This is a belated Trip-Rep for Chiang Mai to Cambodia, done in early June. I have not including a map since the trip was over well known routes. In late May as the 2009 monsoon was just starting, I left Chiang Mai to Cambodia riding my DRZ-400. This was my first trip by motorcycle back to Cambodia since November 2000. Much has changed, mostly for the better; notably, the roads. For comparison’s sake I’ll provide some details of NW Cambodian road and border entry in late 2000. From 1998 to late 2000 I had worked in NW Cambodia and around the end of that time had made several trips from Battambang into Thailand. One such trip took place during a the 2000 rainy season in October. On that particular trip I left Battambang in good weather up the pot-holed but relatively good Hwy 5 to Sisophone and then over the not-so-good but not-yet-completely-awful road to Poipet and into Aranyaprathet. I exited Cambodia in Poipet and remained in Thailand for a week, during which time, the monsoon reasserted itself in a big way. There was a deluge throughout Trat province but the excellent Thai roads saw me back to Aran without too much trouble. The comfort of the relative normalcy of Thai driving that I had soaked up in Thailand held up to the point I stamped out of Thailand and stamped into Poipet, Cambodia. Rains had poured for days prior to my exit from Thailand and Poipet’s road out of town to Sisophon was hardly visible beneath water and slurry of yellow mud, that I can only describe as the color and consistency of loose baby shit. Worse yet, the dips and potholes that were pretty easily navigable during my dry weather trip over were no longer visible beneath the surface of water and yellow mud. On one occasion my Suzuki DR-350 sank nearly a meter and water went over the handle-bars. I still remember with horror that my right hand lost its grip of the throttle about that instant. How happy I was that the Suzuki 350cc engine had the torque to keep chugging until I retrieved the throttle handle and made it out of that hole. It was a miserable trip all the way to Sisophon. Given the amount of water and mud, I could never tell when I was approaching a deep pot-hole until I had already hit it. From Sisophon I turned south and the then-beaten up tarmac was better but with ample rain, the going was still pretty bad down to Battambang. So those are my impressions of my last moto-travel in wet-season Cambodia. Now, nearly nine years have passed and I’ve heard that Cambodia’s roads had vastly improved. So I finally had time to ride down from Chiang Mai and see this for myself what had become of the Cambodia roads I knew too well nearly nine years previously. It was almost June, but I guessed that I could test the new rainy season without getting too wet. It was worth a try. Getting to Cambodia from Chiang Mai is a long haul no matter how you cut it – some 800 kms from Chiang Mai from the nearest border crossing. There are new entry points along the northern border of Cambodia near Sisaket that go down to Anlong Vaeng and Siem Reap. Never-the-less I wanted to revisit my old haunts; Sisophon, Battambang, possibly Hwy 10 to Samlaut/Pailin road . I would then exit Battambang province down Hwy 5 to Pursat and then ride into Phnom Penh. I had heard the most astounding news about the new Hwy 5. This highway had been reconstructed and hard-surfaced in the last five years and now the trip from Battambang to Phnom Penh was only a 3-4 hours trip. During my time in Battambang and earlier in the 90s the journey was a grueling 7-8 hour, no-frills trip, so, I looked forward to this. Getting from Chiang Mai to Aranyaprathet? There is the way down Hwy 1 through Lampang and then by Hwy 11 on to Uttaradit, but it amounts to a lot of two-lane with truck traffic to contend with. After which, there is scenic travel over to Loei via Ban Pai, Chat Trakan and Dansai and I know these routes well. Otherwise, further South of Lampang on Hwy 1 there are possibilities to head east via Hwy 12 picked up at Thoen or Tak, then to Sukothai/ Pitsanaluk/Lom Sak/Khan Kaen and then cut south. It is such a long damned way to get to Aranyaprathet. In the end, I opted for fast 4-lane and went straight down Hwy 1 to Singburi and picked up Hwy 33 east at Saraburi. Hwy 33 provides more or less a straight shot east to Nakhon Nayok, Kabin Buri and Sakeo where I decided to stay overnight. Sakeo is about 45 kms from the border crossing at Aranyaprathet. Sakeo has a nice night market if you arrive on the right day (I believe a Friday or Saturday) There appear to be several hotels in Sakeo but the nicest is the River Hotel located as you leave Sakeo on Hwy 33. Look for it in the left about 500 meters after the Caltex Station. They have WiFi in the restaurant and the place is very well run. Safe parking for a bikes and nice dawgs. The staff are friendly and helpful. The price is about 650 baht a night for a deluxe room with breakfast. There is other suitable lodging in Aranyaprathet. I found this out when I arrived in Aran the next day and prepared to check out of the kingdom. Then I learned that my tax sticker had lapsed on my DRZ-400 a few days earlier. I had to return to Sakeo to take care of this detail at the ‘Consong Rotit’ a few kilometers west of Aran. I found the place and the ladies took care of me in record time (under 10 minutes). I paid the tax and got the new sticker for my bike and headed back for Aran – and by now, being afternoon, I decided to see what Aran looked like these days and booked a room in the old Interhotel. For about 14 years the tiny border town of Aran became a boom-town during the Cambodian refugee crisis starting about 1979 and lasting until 1993. I had first seen ‘Aran’ in 1980 when I briefly worked for an NGO based in Sakeo and ran logistics for their medical team. By the time of the repatriation of the Khmer refugees in 1993, some 350,000 Khmer (Cambodian) refugees were living in camps in and around Aranyaprathet. Aran became the logistics hub in support of all those activities as well as the considerable Thai military presence. Today, little of this remains in evidence, and Aranyaprathet seems to be just a larger agricultural town – but basically, its economy was jump-started by the Cambodian holocaust. When I last departed Cambodia in November 2000 and entered Aran, there was a nice restaurant run by a Thai lady and I wondered if she were still there. Initially I didn’t find the ’Phuen’ but then noticed a small Thai restaurant called the ‘Thip’ that looked nice. It turned out to be run by the same lady and is downscaled version of ‘Phuen’ and a really nice place. You can find this street by leaving Hwy 33 and driving into Aran until you reach a ‘T’ intersection. Turn left and drive through the business section. The ‘Thip’ is on the right-hand side near the end of the street where businesses begin to fade. The street ends on Hwy 33. The next day I made the run into Poipet and exited Thailand without incident (of course, full registration and a book is required). I stopped at the customs office in Poipet to ask about a temporary import document. The Khmer I spoke to at the customs office spoke English and was nice and told me not even to worry about it. He said, “customs in Phnom Penh are supposed to issue the documents but for the present this isn’t being bothered with. Just don’t worry about it”. I asked if I could exit through another border crossing; for example, Koh Kong? He said “sure”. I took him at his word and this turned out to be the case. The road through Poipet and out of town to Sisophon was hard surfaced and bore very little resemblance to the WWI battlefield character of the road I had struggled through on my return to Cambodia in late Oct of 2000. There is a nice sealed 2-lane all the way to Sisophon and it took me only about 45 minutes to get there. Sisophon nowadays looks much better than in past times. Nine years previously, this was a dangerous, military town with a lot of violence and while it looks nicer today, I didn’t stick around too long to look under the surface. With the war finally ended since early 1999, even Sisophon must be tamer. There appeared to be many new hotels in town. I headed down Hwy 5 to Battambang. In Battambang I was unprepared for the explosion of development that confronted me. There were new hotels everywhere and I eventually settled for one on Hwy 5 called the Rattanak. The rooms were $12 a day with air-con and satellite television. It was quite nice. There are several touristy bars and restaurants off streets on the river-side of town. In the evening I rode for a little out of town on Hwy 10 to Pailin, just to see how that road was doing. From 1998 to the end of 2000 I drove down this road at least three times a week to the Samlaut turn-off. During most of those trips the road was awful and my thoughts of comparing a road to a WWI battlefield first occurred to me during those long, churning car trips down to Samlaut. At it’s worst, 2.5 to 3 hours down to Ta Sanh and the same time to return to Battambang that evening. Sometimes the provincial public works department would grade the road, reducing this time to 1.5 hours. Turning onto Hwy 10, I thought I would at least visit Phnom Sampov, the dramatic, limestone kharst that serves as a picnic area for Khmer about 10 kms west of Battambang. Hwy 10 is being rebuilt and every half-kilometer are detours where bridges are being built. The reconstruction appears to be a serious effort and the new road will be better than anything that existed previously. Regrettably, it will probably be used to exploit what remains of the forests around Pailin and the top half of the Cardamom Mountains, accessible via the Samlaut road south of Treng. The next day I drove to Phnom Penh. The road really is sealed and it really does only take 3.5 hours to reach Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh is blessed with incredible natural beauty owing to it’s location on the confluence of the Mekong, Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers and also the excellent city planning carried out under the French/Norodom and Sihanouk periods. Regrettably, the city is undergoing the greatest campaign of uglification known to any metropolitan area in the present millennium. This is due to massive investments and little city planning, zoning or any concern for the fading aesthetics of a once beautifully designed city. The first new destruction was evident as I entered town. The long, beautiful boulevard that ran from the train station to the Tonle Sap has been turned into some sort of construction site. That once, fine, palm-lined green area I knew is now history. As I rode further down the river road I noted along Sisowath Quay that I couldn’t see the river anymore as the view was fenced off by roofing sheets to mask the construction taking place. The river bank is being shored up and rumors are that massive sand dredging that took place in order to fill the formerly beautiful lake ‘Boeng Kak’ has undermined the entire river-front… I don’t have anything further to add about Phnom Penh, however, on the up-side, more restaurants, bars and hotels have appeared along the formerly squalid streets immediately behind the river front and have been transformed into an up-market, attractive area. So, not all of the recent development has been negative. Phnom Penh still retains plenty of charm. There are excellent values for food and lodging in Phnom Penh. Fifteen dollar-a-day hotels are about the norm. I stayed a week in Phnom Penh and then headed for Sihanoukville via Kampot. I did this by taking Hwy 3 through Takmao and on towards Takeo. Just before Takeo there is a turnoff that takes you over to Hwy 3 proper and the road heads on down to Kampot. Kampot is now a city under development. There are more hotels and restaurants but this formerly empty town still retains its quiet, provincial flavor of the estuary town under Bokor mountain. It is an attractive city. I left town over the new bridge and road (and rode) under the stunning view of the Bokor massif. This is a beautiful languid drive on good highway with the stunning view of the Bokor massif occasionally as close as several kilometers away on the right side of the road. Traffic is light but as always in Cambodia, be prepared. The road connects with Hwy 4 by the Sihanoukville Airport. Sihanoukville is quite a nice city and likewise, has more restaurants and hotels and plenty of very good values. I remained about a week. There are a number of beaches. The seafood is affordable and nowadays there are even some boat trips that visit the Cambodian islands. These cost about $15 off-season and include luncheon buffet on the boat. Rather than return to Phnom Penh and make an attempt to go up into Laos I opted to exit Cambodia through Koh Kong and enter Trat, Thailand. To do this I departed Sihanoukville and headed up Hwy 4 for an hour (some 90 kms) to Sre Ambel. At Sre Ambel here is a turnoff and a new highway without a lot of traffic across the jungle to the Koh Kong Border crossing. The trip from Sre Ambel to Koh Kong takes about 2.5 hours and takes you along some beautiful forests alternated by estuaries. The road is quite scenic. The border crossing was very uncomplicated on the Khmer side and likewise on the Thai side. I stamped out and then rode the hour and a half to Trat city. I stayed at the Trat Hotel for simplicity’s sake and safe parking for the bike. The night market still bristles in the evenings with seafood and good values. The next day I headed north on Hwy 317 towards Sakeo again. I wanted to see if I could stay overnight in Khao Yai park so turned west to the Kabin Buri turnoff to Hwy 304 north to San Chao Po and turned left into the road to the park. I arrived at Khao Yai on a weekend. On holidays and weekends, Kao Yai is a popular place for Bangkok visitors. If you want to be sure of available accommodation and less congestion in the park, visit on a weekday. Accommodations in Khao Yai fill quite rapidly and none were available that particular weekend. If a holiday occurs during the week or near the weekend, those are the worst times. I recently made a visit by car (month of August) and accommodations were easy to obtained during the week and even on the weekend so long as you were in the park in the morning by about 10:00 AM to book the rooms. Khao Yai is an impressive park with the jungle howlings of spider and other varieties of monkey in the mornings. See a recent article on the park at: http://www.bangkokpost.com/leisure/leis ... -northeast If you arrive too late for accommodation in the park, there are a number of good places just outside the park entrance. Avoid the obviously ostentatious efforts and you’ll be fine. I stayed previously at Yaka, who offer the best food along the corridor of restaurants leading up to the park (about two kilometers from the entrance on the left. They also have WiFi. Another inexpensive option is just up the road on the left hand side across from the Jungle Club or Jungle Hotel. Nice rooms were 500 baht. The front desk for these bungalows was a kid in a little shack at the entryway/car-park but things were in order. I exited the park and drove half-an-hour over to Hwy 2, thence back to Hwy 33 and West to Hwy 1 North to Chiang Mai. This trip I cut off at Kamphaeng Phet on 101 to Sukothai and stayed the night a the Ratanak, an old but alright hotel on the left-hand entry coming from Hwy 1 to Sukothai on the West-side of the bridge. Other options are the Riverside (cheap but no frills) and the nicer, Sawadeepong with ample, secure parking with a first-class Thai restaurant in the back. The hotel has WiFi though I did not try it. Across the street is a gaming/internet café loud with kids but has fast interet. My room was 500 baht. From Sukothai I drove West across the river to the Hwy 101 junction and north to Sawankhalok and then over Rte 1048 to Thoen. From then the road to Lampang and Chiang Mai is the fast-track 4-lane.