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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!