It’s 4pm, absolutely pissing down rain, and I am hiding in a Khmer family’s house watching lightening crash across the sky. I have 2 hours until sunset and 30 more kilometers to ride through potentially extremely steep mountain roads. My mind is full of despair. Why did I think I could do ride from Battambang to Koh Kong? Is my body even capable of this?
My bike trip around Cambodia has begun.
First up, cycling from Battambang to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains, stopping in Samlout, Pramaoy, and my picturesque paradise: O Saom Village.
The night before I started the trip, I was operating at a low level of panic. In my mind, I was too out of shape, too unprepared. I feared I would set out the next day and not even make it to my first stop.
My friends did their best to cheer me up, but by that point the only thing I could do was start the ride.
My 5am alarm rang sooner than I would’ve liked.
Day 1: Cycling Battambang to Samlout
Waking up, my first thought was, “You don’t need to start the ride today. Go back to sleep.”
Thankfully I have at least a teaspoon of willpower. I headed out the door and left my Battambang life behind.
The first hour or two of the ride was really peaceful. I was up and riding by 5:20am, and had made it out to the picturesque hilltop Wat Sampov temple before the sun had fully risen. All the fear of the night before washed away as the scenery rolled past. By the time I stopped for breakfast I was in the zone.
My route followed the paved highway to Pailin for about 45km then turned off onto a dirt road heading out towards Samlout. Little did I know this was the last paved road I would see for over a week.
Riding out to Samlout my thoughts were conflicted. All I saw around me was peaceful farmland and Khmer daily life. But I also found myself contemplating the history I knew sat beneath the surface of this region.
Battambang region, and specifically the mountains on the outskirts, were some of the hardest hit areas of the Khmer Rouge period and subsequent civil war. By 1998, the town of Samlout and the surrounding mountains were cut off from the rest of the world. Old Phnom Penh Post articles talk about how impossible it was for wartime journalists to make it to the town, where the last vestiges of the Khmer Rouge fighters were still revolting against the now firmly in power Vietnamese backed Cambodian government. The articles describe how the street to Pailin was lined with refugees. The very same street I was riding down during my first day.
Today, the legacy of that war is hidden somewhat. The valley is peaceful and still, filled with countryside scenes and Cambodian people herding cattle. But the scars remain beneath the surface. Signs dot the roadsides cautioning about mines or detailing mine clearing efforts.
This violent history doesn’t define the people of Cambodia, however, and I was happy to meet many helpful and engaging locals during the days ride.
The road to Samlout is hilly without being too steep. I finished the 77km before 1pm, exhausted but happy.
As I thankfully rolled into Samlout, I saw a sign that said “Guesthouse” so I pulled in.
No one was home.
Eventually a little kid saw me, then ran off shouting. He came back with some little friends and they all stood off to the side and giggled quietly to themselves. After some time, a family showed up. I asked them, in Khmer, if this was a guesthouse. They nodded, then proceeded to more or less ignore me. It was pretty strange but I figured they were just taking their time.
As I waited, I lay down across a bench and in my exhaustion, began to fall asleep. The father of the family ushered me inside and offered me a space to sleep on a wooden bed. No hotel room, just a wooden surface inside their house. I thought this too was odd but I was too exhausted to care. I fell asleep for an hour.
Woke up around 2pm absolutely starving. The family was almost entirely gone. A young woman probably about my age sat outside. Leaving my things inside the house, I left to find some food.
Rode around a bend and discovered that there was a whole second half of the town I hadn’t even seen yet. My doubts about the validity of my “guesthouse” began to solidify. But first, food.
As I’m enjoying my market stall noodle soup, the cook comes over and starts talking to me in English. Asks where I am from, if I’m traveling alone… typical questions. Then she asks if I’ve found the guest house yet, and points in the opposite direction.
Okay, so I wasn’t at the guesthouse.
Back at the first “guesthouse” the young woman was still sitting in front in the same position as when I had left. I picked up my bags, put them on my bike, said goodbye to her, and rode away. She didn’t seem phased at all. Just smiled and went back to staring into space.
From their point of view, I’m pretty sure a Cambodian family found a random foreigner sitting on their front step, let her sleep in their house for a few hours, and then the foreigner rode away.
Anyway, I found the proper guesthouse and got a room for the night. Had a really festive dinner with the owner and his friends, and was up at 5am the next day ready to ride.
Day 2: Cycling Samlout to Pramaoy and Everywhere In Between
How to even begin to describe this day? It was the first of many truly challenging days I would have cycling in Cambodia’s mountains from Battambang to Koh Kong.
The ride to Pramaoy taught me who I am as a person. It changed my understanding of myself on a fundamental level. It broke me down and built me back up over and over again.
I set out from my Samlout guesthouse all confidence. Yesterday had been so effortless, so fun. I was sure today would be even better. Only 71 kms. Throw a couple mountain climbs in there. No problem. Piece of cake.
It only took a few minutes for that hope to be shattered. My route veered onto jungle paths that barely live up to the word “road.” Eventually I made my way down to the river. No bridge. I was stuck.
I quickly found a new route that would add about 20km to my day. The new route cut a fairly straight line through some foothills towards the mountains. I rolled through several villages, coasting up and down small hills with the mountains rising majestically to my right.
After breakfast, I crossed the “bridge” which was really just a couple of logs strung together and got some questionable directions from the local villagers.
I took the first right hand turn, checked my GPS and pedaled off down the road. Energetic from my breakfast and confident as I faced off with the mountain ridge in the distance, I pedaled hard and fast, allowing my thoughts to flow with the scenery around me.
I daydreamed like this for a good hour before stopping to check my GPS. To my horror and dismay I had missed a turn. Not missed it. Overshot it by about 20km. There was NO way I was backpedaling 20km. Not after the bridge incident from the morning.
I asked to my GPS to recalibrate. Took a new road forward, confident I had tricked google maps and found a better route after all.
But Cambodia had other plans for me.
The road soon disintegrated into a mucky, muddy mess. If you’ve never experienced the unique substance that is Cambodian mud, let’s take a minute to pay homage to this unique form of torture.
Cambodia’s soil is a rich clay that, when wet, becomes a slippery pit of despair that eats everything in its path. The harder you try to stay upright, the more the mud pulls you inexorably downwards.
It was a struggle, to say the least. There were some single tracks that intrepid motorcyclists had carved around the muck, saving me a bit of time and effort. Nonetheless, I took my first massive fall of the ride right into a giant puddle. With great effort I pulled myself upright and came face to face with a laughing old man.
Stifling his laughter, he asked where I was going. He leaned down and drew a map to Pramaoy in the mud. The rest of the morning entailed riding down a dirt road, hoping to eventually reach a T-junction.
I must admit, there came a moment where I shouted “I can’t do this anymore!”
5 minutes later I reached the T-junction. Because of course I broke down right before the end. Put myself back together and carried on, now safely back on track.
Popped into a market, had a plate of rice and pork, and fell asleep in a hammock for an hour and a half. Got up at 1pm to head up into the mountains, excited but nervous.
And of course, almost immediately, google maps sent me off on some crazy “short cut” road that was barely a road, mostly mud, and literally ate my bike up to the front wheel shocks. Luckily I still had one foot on solid ground and could pull myself back up.
Exhausted, frustrated, and a little excited, I fought my way through the bush road and made it back to the official road up into the mountains.
And man, was it up. It was relentless. A steep climb that just kept going. I had to stop several times to catch my breath and sit with the truck drivers who were also taking breaks. Because I guess driving trucks up mountains is also hard work.
But eventually, even though there is always more up, I came to the top. Actually, I made it to the top a lot more quickly that I expected to, which is pretty unusual in the mountains. Still, I couldn’t let myself get arrogant. Some truck drivers I had spoken to made me a bit nervous. Pramaoy was still very far away, with another big climb between here and there.
After that massive steep climb I was rewarded with every mountain biker’s dream: a long, almost endless downhill. It went on forever. It never went up, just down, down, down. Down through this wide open valley surrounded on all sides by mountains. There is a small village up there that stretches along the road. The locals would call out and cheer as I flew by. I would smile and laugh in return.
I was exuberant. I was flying. I was ecstatic.
Then everything changed.
Dark clouds pregnant with rain gathered in the sky over my head. As the first fat drops splattered down, a woman waved me over to cower under cover of her shop. I sat and ate a quick meal, and checked my phone and GPS.
4pm with 30km more to go through the mountains.
Sunset was at 6:20, and during my previous climb and rugged road conditions, it had taken me 1 hour to go 10km. At that rate, and with it pouring rain, impossible to ride in and guaranteed to make the dirt roads more difficult…. I doubted my ability to make it to Pramaoy.
Still, I was determined to try. by 4:20pm, the rain had cleared up and I was back on my bike, flying down the road.
Adrenaline and determination were flowing through my veins. I pushed and pushed. The downhill continued for a bit but then the road again began to climb. Thankfully nowhere near as steep as the early afternoon mountain ascent. I continued to push with an intensity I didn’t realize I had.
Honestly, that whole end of the day is a bit of an adrenaline soaked blur. I know the road passed through thick jungle, through a town, and I saw lots of roads turning off to the left. I knew the road would fork, and I needed to take the right fork, so I studiously stayed to the right.
Nonetheless, as the last light left the sky for the day, I found myself speeding out onto the main road, a Khmer man laughing nearby, most definitely NOT in Pramaoy.
How the fuck had I taken the left fork? I don’t even remember there BEING a fork, and I definitely stayed to the right the whole time.
Never solved that particular mystery.
Checked google. 7.2km to Pramaoy. Okay, I told my fatigued legs, my exhausted lungs, and my disappointed mind, you can do this. 7km is nothing.
In the dim light of dusk, I rode. The road was now a large, well maintained dirt road. The hills were small, but my exhausted legs still complained on every uphill. With about 5km to go, I hit the wall. I started cursing the day I was born, cursing my decision to make this bike trip, and definitely cursed at a dog that started barking at me.
But curses aside, at 7:20pm I rolled into Pramaoy and collapsed into the first guesthouse I saw.
From 5:20am to 7:20pm, including an hour and a half in a hammock, I had been traveling for 14 hours. But I had made it to Pramaoy.
I’d love to say I gratefully took a rest day there in Pramaoy, but Pramaoy isn’t the kind of town that begs you to stay.
No, instead I woke up the next day and did it all over again.
Day 3: Cycling Pramaoy to O Saom
This was my second time making the cycling trip from Pramaoy to O Saom. I’d made it once before. Last November on my first trip through the Cardamoms.
This time was easier. I knew what to expect. Instead of stressing about the climbs or my mileage, I savored every hill. Pushed through the climbs, enjoyed the struggle, and made it to O Saom by 11am, with a little help from the ferry across the lake.
It was a great ride. The road was in poor condition, but considerably better than it had been in November.
I rolled into O Saom exhausted but happy.
That’s a wrap on the first half of my ride from Battambang to Koh Kong. Once I’ve finished cycling through the Cardamoms, I’ll cover the unbelievably intense ride from O Saom to Koh Kong and Koh Kong to Andong Tuek. Until then,
Never stop exploring.