In January 2014 I was contacted by Bill McCallum, whom I’d previously worked with at Phu Kham Copper Mine in Laos. He was interested in doing a tour with a group of friends at the end of the year so over the next 6 months we developed an itinerary that suited the group. The tour ended up being for 15 days, with a group of 11 people riding 3 different models of motorbike – Honda XR250 for taller riders, Honda CRF150 for shorter ones and Daelim 100 cc scooters which could be carried on a trailer when not required. I looked around at what rental bikes were available in Phnom Penh and found the best quality bikes were at Dara Moto. I booked 6 bikes, a trailer and also a mechanic, Tin Tin, who proved his worth many times during the tour.
My team were my wife Sreyda, her cousin Sakhorn who was the driver and his girlfriend Sak Kom assisted him, Tin Tin the mechanic and Sreyda’s nephew Vien assisted with mechanical work, carrying bags and loading the bus.
Sreyda and I met the group at Romdeng Restaurant, the night before the tour was to start. I also took Pastor Meng Aun Hour, a good friend from when I first came to Cambodia, to meet the group as they were fellow Christians and I saw it as a great opportunity for networking. A friend of the group, Rod Cope, also joined us. He’s lived in Phnom Penh for quite a few years.
I’d been trying to get Sakhorn to have a towbar fitted to his vehicle for about four months before the tour was due to start but it was only fitted about five days beforehand, and he didn’t pick up the trailer until the morning of the tour. Talk about “just in time” planning and preparation! For some reason in Cambodia, trailers behind cars are uncommon, why I don’t know. They will pull any size trailer with a motorbike yet you see every van with the back door up and objects packed well outside the extremities of the vehicle instead of towing a trailer. Fortunately Bill and I had decided the previous night to transport everyone to Dara’s bike shop by tuk tuk, because Sakhorn didn’t arrive with the trailer until 30 or 40 minutes after we’d arrived at the shop.
Soon after we set out along Sisowath Quay in search of a service station as most of the bikes were nearly empty. I’d lost sleep the previous night worrying how we’d keep the group together in busy Phnom Penh traffic but it went very well. Bill took a wrong turn but I quickly rounded him up, Tin Tin also stopped the group and turned back. Thankfully we were soon on the highway and out of the city. About 40 km out, we turned off the highway onto a secondary road which followed the Mekong all the way to Kampong Cham so the group could relax a little and enjoy the sights, sounds and smells of rural Cambodia.
In Kampong Cham we visited Kar Chuoy Dai Orphanage, an organisation I’ve supported since my first trip to Cambodia in 2009. I’d left the three Daelim scooters there a few days before so Kay, Naomi and Jo got used to riding the bikes around the orphanage grounds. Most of the children were at school so the group decided to wait for them to come back. The group wanted to contribute some money to the orphanage and ended up giving $270, which was gratefully received by Pastor Meng Hong and his wife Thoun. Hong is the brother of Meng Aun Hour, and was responsible for the family’s conversion to Christianity many years before.
After leaving the orphanage we crossed the bamboo bridge to Koh Paen, something that has to be experienced to believe. The bridge is over 400 metres long, the structure is made from thick bamboo poles and crossbeams, and the decking is bamboo matting which moves underneath your bike as you pass over it. It also creates a lot of noise as the bamboo bends and flattens out again. I was very pleased to see a car coming across as we rode back, until you see one drive across, and feel the bridge bending under the weight, it’s difficult to believe that it is possible. I think everyone was very impressed with the bridge! Soon it will be history, the government is constructing a new bridge which is due for completion in 2017.
Next morning at the Stung Trong ferry crossing, it was necessary for Sakhorn to reverse the trailer all the way down the approach ramp and onto the barge, a distance of about 100 metres. He’d never reversed one before so it was a very painful process. Fortunately it was fairly light so it was easier for Tin Tin, Sak Kom and Vien to drag the trailer straight every time it jack-knifed. It seemed to take a long time until the car and trailer were parked on the barge.
As Tin Tin was riding aboard he decided to pop a wheely but ended up falling off in front of everyone. Fortunately the only thing hurt was his pride.
After arriving in Kratie, we travelled by car and bike to Kampi to see the freshwater dolphins. We saw a few from the boats but afterwards, whilst watching the sunset from a high vantage point above the river we saw many of them. Maybe they understood the boats had retired for the evening and it was safe to show themselves. It was very serene and peaceful sitting there and nobody was in any hurry to leave.
The ride to Mondolkiri province next day was fairly slow due to a few mechanical issues along the way. Jo’s scooter had a broken shock absorber which Tin Tin replaced in Snuol. Sakhorn’s minibus lost a seal out of a CV joint and lost most of the oil out of the diff, however there was nowhere to have it repaired enroute. I was quite surprised that it made it all the way to Sen Monorom without damaging the diff, if it was my own vehicle I wouldn’t have tried but Sakhorn was confident he would make it.
The road started to climb into high country and was in excellent condition so we all had a great time on the bends, even the ladies on their scooters. Lunch was very late after arriving at the guesthouse, around 3 pm but worth the wait. Callum, an Aussie with a Khmer wife, ran a very good restaurant with a blend of Asian and Western food so we ended up there again that night, New Year’s Eve.
That night, I discussed the itinerary with Tin Tin and realised that I’d made a very big mistake planning to travel from Battambang to Koh Kong in one day, over the Cardamom Mountains. Tin Tin assured me it wasn’t possible. Another sleepless night, trying to come up with a solution.
Next morning, over breakfast, I discussed with the group what our options were from Battambang to Koh Kong. We decided to think about it during the day and discuss it further that evening. Afterwards we set out on what used to be called the Death Highway, heading for Banlung. Last time Sreyda and I had been that way, in 2011, one 60 km section had taken over 4 hours due to the loose sand, which at times was just a single track winding through the forest. We were a bit worried about the progress of the car, because the first few kilometres were quite rocky, but we’d only been stopped about 15 minutes at Koh Knek, about 100 km into the journey, when it arrived.
It was a good opportunity to have an early lunch so Sreyda and Sak Kom soon had baguettes and salad prepared, supplemented with coffee and sweet milk from the shop whose tables we’d occupied.
We stopped for a short break on the Srepok River bridge, a far cry from the humble ferry Sreyda and I had crossed on 4 years earlier. There are further changes coming to this isolated region, a hydroelectric dam and power station are under construction downstream.
After checking into the hotel at Banlung, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing at Yeak Laom volcano lake, a short ride out of town. It was great to unwind and relax in the cool water after the last few days riding.
Afterwards we discussed our options for travelling from Battambang to Koh Kong. Doing it in one day was physically not possible, so we agreed to cancel the first night’s accommodation in Koh Kong, and book rooms at Pramoey, a small village we’d need to overnight in on the way. The unknown factor was whether the car could make it, especially since it would be towing a trailer loaded with 3 scooters.
Our hotel was the Rattanak Phnom Svy and they really looked after us, even parking our bikes in the lobby while we were downtown having dinner. It looked like a Honda showroom with the shiny floor tiles and plate glass windows. They’d used rubber thongs under the sidestands to protect the tiles and didn’t get upset when some of the bikes leaked oil overnight. Highly recommended!
We’d had such a great dinner at Sisters Restaurant the previous night that we returned next morning for breakfast. That was a mistake, as it took over two hours for everyone to be served. Fortunately it was an easy ride to Stung Treng and the delay wasn’t too much of a concern.
We had a fairly uneventful ride to Stung Treng, the only surprise was Kay’s Daelim running out of fuel enroute but Tin Tin was on hand to syphon a few litres out of the other bikes and get her going again. After checking in at the Golden River Hotel we went to visit the Women’s Development Centre where they weave silk fabric. It was disappointing to find that the silkworm farm is no longer in operation, all their thread is now bought in from Phnom Penh. Most of the ladies bought something in the gift shop.
When I called the accommodation in Koh Kong to amend our booking, I asked Lisa the owner if she knew what the road across the Cardamoms was like. She put me in contact with Nick Berry from Junglecross, who has run bike tours in the Cardamoms for years. It was so good to speak with Nick, and he recommended not taking the vehicle through, to send it around by the main road. So that’s what we ended up doing, I booked accommodation for the ladies in Phnom Penh and we’d meet up the following day in Koh Kong. It was such a relief to have arrived at a solution. I slept well that night.
On the way back to our hotel, someone spotted a very large wooden house back off the road a little way so we decided to go in and have a look what it was. Sreyda spoke to a young man inside the gate and he invited us in. It belonged to the former Provincial Governor who had moved to a different province but retained some staff at the house for security and maintenance. The house was a massive 1368 m² in area, built entirely from premium hardwood and luxury wood and cost 2.5 million USD to build.
After an early breakfast we were soon on our way to Khao Veng on the Laos border where we boarded 3 small boats and travelled up to Sopheakmith Waterfall. It was sad to see a casino/hotel under construction at the falls, it won’t be long before there’s also a bitumen road and the peace and sense of isolation will be gone forever. After the waterfall we briefly visited an island in Laos, giving me an opportunity to unload some Lao kip buying sugarcane juice for everyone to try.
After lunch at Preah Rumkel, back in Cambodia, we headed down the river to Stung Treng in a larger boat. At about the halfway mark, the boatman pulled into a sandy beach and a few people went swimming. We arrived back in Stung Treng just before dark and were dropped off right at the hotel.
Next day we had a fairly easy ride to Preah Vihear temple, stopping for an excellent lunch in Tbeng Meanchey on the way. Everyone on the bigger bikes rode up and the rest of the group went in a 4wd pickup. As it was Sunday, Wayne said a prayer at the edge of the escarpment. A special moment in a very beautiful setting. As some of the bikes didn’t have headlights we had to stick closely together on the way back to the guesthouse in Sra Eim. It was quite dark by the time we got there.
After breakfast we headed off towards Siem Reap. I’d arranged for a friend, Mr Lucky, to meet us along the way at Kbal Spean where the riverbed and surrounds are carved with Hindu deities and many lingas. Normally you’d have to buy an Angkor Wat entry pass in Siem Reap to gain access but we were coming from the opposite direction, so having a contact like Mr Lucky made it possible to enter on the condition that the group purchased their passes on the same day. It was a bit of a rush though, as we had to also visit Banteay Srei Temple and the Landmine Museum along the way, arriving at the Angkor Wat ticket office 15 minutes before closing time.
The traffic was chaotic as we got closer to Siem Reap but the group managed to stay together all the way to the hotel. That night we had dinner at a Khmer BBQ restaurant and were joined by Pastor Reaksa Himm and his family, friends of the group who lived about 30 km outside Siem Reap. Next day was a free day, some of the group went to visit Pastor Reaksa while the others spent the day at Angkor Wat. Tin Tin and Vien worked on the bikes and gave them all a wash.
After leaving Siem Reap we called in to see Pastor Reaksa at Pouk Village. He showed us some of the work he’s done there, building a school and church, and he plans to build a retreat for people to come from overseas and stay. Continuing on to Battambang, we checked in at the Khemara Hotel and had lunch. Afterwards we went to Phnom Sampeau to see the temples and Khmer Rouge killing cave.
It was getting late by the time we left there and I thought it might have been too late to take a ride on the bamboo train (norry) but in Cambodia anything is possible! The norry travelled about five kilometres along a very bumpy and poorly maintained track, stopping a few times along the way to allow returning norries to be dismantled to allow us to proceed ahead. We returned in darkness, the driver occasionally checking the track ahead with a flashlight.
After all the worrying and sleepless nights, it was finally time to split the group and make our separate ways to Koh Kong. Sakhorn headed off with the girls and 8 of us on the bigger bikes hit the road to Pramoey.
Tin Tin took the lead, as he knew the track and I rode at the back of the group. I took Vien on the back of my bike; if someone was injured and couldn’t ride we’d have a reserve to continue on with that bike. The first 65 km was easy but after fuelling up at the last gas station the road deteriorated quickly. The ruts were quite deep and slippery after a rain shower the night before.
Soon afterwards Vien gave Bill a hand to get his bike upright after he’d slipped into a deep rut and we stopped for a while for Tin Tin to repair his rear tyre. Another time we had to wait for a fully loaded truck to pass, the truck leaned sideways so much going through the ruts I don’t know how it didn’t roll over but the driver looked very relaxed.
After a few wet river crossings and lunch at a small roadside shop we arrived in Pramoey around 1:30 pm. The afternoon was spent relaxing, working on the bikes and wandering around town meeting the locals. Wayne wanted to drive one of the two wheeled tractors (iron buffalo) which are so common in Cambodia, so I managed to talk a local into letting him. We met a lady in a coffee shop who spoke good English, her name was Rani.
The road from Pramoey to O Saom was a lot easier than on the previous day but it would be a different story after rain. Some of the hills were quite steep and would be very slippery when wet. A couple of hours later we stopped at O Saom to fuel up and have a coffee. A man brought a crate of soft drink bottles full of fuel over to us and Tin Tin helped fill all the bikes. There were no more fuel stops now until Koh Kong.
From O Saom, the road improved with long sections of concrete. We passed a few Chinese hydroelectric power stations along the way and stopped near one for lunch. I was quite surprised when we arrived in Koh Kong about two hours before Sakhorn in the car.
After Sakhorn arrived in Koh Kong, we went for a sunset cruise on the river, it was very relaxing after the ride over the Cardamoms. That night we caught up with Nick Berry and his wife Coralie for dinner. It was great to meet them and thank them personally for their assistance. It was a shame that we only had one night to spend in Koh Kong, everyone would have liked to stay another day.
At the guesthouse in Koh Kong were a pair of friendly pugs, so friendly that I had to remove them from the car before we left. They’d jumped in themselves. Tin Tin wanted to take one home with him.
From Koh Kong to Kep was an easy ride, the first 140 kilometres winding and sweeping through the rainforest was a real pleasure. The short section of Road 4 to Sihanoukville was busy with trucks travelling to and from the port, and we were all glad to turn off onto the Kampot-Kep road after lunch. Tin Tin had to clean a few air filters along the way, some of the bikes were having trouble running at higher speed on the good roads.
Our hotel in Kep was great, run by a Lao-French family. They put on a seafood BBQ dinner both nights we were there with all the goodies – prawns, crabs, squid, fish as well as salads. Everyone had a free day to do what they liked, I joined the Khmers at the beach to eat more seafood. The tour was nearly over and I think everyone was feeling a bit tired.
On the last day we stopped at Phnom Tamao zoo and Rod Cope was there to meet us. It was good to see him again and he wanted to ride back to Phnom Penh with us. We enjoyed a Khmer lunch of chicken and rice before heading off on the last stage into Phnom Penh.
We got away early enough to avoid peak hour traffic so it was a fairly easy run through Phnom Penh to Dara’s shop. The van arrived soon after and everyone loaded their gear into tuk tuks and departed to their hotels. I was sorry to see the tour end, although things didn’t always go to plan or on time, everyone had been very patient and tolerant. We met again that night at Khmer Surin Restaurant for a farewell dinner.
Responsible Tourism in Cambodia
Tel: +855 8876 12857
Address: National Road 6, Samrong Village, Baray District, Kampong Thom Province, Kingdom of Cambodia.
Copyright © Paleriders – Cambodia. All rights reserved.
Website created by Owen Holcombe