Paleriders tour – December 29th 2014 to January 12th 2015

Posted by on 01/02/2015

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.

Dinner at Romdeng

Meet and greet dinner at Romdeng Restaurant

Dinner at Romdeng

Meet and greet dinner at Romdeng Restaurant

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.

Support vehicle with trailer

Support vehicle with trailer

Picking up the bikes from Dara

Picking up the bikes from Dara’s motorbike 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.

At Kar Chuoy Dai Orphanage

At Kar Chuoy Dai Orphanage

At Kar Chuoy Dai Orphanage

At Kar Chuoy Dai Orphanage

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.

Bamboo bridge to Koh Paen

Bamboo bridge to Koh Paen

Sunset from bamboo bridge

Sunset from bamboo bridge

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.

Reversing onto the ferry

Reversing onto the ferry

Mekong River ferry

Mekong River ferry

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.

Tin Tin

Tin Tin

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.

Sunset at the dolphin pool

Sunset at the dolphin pool

Dolphin watching

Dolphin watching

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.

Replacing a broken shockie

Replacing a broken shockie in Snuol

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.

Road into Sen Monorom

Road into Sen Monorom

Sen Monorom

Sen Monorom

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.

Rocky section just out of Sen Monorom

Rocky section just out of Sen Monorom

On the road to Banlung

On the road to Banlung

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.

Sreyda making lunch

Sreyda – you’re supposed to be making lunch not eating it!

Lunch at Koh Knek

Lunch at Koh Knek

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.

Bridge over the Srepok River

New bridge over the Srepok River

Srepok River crossing in 2011

Srepok River crossing in 2011

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.

Yeak Laom volcano lake

Yeak Laom volcano lake

Yeak Laom volcano lake

Yeak Laom volcano lake

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!

Hotel lobby in Banlung

Hotel lobby in Banlung

Hotel lobby in Banlung

Hotel lobby in Banlung

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.

Sisters Restaurant, Banlung

Sisters Restaurant, Banlung

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.

Buying silk products

Buying silk products

Silk weaving

Silk weaving

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.

Governor's House, Stung Treng

Governor’s House, Stung Treng

Governor's House, Stung Treng

Governor’s House, Stung Treng

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.

Mekong riverboat

Mekong riverboat

At the Mekong waterfall

At the Mekong waterfall

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.

Departing Don Khon, Laos

Departing Don Khon, Laos

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

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.

Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear Temple

Preah Vihear Temple

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.

BBQ Restaurant in Siem Reap

BBQ Restaurant in Siem Reap

Bike maintenance day

Bike maintenance day

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.

Bamboo train

Bamboo train

Bamboo train

Bamboo train

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.

Splitting up in Battambang

Splitting up in Battambang

Ready for the Cardamoms

Ready for the Cardamoms

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.

Repairing a tyre

Repairing a tyre

On the road to Pramoey

On the road to Pramoey

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.

Pramoey Guesthouse

Pramoey Guesthouse

Vien & Lisa having a laugh

Vien & Lisa having a laugh

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.

Coffee shop at O Saom

Coffee shop at O Saom

A crate of fuel

A crate of fuel

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.

Lunch stop in the Cardamoms

Lunch stop in the Cardamoms

River crossing in the Cardamoms

River crossing in the Cardamoms

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.

Koh Kong sunset

Koh Kong sunset

Cruising on the river at Koh Kong

Cruising on the river at Koh Kong

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.

Tin Tin's mate

Tin Tin’s mate

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.

Bike maintenance enroute

Bike maintenance enroute

Lunch on the road

Lunch on the road

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.

Seafood BBQ

Seafood BBQ

Seafood at Kep

Seafood at Kep

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.

Wayne and Rod

Wayne and Rod

Gibbon at Phnom Tamao

At Phnom Tamao zoo

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.

Farewell dinner

Farewell dinner

 

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2 Responses to Paleriders tour – December 29th 2014 to January 12th 2015

  1. Wayne

    Yes it was an awesome time and what a privilege to see all that we did. I spoke with many Khmer people after our trip and most have not seen these amazing sights in their own country. Thank you Owen and TinTin and Sukwan for patiently taking us around this amazing country. Great memories. If anyone is thinking about doing a trip, just do it.

    • owen

      It was a real pleasure Wayne. Looking forward to riding with your team again – maybe Laos?