Multi-day Mountain Biking in the Cardamom Mountains

When Dirk suggested a 4 day mountain biking trip to Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, I couldn’t say no. Being in a constant state of mountain deprivation in flat Cambodia, it was finally a chance to go do some proper hills. In the end, five of us agreed to join: Belgian man Dirk, Geoff from UK, Andreas from East Germany, Panya (our guide) from Cambodia, and me harkening from Ireland.

One of the many river crossings in the Cardamom Mountains. This lad charged us 5$ for the trip!

Day 1

We left Phnom Penh late on Thursday evening to drive three hours to the town of Pursat. Friday morning was then up at the crack of dawn to drive another three hours to our starting point, Phumi Pramoay. We ditched the car, grabbed our bikes and our final bowl of beef noodle soup, and started cycling south in the hot morning sun. Within half an hour, the heavens opened and the monsoon began. The wide dirt road became a watery, muddy mess that our bikes hated but the local buffalos love.

Mountain Biking in the Cardamom Mountains

The day started out very flat, but within an hour or two the climb began. What with having packs of 8-10 kilos on our backs, many of the climbs were reduced to a walk. The climbs weren’t that steep or long. There just happened to be loads of them. What didn’t help was that the dirt road in places was churned up by the logging trucks that are carting out many of the Cardamom’s trees. One place looked like Armageddon, with burnt out tree stumps and jauganot trucks parked up waiting for the next day’s destruction.

One of the logging trucks stuck in the mud.

After another hour, we arrived at a great big building with Chinese symbols emblazoned on its gates. Our maps said there was one road was meant to continue south, an old smugglers’ route. There were now most definitely two roads right in front of us. When we asked the local factory workmen if the southern road was right, they told us most definitely no. That road tried to cross a river. And that river was now too large to bridge.

We decided to ignore them. But then at the next stream crossing, another local told us to turn back. “There’s no boat. The monsoon has started. You cannot cross”. Undeterred, we decided to keep going and see for ourselves. What with the lack of traffic on the road, the smugglers route had now deteriorated to a uneven single track. Bamboo grew over the path, and many ravines had been cut through with steep descents on either side. Our pace slowed. And soon it got dark.

Overgrown Bamboo on parts of the track.

We had hoped to reach the river before setting up camp. But by 7.30pm, we were tired and hungry. We found a place beside a stream to drop our bikes and bags, gathered some wood from the surrounding jungle, and boiled water for our dehydrated noodle soups. By 9pm we were still too tired to go on, after 60 kilometres of riding and 1,300 metres of climb. So we hung our hammocks up in the bamboo forest and slept there with the mosquitoes, leeches, and any other wild animals that cared to join us for the night.

Day 2

After sleeping a surprisingly deep sleep, we packed up camp the next morning and headed towards the river. It took us an hour to travel the final 4 kilometres, the road’s many dips and dives and divots slowing our pace. When we got there, yes, the river was fast flowing and looked wide and deep. But there was a zip line rigged right across it which would bring bikes and bags and people nicely across.

Andreas emerging from our hammock camp in the jungle.

It took us over an hour to get us all across. Then it was a quick swim before getting back on our bikes for more jungle ups and downs.

Zip-lining our bikes across the 'uncrossable' river.

The trail became smoother and smoother the further we got from the river. But our bikes were not appreciating it. One by one, they all developed problems. Gears started grinding and slipping. One wheel had over five punctures in the space of half a day. My chain got a kink. Then Andreas’s forks decided to go ‘kaput’. Our bikes were not designed for the grimy climate and conditions that Cambodia’s monsoon and Cardamom Mountains dish up.

Our aim was to get us and our bikes down towards Tatai bridge, and rest our heads at a lodge there. Again, easier said than done. We continued on the road, checking off our GPS coordinates as we went. Reaching another new road not marked on our map, we asked a few locals which way to go. They pointed one way. Our GPS said another. We trusted the locals and ended up doing an extra loop and an hour on the bikes.

Dirk - the campfire master!

As Day 2 became dark, we decided to call ahead to the lodge to tell them to keep the rooms. We were too late. They were already given away. With nowhere to sleep, we chanced upon a roadside sign that pointed to another lodge 2 kilometres down the road. They had 2 bungalows available, so at least a place to crash. A Khmer lady dished up German snitzel and chips which we devoured without asking her too many questions about where she had learned her culinary prowess.

Day 3

We woke to hear that Geoff had had too much fun already and was happy to call it a day. Sad to no longer have his company on the trail, the silver lining meant that this freed up his bike for Andreas whose forks had also bowed out from the ride.

After two hours of bike repairs (including a new cable for me, a new tyre for Dirk, and a new bike for Andreas), we set out for a two hour tarmac ride. Again, more ups and downs, including a final up of 300 metres after a heavy rain, causing the hot tarmac to create a sauna effect on the ride. I was about to die.

We finally hit flat wide dirt road that headed straight back into the forest. Our destination for the day was Tma Bang, a Forest Rangers’ hut, 60 kilometres from our starting point. I was definitely feeling the strain of three days of mountain bike riding. Things were hurting and rubbing where they didn’t normally, but I was happy enough to carry on. So when Dirk suggested stopping at a waterfall just before our final stopping point, I thought a quick swim would help cool me off.

One of the many washed away roads in the Cardamom Mountains.

After a few hundred metres of single track, we hit the waterfall top. Dirk, Andreas, and Panya made a beeline for the waterfall, whilst I took my time to first put on my Keen shoes. Before I knew it, Dirk was lying on the rocks shaking his head. His foot had gone into a huge hole hidden by the water and had hit something sharp at the bottom. I looked and saw a huge gash on his foot. I didn’t look as close as Andreas, who announced he had seen bone.

Fortunately, Dirk the doctor and Andreas, who works for the Red Cross, knew exactly what to do. Iodine swabs and plasters were plucked from bags, and Dirk was cleaned and bandaged up right there on the rocks. But he needed stitches within 24 hours. So he needed to get back to Phnom Penh asap.

Emergency surgery on the waterfall rocks.

After hauling one-legged Dirk up the single track, we put him on a hired motorbike from the nearby village. Within a few metres, the motorbike broke down. So we plonked Dirk back on his own bike, and with his good leg, he wheeled himself away from the waterfall and out of the forest.

With five kilometres to the closest chance of hiring a car, Andreas and Panya placed themselves either side of Dirk and pushed him to the nearest town. After much negotiation, the owner of an old pick-up agreed to drive Dirk the hour back to the main tarmac road where a van from Phnom Penh would come and pick him up back in Tatai.

Pushing Dirk to the nearest village to get transport back to the main road.

And rightly so, we decided to go back with him. Anything could happen him between Tatai and Phnom Penh, so he needed at least one person to accompany him. And anyhow, we were all tired and our bikes were knackered. And sure, we could always go back another time and cycle our Day 4 schedule of Tam Bang to Chi Phat.

Overall, it was definitely an adventure with a lot of crazy terrain including river crossings, zip lines, wild dogs, and interesting villages. It was also a lot harder than I expected: the heat, the monsoon rain, the heavy bags, and the long days all taking their toll. But it was good to see the Cardamom Mountains whilst they still have a semblance of forest. Hopefully when we return there’ll still be some trees there for us to tie our hammocks to.

All photos credited to Dirk and Geoff – thanks for the adventure lads!

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86 thoughts on “Multi-day Mountain Biking in the Cardamom Mountains

  1. What are you looking and find in your tour multi-day mountain biking in the cardamom mountains. Are you enjoying for your sport or you are doing sport menwhile riset about natural resources ?

  2. Great blog post and fantastic pictures. I lived in Asia for years and started mountain biking there so I know something of the conditions you were riding in (but not so extreme!). I’m having my own mountain biking adventure later in the summer (August 21-28) when I ride off-road across the Alps. There are a few hills to get over but at least I won’t have to deal with swollen rivers!

    An inspiring article. Thanks!

  3. Lord. I am exhausted just reading this. Hardcore is right. Brilliant read though – I am very inspired and congrats on being freshly pressed. And great photos too!

  4. Whoa, that’s intense. I like to bike but wow!

    Anthony Kraudelt
    4820 Rands Road
    Bloomfield Hills, MI 48302

  5. I love cycling but not mountain-biking …. But your story inspires me. My country has so many beautiful mountains .. I should try someday. Thanks a lot!

  6. Great description of your 3 day adventure – really felt like I was back there. Though I was wondering about unexploded landmines – more of an issue 10 years ago when getting off road, and now seemingly not a worry – thank goodness. Would love to see how they get that dug-in truck out of that mud – wonder if it’s still there!!!

  7. This was a great read. My hope is to rent a bike and run a race in each European city I visit in September. This post was such an inspiration, and I hope you’re friends foot heals well.

    Well, continue to have tons of fun! Take care.

  8. Incredible journey – a perfect blog to inspire us all to add some adventure into our lives. The picture of the bike being zip-lined is absolutely classic.
    I love the fact you all made the journey back with Dirk after his fall, very noble.

  9. Great stuff!
    Although I’m not looking for world records I too enjoy going outside. Mostly on foot. Since I got injured it’ll be on wheelchair and hopefully I’ll have some great videos and photos about that as well.

  10. I’me surprised by your bikes. Not that there is anything wrong witht them but the few “round the world and way in the back woods” mountain bikers I know tend to favor fixies with flip flop hubs and HUGE tires. But apparently those were all the bike you needed for the job. Maybe the other guys are just gear addicts and you guys have a better system? Outstanding, sir.

  11. Great blog post and fantastic pictures. I lived in Asia for years and started mountain biking there so I know something of the conditions you were riding in (but not so extreme!). I’m having my own mountain biking adventure later in the summer (August 21-28) when I ride off-road across the Alps. There are a few hills to get over but at least I won’t have to deal with swollen rivers!

    An inspiring article. Thanks!

    1. Laos is much more sleepy, but beautiful. Cambodia has Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Shinakouville and Kep… but then, I’m biased!

  12. Wow, that looks amazing! Being in Cambodia myself at the moment (living not visiting) maybe I should find myself somebody to go and have some bike/hiking/forest adventures with! The weather during these months are quite a deterrent though as it just makes the already rough roads muddy and harder to navigate (but then again I guess that’s maybe half the fun for… well half the time, right?) and the humidity gets about 10 times worse than usual! Which is horrid when you expect the weather to be nice and cooling after the rain!
    Ah, well, sounds like you had a grand adventure and those photos are really amazing! 🙂

  13. Hi! Looks like you had a great trip! Just wanted to let you know that your second picture, the one with the timber, is actually luxury timber. It’s thousands of dollars worth of luxury timber. I worked in the Cardomom mountains with the military police for a year trying to catch these people. Too bad tourists usually don’t know and don’t have the resources to report this activity. Those mountains are so beautiful, and it’s too bad that this stuff happens in the proctected forest.

  14. I see beauty in those pics and also angst and rage and a bit of mirth. Nicely balanced post. Well done.

  15. Hey guys, huge thanks for liking the post and the adventure! It wasn’t until I started writing it down that I realised what a crazy few days we had.

    Quick update… Dirk’s foot is fine now – doctors were well impressed with the first aid on the waterfall. My leech bites are slowly healing, the aches and pains have started to subside, and all our bikes are getting sorted out in time for next week’s mountain bike race on the coast!

  16. Sounds like you had a wonderful time for the most part in a remote area. Thanks for the pictures. They are very helpful and give pictures of what I would never see.

  17. Wow, you are an inspiration! what an amazing adventure. I love biking – but i go for the vintage bike, one-gear variety and i am not very good!
    BUT – i love where and how biking gets you round, and i love to plan this into my travels! (flat variety rather than mountains though)
    Your blog is an inspiration to key doing that!

  18. Wow, that sounds like a crazy trip. I think I’d have bowed out long before Geoff did. 😀 Great photos, and thanks for taking us along for the trip… I suspect I enjoy living vicariously more than I would actually being there with the leeches. 😀 And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

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