferry.

Back on Land

smango resort

I’ve done the route around Areykasat several times before and it’s hard to become lost since the only place to go is north or south, aside from fun dirt road detours that eventually hook up to the main road. We cut into some of those dirt roads and sped as fast as we could on the main roads just for fun. On one of these side roads is the beautiful S Mango Resort House, which is unlike anything else in the area. This fancy resort with a few nice bungalows has a poolside bar, relatively expensive food and lots of peace and quiet. We had spring rolls for $3 and were temped to take a dip, but we didn’t have a change of clothes.

After some much-needed relaxation, we continued 5 kilometers south to the ferry that drops you off in the heart of Phnom Penh. We bicycled back to the rental shop through chaotic traffic and an unpleasant lack of shade. Was the countryside of Silk Island really just a 15 minutes ago? It seems hard to believe.

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Karge

Karge

I'm an American freelance writer who spent a couple years living in Cambodia. Now I'm on the move again and traveling all over the place. I'm willing to try any bizarre liquor that's presented to me. Any recommendations?