Trip Report: 15 days on bikes.

Dec 18, 2003
I'm going to spare the commentary about our various destinations as much as possible, unless where absolutely warranted. Instead I intend to detail our route and the road(or "road") conditions we faced during our ride, which started on the 27th of Jan and ran through the 10th of Feb. I'll also provide distances in Km, when not certain I'll try to provide as accurate approximations as possible. The trip itself was tits:

Leg 1 -- Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom: NHW 6 was predictably easy except for the last 15-20 km approaching Kampong Thom, where the pavement ended and it became uneven, rutted, bumpy and extremely dusty due to the amount of traffic we were sharing the road with at the time -- still not terribly bad, though. Although we made many stops for refreshments and pictures we were still able to do it in under 5 hours, so all in all it was an easy day and a nice start to the trip. Had we left an hour earlier in the morning(we left at 7) we probably would have done it in 3.5 or 4 hours with just as many stops -- the traffic getting out of PP was already pretty heavy at 7AM. Total distance was 168 km.

We had time for a day trip, so we motored up to Sambor Prey Kuk, ruins that predate Angkor. NHW 64 north to PR 220 was a nice enough route, although the provincial road hid a few sandy pits along the way. It took no more than maybe 45 minutes going and coming, quite easy.

Leg 2 -- Kampong Thom to Steung Treng(hopefully?): per a suggestion by Jim over at the California 2 guesthouse in PP I had changed our original plans to check out this route, which in turn also had to be amended. Starting back up NHY 64, we were really enjoying the jaunt through Boeng Peae Wildlife Sanctuary, and the road(of the logging dirt variety) was a pretty nice and level one, with the occasional surprise of course. Stopping for a break in the middle of the reserve was a great idea, as the whines of our bikes muted the sounds of the jungle, which were impressive(birds and maybe even monkeys). At our turnoff for PR 213 we took in an early lunch and refueled, not knowing when we'd next have the chance.

PR 213 wasn't all bad. The first of my only 2 very minor spills occured here, though. Just as the road would allow you to gain a bit of confidence it would throw a nice sand bog in the mix, and on one such occasion I laid the bike down, albeit at a manageable speed --no harm. 213 took us through a LOT of forest fires, I'm guessing of the intentional variety. At one point there were flames shooting up 20 ft alongside the north side of the road -- unfortunately, we didn't stop for any pictures, as it was pretty freaking warm at 11:00 AM in the Cambodia sun with the additional natural oven conditions to boot. After a few funky bridges and passing through a few little villages, we found our turnoff to PR 216, which we had planned to take to Steung Treng.

Well, we found out maybe 6-10 km later that 216 doesn't exist any longer. It dead ended into a farm across a rickety bridge, was literally fenced off. I inquired about the road to the residents of said farm, but all I could get from them was, "ot plough"(no road) and that to get to Steung Treng we'd have to go via Chep. So, we backtracked to the last village and found the correct turnoff for the road to Chep, which from appearances is just a continuation of 213 but didn't even remotely resemble the stretch we'd already covered. Almost immediately it was a sandy mess, with countless switchbacks that often looked inviting enough but in the end were rarely much better than their alternatives. The "road" itself was rarely more than 8 feet wide, I'd guess, and most certainly not paved. During the longest stretch of miserable sandy miserableness I laid my bike down(for the last time). Again, not a nick on me or the bike...except for the clutch lever that laid half-buried in the sand. Shit. Fortunately we had a spare, but as it was a cheap-cast copy probably manufactured in good ole PP, it wouldn't quite fit, and as such required an hour of filing(thank you, Leatherman) by yours truly before we were satisfied with the fit.

At about 1PM we were again on our way, and soon the sand gave way to general trail conditions, even more switchbacks, ruts and a few small stream crossings. Certain stretches were very slow going, as the trail twisted and turned and we could never know what was going to be around the next corner; we'd already learned that making assumptions about the road ahead was asking for trouble. By 2 we pulled into the village of Kangaok Trapeang Saeng, where the residents we fairly agog over our arrival. We stopped to have some water and double check our GPS coordinates to confirm our whereabouts, and inquired about the road ahead to Steung Treng. We were told it would be a near impossibility to make it all the was on the same day, as the road ahead of us was supposedly worse than what we'd already covered. Told we could make it to Chep(Chep Chas on the Gecko map), though, we were off. This was a doozy of a trail -- switchbacks galore, ruts, very winding and overall, slow going. It was pretty, though, and there was barely any sand(we came to despise sand more than anything). Just before sundown we popped out of the jungle and into Chep. Once again, we were like circus freaks, only this time we knew we had to find some kind of accomodation; if the trail ahead was anything like what we had just done, we certainly weren't going to try it in the dark. At the end of the day we had logged 160 km, and at least to me this was the most challenging day overall.

So, we rode around the village inquiring about "housing" possibilities and eventually lucked into a visitor to Chep who was from PP, spoke a little English, had overheard our(my) attempts to find some form of accomodation and readily agreed to help. On his second attempt he was able to find us a family that would let us stay with them. We eagerly agreed to fork over $10 for the use of the upstairs room that I'm sure they usually use themselves(they slummed out downstairs for the night). We even had a balcony overlooking the village -- it was great. Following very public bathing in our swimming trunks(the neighbors were climbing trees to get better views) we had a simple meal provided by the family and a few warm Crown beers. They even turned on the generator so they could entertain us with a Thai action movie that we really could have done without -- hospitable to a fault, I tell you. Bushed, we were in bed by 10PM.

Leg 3 -- Chep to Steung Treng, dammit: following a breakfast of smoked fish and rice(courtesy of our hosts) we hooked up with some soldiers next door who were also making the run to Steung Treng(PR 214). As they departed, we fueled up. 15 minutes later we had caught up and were in a mini-military convoy, half of which would soon veer off to another trail north towards the Lao border. It was pretty funny watching 2 soldiers to a moto bouncing to and fro on the trail(only a trail here), especially with the one in back holding his AK off to the side. Surreal, I suppose, would be the best way to describe it, but in reality isn't the whole Cambodia experience that way? Eventually we let them go off on their own, as there wasn't really room to pass, the dust was getting annoying and hell, we had pisses and pictures to take. This might have been my favorite day of the trip, as the trail really was fairly nice and yet challenging enough to keep my attention. Also, it went much quicker than we had anticipated. At our 2nd break we realized we were already within striking distance of the Mekong, so off we went.

The last few km sucked, though: more sand, and deeper than ever. Approaching Thalaborivat there was a last climb before reaching the Mekong River valley, and at the top was the most miserable field of sand yet. Sure, there were switchbacks, but each was seemingly sandier than the last and there was simply no way of avoiding it. After the marathon ride of the day before, this was the last thing we needed or wanted to see, but we had learned our lessons from the day before and merely plodded through it and into Thalaborivat. Fairly exhausted, we let the ferry operator and his cohorts get our bikes down the ever-so-steep hill to load them onto the ferry, and off went to Steung Treng. I later met a guy at the California 2 that rode his bike down the hill to the ferry, and my hats off to him, as it really was steep. Crazy Canadian. We logged a mere 84 km that day, and barring the sandy hell at the end, it was a really nice, albeit occasionally challenging, ride.

Of note in Steung Treng: I was able to get my broken clutch lever wleded together at a shop, but there wasn't a shop in town who had clutch levers for 250 cc bikes. Regardless, we had another spare in tow.

Leg 4 -- Steung Treng to Ban Lung: easy. PR 78 has little traffic and is in pretty great shape. The bridge over the Tonle Sre Pok was a highlight and the scenery was nice enough, although there was ample evidence of recent burning along the way. The last 10 km or so approaching Ban Lung got hairier due to the inclines, ever-more-present ruts and the traffic exiting BL, who only cared about taking the easiest way out regardless of whether or not it was on our side of the road or that we were currently inhabiting said trail. Anywho, this was a nice ride, 149 km. My buddy Paul's clutch cable gave way during the last 2-3km, but we managed to coast into the Terres Rouge Lodge without making any stops or having any problems.

Day trips from Ban Lung: we took PR 78A up to Virachay and the Tonle San River, and this was an easy ride. Also, we ventured out what I believe is considered PR 302 to find some single track trails northbound that led to hill tribes, of which we eventually found one. Had we devoted an entire day to the cause we would have seen much more, but this was an afternoon gig and after nearly getting lost in a bamboo thicket and abandoning one such trail, we hadn't the time to venture further, lest night creep in. All in all, though, it was great to see an actual hill-tribe village. Only one resident spoke even a few words of Khmer, but all were very friendly towards us. Well, at least the men; the women were apparently doing the work of the village, as they didn't have time to be bothered by us in the least. The men were consumed with relaxing and chewing betel, it seemed, and were more than happy to do both while gawking at us. We got some great pictures here.

Leg 5 -- Ban Lung to Kratie: WE gave up on making the direct run to Sen Monorom, as we couldn't find someone who would guide us and I'd been told horror stories about others who'd relied on maps and GPS alone to find their way. So instead we decided to go via Kratie. The first part was a known already, and easy enough. However, I'm here to tell you that the stretch of NHW 7 from Steung Treng to Kratie is every bit as bad as advertised, maybe worse. The entirety of this stretch consisted of long-eroded asphalt that littered the "road", usually in large, uneven chunks. Where there weren't chunks, there were ruts or sand or ruts AND or OF sand(deep sand). I understand now why even experienced riders often opt to ferry from ST to Kratie or vice-versa, as one trip down this piece of shit "road" will undoubtedly suffice for me. To make matters even worse, the ****head drivers of government or NGO SUVs all too often came sliding sideways around corners, aiming their dickmobiles directly at us and kicking up mushroom clouds of dust that literally blinded us for seconds at a time. The pricks. We came to hate them as much as sand.

Just before the HWY hugged the Mekong we saw glimmering asphalt around a corner in the distance and screamed for joy, as this had been a rough day, everything considered. We rolled down the busy Mekong stretch of NHW 7 into Kratie proper mere minutes before sundown. 2 beers on the riverside later, we realized we were directly across the street from our intended hotel. Sweet. I suppose we deserved that. Total length in km was right around 300.

Leg 6 -- Kratie to Sen Monorem: NHW 7 to Snuol is under construction(dirt still) with a few odd detours around bridge projects and the like, but we were able to pretty much fly all the way into Snuol. The only real hazards were the large trucks that impeded our progress and were often nearly impossible to pass, owing to the fact that they owned the road and left blinding dust storms in their wake. It became customary to pass them on climbs, when we really had an advantage over them, and even then it wasn't easy. Pulling into Snuol my clutch cable gave and we had to throw on a new one; it took longer than it should have, due to the shit design on the 250 Honda Degree I was riding.

Now here's what I don't get, and maybe somebody can explain it to me: my Gecko map clearly shows the turnoff for PR 76(to SM) being north of Snuol(ie, before we would reach Snuol). In reality, though, we had to go through Snuol to find it. Whatever. Anyway, 76 was a joy. It's wide and, for the most part, very level. Maybe 30-35 km from Snuol the steady climb into Mondulkiri began and the scenery began to change. Quite literally we turned a corner on a climb and everything turned green -- pretty cool. A sputter on a decline 20 minutes later had me reaching for my fuel reserve switch and cursing myself for not refueling when we had the chance at the last village preceding the hills. Around 25 fuel-conserving km later we coasted into a village where we were able to score some not-so-quality fuel and take in the surroundings, which were beautiful. I'll say without reservation that Mondulkiri is the prettiest area I've seen in Cambodia -- the rolling hills and grasslands offer amazing vistas, and I'm almost certain we were able to peek into Vietnam in the distance. The road(just dirt still) being nice enough to allow us to survey everything while riding only made it nicer, and there was very little traffic as well.

About 10 kms outside of SM I had my closest call yet with an animal. There had been many close calls along the trip -- chickens, puppies, dogs, cows and the like -- but none yet that had taken me by so much surprise. At the bottom of a descending S-curve a freaking huge bull(horns and all, his back seriously at least 5 ft high) came bucking out of the ravine at the inside of the curve and directly into my path, forcing me to basically power slide to a halt as best possible. I didn't manage to stop entirely but I did manage to slow enough to allow him to get out of my way and not wipe out. Heart rate increased, we rode into Sen Monorem 15 minutes later. Total distance traveled was again around the 300 km mark.

SM day trip: due to some charitable work on my part we only had one day to spare, so we did Boo-sra Waterfall. I'd estimate that it took us an hour and a half each way, going to harder than coming from, and it was a challenging ride with some seriously rutted, stone and tree-root ridden climbs that had my buddy and his passenger(she'd lived in SM for a year and failed on 3 attempts to successfully make it to the falls) popping improptu wheelies that they somehow managed to ride out. There were also the river crossings: the first river was quite wide but very shallow, and the second looked to be more of a stream but was actually deeper, as I was to find out on the return trip. When recrossing on the return I managed to find a not-so-acceptable route across that in a blink of an eye had me hip-deep in water -- if possible, pay attention to the routes any motos crossing choose or, failing that, wade in and verify a safe route. I managed to ride my bike out successfully(and with gusto!), but I'm not so stupid as to think I wasn't a little fortunate. Upon the final approach to Boo-Sra my chain began seizing up, despite the fact that it had been well-lubed earlier in the day. My buddy and Khmer-speaking Lucy rode ahead a couple a villages and found a motorcycle doctor, who came back with the only thing resembling proper lube that he had: used diesel oil. After slightly adjusting the chain he proceeded to apply the diesel oil to the chain with an old toothbrush. The obscenity of it all required we take snapshots of the dirty oil dripping onto and running off the swing arm, but hey, it got us back to SM.

Also in Sen Monorem is the air strip, which is a veritable playground for dirt bikes. Take your pick: drag racing the length of it or hitting the various trail approaches to the strip where there are jumps galore. Had it not been for my day of charity, I'd have really hit the strip for some serious bike-beating. I still managed to get a little in.

Leg 7 -- Sen Monorem to Kampong Cham: we took our time on the way back to Snuol, taking the pictures we wished we had on the way in, and set off on NHW 7 through Memot and onto Kampong Cham. From Snuol to KC was a breeze(paved), especially after Memot when the pavement became even smoother. This was an absolute joy ride, and despite all of our stops, including a long lunch and phone call in Memot, we made it into KC by 3PM -- it was a breeze.

Leg 8 -- anxious to get back to PP for some partying, we decided to stick to the PR 223, which hugs the western banks of the Mekong and eventually joins NHW 7 on the outskirts of PP. This was a nice ride, and there were some (mostly)fun obstacles: first, there were what appeared to be speed bumps at fairly regular intervals for a good stretch that I'm sure would be effective at slowing motos but were begging to be jumped by dirt bikes. Jump them we did, much to the delight of onlooking kids -- fun stuff. Secondly, a mere 10 km from NHW 7 I spied a calf sprinting across the road maybe 30 meters ahead when all of a sudden I thought to myself, "I wonder if another one's chasing him?" Um-hmm. Sure enough, another one darted out, but directly in front of me(I was maybe doing 60 km/hr). I slammed on the brakes and slowed sufficiently to miss him by at most a foot, so literally 20 km from PP I nearly bought it. Thankfully, the rest of the way into PP was uneventful, and we and our bikes returned unscathed. Total distance: 136 km.

All told, it was a great time, and I plan on doing another next year. I'll know to pack less to enjoy more and try even harder to get off the beaten path, which often is challenging enough. Preah Vihear and the Cardamoms are calling!

If anybody has any questions or comments, shoot away.

Dec 18, 2003
I'm still waiting to hear if any of you can explain the Snuol question to me: when going from Kratie to Modolkiri, the Gecko maps show the turnoff being BEFORE Snuol, not after, but such is not the case. What's the deal?