This year’s wet season had come earlier than previous years: which meant that the six day trip we had coming up in June was gonna be entertaining. Ian and brothers, Scott & Tim had booked the date several months in advance, but before we all knew it the day had arrived. After a barbecue welcome dinner and an early[ish] night we were soon heading to one of our favourite parts of the country to ride, The Cardamom Mountains; remote, wild and full of amazing riding, from fire trails and awesome single-track to technical, rocky hill climbs and descents, enough to keep even the hard enduro crowd happy.
Day One – Siem Reap to Battambang
Ian & Scott’s weapon of choice was the Yamaha WRF250 and Tim was on a Honda CRF250X. They were all accomplished riders and had been in training for this tour to get bike fit. We set off early with me up front, La sweeping and Nuon was in the support truck taking up the rear. We were soon on windy, sandy trails leaving Siem Reap. Today’s riding was fairly easy going so everyone could get used to their bikes and acclimatize. [Even the Australians struggle a bit with the humidity here.]
After a tight forest section, where Tim had the first crash of the trip, we were soon crossing the flood plains of the northern part of the Tonle Sap Lake passing through some scenic villages on the way. This time of year it is still doable but the surrounding fields were filling up and it would soon be a quagmire. Even so, we had some fun in the ruts and Scott was the first to get properly roosted [by Ian if I remember correctly] we stopped for quite a late lunch at a great local restaurant we always use. By the time we finished it was nearly 4pm, so the guys opted to jump on the highway for the last few km to the hotel. After a tasty beef soup we were ready for bed.
Day Two - Battambang to O Soum
We had a good night’s sleep and were raring to go. Today we entered the first proper part of the Cardamoms. The rain made the riding a lot more challenging and we had to tackle ruts and muddy bogs as we cut through the surrounding grasslands before the terrain got higher. After a little river crossing the track turned to hard packed clay and this combined with light spattering’s of rain, gave it an oily like surface, and we had to go easy on the throttle. The rain stopped and we cut off into a new forest section which we found on our last run; with the constant development we have to be on the lookout for new trails all the time. Back on the loamy single track we had a bit more grip and picked up the pace. You couldn’t relax for a minute as there were tree roots littering the trails along with hidden ruts created by Cambodia’s infamous ox-carts. Scott had the first off of the day after he lost the front round a corner, soon followed by Ian who had a nasty off due to a protruding log, but luckily fell into the grassy bank on his left and not down the gulley to his right. He didn’t escape unscathed though, as he took a bash to the ribs which he later found out were dislocated, ouch! But he kept riding for the full 6 days; a true dirt biker: somehow when you’re on the bike you just get over the pain as the pure exhilaration of the ride encompasses all… you feel it the next morning though, and the one after and the one after that!…
After another rocky river crossing, we had a great ride as the road opened up a bit and we got on the throttle. It was now Tim’s turn to dump the bike. Well actually Ian did that to avoid hitting Tim after he went into a deceptively deep puddle and over the bars…you couldn’t have lined the bikes up better if you tried; great evasive skills. [Check out the tour vid]. After one smaller river crossing, we rolled up to Pramoy for lunch. We were making good time so we took our time and after a good feed sat back and watched the world go by. The afternoons ride gave us big windy red dirt roads that carved through the mountains and a few steep hill climbs that took us up to O Soum village. We rocked in around 5pm with big grins on our faces and watched the days end sipping some nice cool beers still pumped from the days riding. It turned out that everyone got the crashes out of the way today, as for the rest of the trip everyone stayed upright.
Day Three - O Soum to Koh Kong
Everyone was feeling a bit battered and bruised today after yesterday. Today was a fun ride, but pretty easy going as we took the Chinese road, which for the most part was graded red dirt roads, with some washed out climbs and descents; very scenic with some great views. After the third dam there is a large river which we drove through to cool off and got some great photos. There was an option to go on a more technical trail which would have meant another late finish, but the lads decided to take the easier route which got us into Koh Kong town just after lunch. We took advantage of the welcome rest to catch up on emails and do some work on the bikes. The hotel was on the Koh Kong estuary and there was a great restaurant with good food and coffee where we chilled at for the rest of the day.
Day Four - Koh Kong to Chipat
We had all been anticipating this day, being the most technical section of our journey. It can be taxing enough in the dry season and the fact that it had been raining nonstop overnight would put all our skills to the test. It was sunny when we left Koh Kong; A good sign!? Hopefully the trail would have a chance to dry out a bit, but his was not to be. The riding was easy going to begin with; highway that led us to the turnoff to Thma Bang village. We were on large sweeping, red dirt logging roads until we arrived at Thma Bang. Then the road narrowed and we started to climb as we entered the first bit of the mountain. It decided to start raining and the red clay road became so slippery that we were crossing up in ruts and driving sideways a lot of the time as we made our way up & down some fairly steep hills. Soon we arrived in the sleepy little village of Areng where there’s a large river crossing. Due to the rain it was questionable whether it was crossable as the river can change into a raging torrent after several hours of heavy rain. As it was, we got across fine and after loading up on petrol, coffee and sugary sweets, we headed off on what proved to be an unforgettable day.
It had stopped raining, but was still pretty slippery as the trail turned to single track and we made our way through the mountains toward our first proper challenge for the day; A tree had fallen down across our path just before the entrance to a large creek, which was basically a 30 metre rock garden; easy enough in the dry, but now had filled up with water. La went first picking his way through the rocks around the corner, as we lifted the tree for him to pass. All sounded good until you could hear the unforgettable whine of an engine protesting about being dropped. I ran ahead to help La up; he’d come off pretty hard and smacked his elbow. We pulled the bike up as I noticed two even bigger trees the width of large telegraph poles had fallen across the entrance to the approaching hill climb. Strewn with rocks, roots and boulders this was a hard enough section without a damn tree in the way!
There was just enough room to pull the bikes through on their sides but there had to be an easier way. I started to look for an alternate route. By that time Ian & the others had caught up. Scott approached the fallen down trees and gave one of them a good boot, causing it to disintegrate. It was rotten to the core and we had soon cleared enough space to be able to dismount and walk the bikes through. The other tree was solid and would not budge. I went first and got La’s bike to the top. It was an almighty climb with a winding rut that swallowed our bikes whole. Then we had a technical climb to the top, over boulders and rocky outcrops, and all the time vines catching on our Go Pros and helmets. Once at the top we all stopped for a rest. There was no rush …we had all day after all! After some well needed trail mix & energy drinks we pressed on. We carried on up the hill for another 500 metres or so and then after a challenging descent serving up more of the same lay our next challenge.
The next section was a little washed out section of the track which had been like this for years, consisting of two thin logs stretching across the washout holes with a drop either side. Basically you couldn’t ride out of it, if you rode into it, unless of course you were Graham Jarvis, who would not even bother with that futile approach; he would just wheelie [or endo across the logs] Unfortunately we were not even slightly close to Mr. Jarvis [I had tried riding across it in March only for the back to slip off and I ended up with the bike on top of me down this hole.] so it took all four of us to get all the bikes over. In March you could actually walk the bikes across on your own as the clay bank on the right was in good condition. That had deteriorated and it took a bit more maneuvering to get the bikes across, slowly edging forward bit by bit. Exhausted but beaming from ear to ear we sat down for a good 20 minutes before we continued. Everyone was pumped and in high spirits. There was a constant drizzle which kept the temperature down. In March the heat was stifling and we were all at risk of heat exhaustion. Give me more fucked up trails any day than that heat!
We were all pretty knackered now, as it had taken us 4 hours already to only go twenty km. This trail is very remote and due to the condition of the trail meant it would take a long time to get help if something went wrong. So that meant lots of rests and water breaks. We had one more hill-climb and descent to go, and then an easy 20 km of single track and small climbs as we dropped down towards Chipat. We got to the bottom and had a swim in a cool mountain stream. Everyone was pretty much spent now so we relaxed for a bit letting the water rush over us. It had been an epic ride so far and Ian and the boys where over the moon, man hugs all around, saying “it was the best riding of their lives; A true adventure! “ Hearing that makes the job so rewarding and it’s great to be part of this.
The hill climbs were over and it was mainly single track now, which was very overgrown with loads of vines stretching across the track ready to catch you unaware and you had to be careful not to garrote yourself. In many ways today was like a video game with the different levels of the game being all the challenges we faced. The next challenge was the Bamboo stage! It got so thick in places that we had to literally lie the bikes on the side and pull/push them through. Again you had to be careful driving through this stuff as I have impaled various limbs in the past due to these thickets being cut to get through them … an exaggeration but you had to be careful as they were vicious. We finally got back to civilization [sort of] and a welcome rain shower greeted us into the quiet riverside village of Chipat. We were so tired that night we could barely eat and before we know it we were out for the count.
Day Five - Chipat to Kep
Today was a long day. We checked the bikes over in the morning, changing a few brake pads and bleeding the brakes. After a hearty breakfast we crossed the rapids near Chipat and soon were charging through slippery single track and dense, overgrown jungle. There were a few little climbs and some river crossings, but nothing like yesterday. For the most part the riding was fast and exhilarating.
Some sections had got really bogged down and we battled through the mud and ruts. We stopped off at Kamlot for a rest and to free up some of the mud from the bikes. Packet noodles never tasted so good! The next section you wouldn’t have thought it was the wet season, as the deep sand tossed us around on our bikes. We were making good time and arrived in Srey Ambel near the coast around 2pm.
There was an option to follow the coast for a bit and then cut through the mangroves towards Kampot, but the lads were exhausted and liked the idea of getting to the beach for sunset. We gritted our teeth and endured the highway route, arriving in Kep around 5pm. Nuon was waiting for us with ice cool beers which were a welcome end to the ride for today. We all jumped in the pool that overlooked the gulf of Thailand with beers, buzzing and still not quite believing the fun we had had the last few days. That evening we took a Tuk Tuk and went to one of the many seafood restaurants on the sea front. We had a wide variety of seafood dishes cooked up in the Khmer way including crab with the famous Kampot pepper. A good end to the day!
Day Six - Kep to Phnom Penh
The last day we also had a fair bit of distance to do, so after checking out Kep’s famous salt plains, we were back in the nearby hills as we entered Phnom Voar Mountain. Three backpackers were kidnapped off the train and held here before they were executed back in 1994. It was a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the earlier years of the war and a frequent target of B52 bombers. The routes we were on however were safe and cleared of mines and UXO. Phnom Voar, which means Vine Mountain, is now famous for its pepper plantations and the world famous organic Kampot pepper is grown here. It is a very picturesque part of the country especially at this time of year with the thriving rice fields and pepper plantations, giving off different shades of green. As we neared the top of the hill we stopped to take in the scenery, with the pepper plantation spreading away as far as the eye could see, with the rice fields, salt flats and finally the ocean in the distance. Ancient limestone hills called Karst formations were jutting up across the landscape, making it a very unique landscape.
We carried on and dropped back down to flat ground. The rest of the day consisted of red dirt roads and a little bit of single track. Before getting in to Phnom Penh we stopped at Choeung Ek: The Killing Fields, so Ian & the boys could get more perspective on what happened during the civil war. Over 2million people were killed during the civil war; nearly a quarter of the population, and Choeung Ek was one of many Killing fields scattered over the country. It was more notorious than others due to the fact that a lot of prisoners were bought here after being detained at the S21 prison in Phnom Penh. It was a somber end to the tour. We got back to the hotel and after freshening up we had a nice sunset cruise on the Mekong with a BBQ thrown in, to round off the tour.
Once again I am privileged to have met Ian, Scott, and Tim and to have ridden with them. I can’t say enough how rewarding it is to see people having such memorable life changing experiences. This is what we are about at Kickstart providing people with the best possible experience they can have on a dirt bike. Being part of this you always end up with new mates at the end of the tour. Until next time boys! Thanks to Ia, Tim & Scott, La and an extra special thanks to Nuon who was the support driver for the trip and a constant helping hand and provider of cooling beverages!