Return to Cambodia

Jun 23, 2003
I spent most of April and part of May 2005 riding a 250 4-stroke in Cambodia and Thailand. This was my second trip to that part of the world and I my purpose in going back was to venture into the Cambodian countryside on a dirt bike and take some photos.

My travels in Cambodia broke down into three different phases, which I'll describe seperately.

After much deliberation, I was able to pack all my gear for a month long trip into a small "dry bag" used for canoeing and a knapsack. I could have gotten by without the knapsack except for the stupid amount of camera gear that I was sure I'd need (DSLR, 2 lenses, flash, tripod, battery chargers, extra batteries, portable hard disk, memory cards). Even so, I still had room for my own helmet, gloves, riding boots and armoured jacket. No hair dryer though.

It took me nearly a day to fly from San Francisco to Bangkok with stops at Taipei and Hong Kong along the way. I landed in Bangkok around noon on April 5th and cut through the city in a taxi. It was hotter than hades and my eyes felt like a couple of boiled potatoes rolling around in their sockets.


Bangkok, known as Krung Thep to the Thai, has its attractions, but I only wanted to stop there long enough to arrange transportation to Cambodia. Overland travel to the border would have been cheapest, but I found a good deal on a airfare that got me round-trip tickets to both Phnom Penh and Chiang Mai for a decent price. I spent a day in Thailand visiting a touristy floating market and listening to a guide drone on about some sort of rubber plantation. But I was impatient and eager to make my way east and begin my adventure in the jungle.

After arriving in the capitol of Phnom Penh I made contact with a guide that I had arranged to take me through the Cardamom mountains. Like most of his countrymen, Paeng is an easy going fellow who is quick to smile. He supports himself by leading barangs ("barang" means "foreigner" in Khmer) like myself on motorcycle tours of Cambodia. Most of Paeng's tours consist of larger groups and I was very lucky to be his only charge during the week it took us to ride from Phnom Penh to Battambang through the jungle.

Only an hour outside of of the city, Paeng's bike developed a clutch problem. Rather than try to deal with it there, he called a friend who was to ride out with a fresh bike. We took the opportunity to grab a little lunch while we waited. After an hour or so, Leng arrived with an old but trustworthy XR250 so Paeng and I could continue our tour.



The first trails that we found were fairly flat gravel with an occasional stretch of sand thrown in for good measure. Here I am starting to get wet in an afternoon rain shower along a fairly typical stretch:


What the photos don't show, however, was the incredible heat. For much of the time I was there, the temperature hovered in the high nineties or low hundreds with very high humidity. Not more than five minutes outside my air-conditioned hotel room (if one was avaialble) and my shirt would be soaked with sweat. I could drink six liters of water during the day and not pee once. During those first few hours on the trail wrestling through sandy trails under the blazing sun, I realized that the armored Rukka jacket which I brought halfway around the world might save me from some road rash, but it would surely cook my innards regardless of whether I crashed or not. It remained strapped to the back of my bike for the rest of the trip.

Once we got into the mountains the scenery changed dramatically. The foliage closed in around the trail and much of the riding was one-handed to fend off thorny branches and bamboo poles which seemed to jump out of the shadows to batter knuckles and elbows. We crossed streams:


And even a few rivers:


Long stretches of graded dirt known as "red road":


Sometimes the trail seemed to disappear only a few feet ahead into dense wet foliage:


Or mud bogs:


Along the way, we'd pass villages with just a few shacks in the middle of nowhere:



With a relaxed, but curious people whose lives couldn't be more different than ours in the West:





In the mountains, the riding could be quite challenging. Steep, rocky ascents were made more difficult by the blistering sun. During our frequent water breaks, Paeng would teach me how to distinguish mosquitos that carry Dengue Fever from those that carry Malaria. Or how jungle leeches survive the dry season only to rehydrate at the first rain and fling themselves across one meter of space to land their next blood meal. Hearing his childhood stories of shooting coconuts out of a tree with an M-16 made me marvel at the protected upbringing I enjoyed.



I must have lost 2lbs climbing this hill alone:


But the real challenge was yet to come. Paeng planned our route along an old logging road that had fallen into disrepair since the forest was no longer being harvested. We had to contend with steep ruts that could easily trap a wheel or snap an ankle.


The best strategy was to ride the crown of the trail, usually compacted by the locals riding step-through scooters or bicycles. These paths provided good traction, but were very narrow, requiring laser like precision to steer the bike across twenty yards at a time of six-inch wide trail.



And then we got to the hard part.




I had a little trouble with the section that Paeng had just crossed in the photo above. If you look carefully, you'll see a small plank of teakwood just behind his rear tire. That plank was about six feet long and bridged a gap in what would jokingly pass for "the trail." Paeng crossed it without incident, but I only got halfway across before the plank slipped away and my bike dropped away from the road into the jungle. Oops.


I was unhurt and the bike suffered little more than a bent license plate an ding in the tank. It did take us a while to wrestle it back up to the trail though. It was quite a relief to ride on level ground again.


That first week of jungle riding was definitely the most challenging of my trip. Along the way, my riding skills and confidence of riding that kind of terrain increased noticeably. I also learned the rhythm of living along the back roads of Cambodia, which I would need in the weeks ahead.

To be continued...
Jun 23, 2003
Most of Cambodia is rural in nature with undeveloped countryside, jungle forests and various kinds of plantations in the plains. There are a few cities though, and I spent some time in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap. As far as the ride report goes, I don't have any more stories of two-wheeled excitement (well, maybe one for later...) but I hope you'll enjoy some photographs.

The Cambodian people are early risers. Even at 6:30am, the areas near the riverfront are hopping. And you never know what you'll see walking down the street...



These kids were probably getting ready to panhandle.


Along the back streets of the city, vendors are preparing to sell their wares.



Yes, those black things are eggs too!




In mid-April, Cambodia celebrates it's New Year. An old custom of encouraging the start of the rainy season by tossing a little watter around has turned into a full-scale water battle in the streets. It's either a lot of fun or very annoying depending on your state of mind (and whether you just took a bag of river water to the face).




Kids are everywhere, of course.



And even a few monkeys at Wat Phnom.




Phnom Penh's central market...




The national museum.


Nightlife in Phnom Penh.


A smaller market for a smaller city: Battambang




The man in this photo, presumably the father of the young child, is holding a bag of glue that he was huffing as I walked by.


While in Sieam Reap, I attended a performance of traditional Khmer dancing. The music, the costumes and the dancers themselves were mesmerizing.









Sep 22, 2004
You did this trip through the Cardamom mountains with only one other rider as support ?!

Ride Free, Ride Safe into the Hidden Cambodia
Jun 23, 2003

Originally posted by hiddencambodia

You did this trip through the Cardamom mountains with only one other rider as support ?!

Yes, it was just the two of us. The only time we needed more than one person to haul a bike out was when mine slipped off the plank.