Waking up on day 3 of my bike ride from Pursat to Koh Kong, I found, to my delight, that my legs contained no trace of the exhaustion I had felt the night before. By some miracle of protein and fried noodles, my muscles had healed themselves, and I jumped out of bed at 5:30 a.m. full of energy.
The Morning Ride
I set off immediately, thinking to eat breakfast in the outskirts of the town. First mistake. Town had no outskirts. The road was immediately through farmland, with no little villages in sight.
Aside from the lack of breakfast, the morning ride was absolute perfection. If yesterday’s road had been the Cambodian version of a freeway: wide, flat, and crowded with trucks; today’s was a Californian fire road: winding across rolling hills, with small climbs and sudden descents. The first hour of riding was some of my favorite of the whole trip.
Through the growing dawn light, I passed through farm fields draped over rolling hills. Rows of corn, potatoes, and other crops that I didn’t recognized stretched off into the mist. In the distance, growing closer with every climb, were the steep mountain slopes. I pushed towards them in growing anticipation; excited for the brutal climb I knew I was facing, nervous that I’d have to do it on an empty stomach.
Breakfast with Strangers
Thankfully, on a little plateau close to the mountains, I passed through a small village. As I coasted through town, a spotted a small restaurant with a few people eating. I eagerly pulled over for some breakfast, ready to have a limited chat with the locals.
The usual surprise and “where are you going?” conversation ensued. I ordered another bowl of bor bor (rice porridge) and sat down to enjoy my breakfast. At some point during my meal, a man came and sat at my table, not an unusual occurrence in Cambodia. He asked the usual slew of questions, where I was from, how long was I in Cambodia, and where was I going. When I said “O Saom” he grabbed his knees in mock pain saying “Riding a bicycle? No way. Don’t do that. No way.”
That was my first indication of just how intense the rest of my day would be.
As I pedaled towards the mountains after breakfast I felt strong. Not confident, but at least eager. Not long after the meal, I began the climb.
Cycling across my last flat section of the morning, I came to the top of a large drop off. I looked across a valley and could see a mud road zig zagging its way up through the dense jungle-clad wall of mountain in front of me. I set off. Dropped into my low gear and chugged along up the mountain.
The road was in terrible condition, and I was climbing at the very end of the rainy season. In places the road was reduced to slippery wet clay clinging to a grade so steep I would have thought it impossible to climb.
But of course, even as I struggled to push my bike through knee deep mud up a mountain, Cambodian families rode by on 100cc motos.
Every Cambodian who drove by cheered me on a little, or said “oh! Tired huh?” It was motivating, but no amount of motivation was going to get my ass up that mountain. Several times, more than several, I had to get off and walk the bike up a hill, slipping in the wet clay. I want to say it was demoralizing, but I loved every second of it.
For some reason, climbing and struggling up endless mountains alone inspires me. It brings out some long lost deeper version of myself who lives for a challenge. The fact that I’m alone makes me feel powerful and strong. The talk in my head was all positivity. Lots of “fuck yeah megan” and “you are such a fucking beast.”
No matter how much I rode, how far I pushed, the road kept going. I made it to the top of one climb, enjoyed a brief but very steep descent, and began the whole process again, climbing up another ridge. If there is one rule that I’ve learned from my years spent in mountains, it is this: there is always more up.
Long, steep zig zags through dense jungle, along a muddy, rutted out road. The effort to finish was intense. But finally, at long last, I made it. I stood at the top of the last climb and looked out over a stunning view.
The jungle had been cut away (for electrical wires, of course) to reveal a massive lake far below me and a huge valley encircled by mountains, one of which I was standing on. Far in the distance, across the lake I could see a small village, most likely O Saom, my destination for the day.
The descent began. My legs were relieved and my soul was joyous. Descents on a mountain bike are one of the most exhilarating experiences, even when they aren’t technical. I flew down the mountain towards the lake, passing through a small village full of surprised looking people (surprised, no doubt, to see a barang woman go rocketing by on a mountain bike, unaccompanied).
The road hit the lake and turned sharply to the right, cardinal direction I’m not sure. From there the road was mostly flat, but I knew I had to wind all the way around the massive lake before I would make it to O Saom. I probably had twenty kilometers left in the day, and it was only 11am.
My legs were pretty tired after that brutal climb, so I pulled over in some shade on the side of the road and laid down. Lunch was some dried mango and pineapple. There were no towns between that small lakeside village and O Saom, so I was without food, and very aware of the fact. After I had finished the mango, my stomach was still greedily asking for more.
As I laid on the side of the road and attempted to take a sneaky nap, two Europeans rode by on dirt bikes. They struggled through a tiny bit of mud nearby and stopped next to me, asking if I was okay. It was my first inclination that I was not, in fact, the only Barang in these mountains.
Even though they rode dirt bikes, and I was on a much more challenging mountain bike, I did feel a bit sorry for them. They were coming in the opposite direction, which according to them had no mud. The small bit they had just ridden through had really thrown them. I told them honestly, that the mud and shitty conditions were only just beginning. They were in for it.
Hopefully, they made it to Pramaoy in one piece. I may never know.
One Last Hurdle
Rested, I hopped back on the bike to finish my last 20 kilometers of the day. I felt tired, but capable. I knew I was going to finish. I had one more climb in front of me, nothing like what I had already completed, and then I would get to rest in beautiful O Saom.
At the top of the last climb, I stared out over the lake, ready to descend and bang out the final 14 kilometers to O Saom. I began the descent but I heard a troubling thumping noise. Stopping, I looked behind me to discover, much to my dismay, my rear tire was flat.
And I had no inner tubes with me. No tools. No hand pump.
In short, I was fucked.
But I was only 14 kilometers away from O Saom and it was still early. I could walk the rest of the way and hopefully get some help in the village.
I set off, pushing my bike down the descent and walking along the road. Cursing myself for my stupidity. I had even thought to myself, before setting out, I really ought to grab some inner tubes and tools, but had decided against it. Why? I don’t know.
I walked for something like 7 kilometers when a taxi drove by and stopped. The driver motioned to me, asking if I wanted a lift. I could have stubbornly refused, but it was hot, sunny, my legs were tired, and most of all, I was starving.
I hopped into the taxi.
We drove 2 kilometers to the closest guest house. A wonderful place that doesn’t really have a name, other than the O Saom Eco Tourism Center.
Heaven is a Place on Earth
I was greeted by Mr. Lim, the owner, who speaks excellent English and is extremely friendly. Originally from Pursat, he has lived up in the mountains for 3 years with his young family. He runs the guesthouse, tour agency, and voluntourism spot. He accepts volunteers as English teachers or gardeners. He works to help the local community learn more about sustainable agriculture and best practices.
Not to mention the beauty. He showed me to my own private bungalow with a hammock hanging in front, surrounded by a flowering tropical garden. His wife made me a simply lunch of fried ginger and rice, and I ate my late lunch at the pavilion, looking out at a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains. Fed and watered, I headed down to the lake to wash off.
I was in heaven.
Standing in a lake, surrounded by moutains, pepper farms, and breathing in the kind of air that one only finds at high altitudes, I felt at home. My writing doesn’t have the ability to live up to the beauty of O Saom. It is unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Cambodia. The air is cooler, the agriculture is smaller scale, the atmosphere is quieter. I laid in my hammock and wished that I had given myself more time up here. I wanted to spend a month exploring the surrounding countryside.
But I didn’t have a month, I had 4 days. At 7 p.m. I fell into my bed utterly exhausted, dreading the 125km trek that stood between me and Koh Kong.
This blog post is a continuation of a series on my 4 day cycling trip across the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia from Pursat to Koh Kong. Read about days 1 and 2, from Pursat to Pramoay, and Day 4 in O Saom.