Where we left off last, I had made it to O Soam, a remote village high up in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains. I’m hesitant to even describe O Soam, only because I love it so much and obnoxious as I am, I’d love for it to remain “undiscovered.”
Imagine a tranquil lake situated below the tallest mountain peak in Cambodia. The surrounding landscape is covered in a thick jungle. You lay in a hammock most of the day, listening to the birds and the insects. You eat communal meals with a local family and the one other foreigner who stumbled in that day. When you’re feeling adventurous, you head out on your mountain bike to find some trails going off into the jungle. You discover rivers, massive trees, stunning views.
Yeah. That’s why I was there for 6 days.
But all good things come to an end. After those 6 days, it was time to make the long ride from O Soam to Koh Kong.
Cycling O Soam to Koh Kong
The road from O Soam to Koh Kong is 120km of relentless mountain hills. There are a few houses scattered up at the top followed by 90km of pure jungle. Given that I wasn’t convinced I would even make it in one day, I needed to carry all the water and food I would need for one, possibly two days of riding.
I’d tried to make this ride once before, in November 2016, only to be thwarted by a flat tire. Back then, I flagged down a passing SUV and got a free ride all the way to the city.
This time I was determined to make it to Koh Kong only under the power of my own legs. I had all the tools and inner tubes I needed to make it all the way. I had my hammock and tarp in case I couldn’t quite get there.
Can I be honest? I was scared.
I was scared the road would be too hard. My legs would be too weak. I would be unequal to the task. I was more or less convinced I wouldn’t be able to make it to Koh Kong.
The night before the ride, the skies dumped gallons of water onto the mountains below, turning the road out of O Soam into a muddy obstacle course. I skidded and slipped down the first 15km or so, hoping that eventually the road would dry out.
It did, but I soon realized I faced another problem. Weighed down as I was with all my water and food, my back tire was having trouble holding air. It wasn’t completely flat, but it would get deflated easily. I had to stop once an hour to laboriously pump air into it with my tiny hand pump. Counting to myself to make sure I sent enough air into the tire, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.
As I came down a hill, I saw a house on my left. I knew from my last trip down this road that this was the last house before Koh Kong. I pulled over to ask if they had a proper tire pump.
I was greeted by a smiling and surprisingly outspoken Khmer woman who seemed to know a bit of English. When you first meet them, most Khmer women are soft spoken and a bit shy. To meet a woman who greets you loudly is out of the ordinary, to say the least.
She eagerly grabbed my bike and rolled it up her driveway, pulling out a tire pump and filling up both tires. Then, perhaps because she saw my already exhausted face, she sat me down and put a plate full of rice, an omelette, and a bowl of papaya soup in front of me. “Eat, eat!” She urged.
After the meal, I got up to continue and offered to pay for the meal. But she was having none of it. No money, no money, she insisted, over and over.
I grabbed my bike to head out and just then a bee stung my thumb. It wasn’t super painful, just surprising, but I guess it unleashed all the nerves and tension I’d been bottling up for days. I burst into tears.
“No cry! No cry!” The surrounding Khmer people burst into action. They offered to drive me down to Koh Kong, offered to let me stay there, kept telling me not to cry.
I did eventually pull myself together, declined the free ride, and kept riding down the road. This was all before 9am. I wouldn’t arrive to Koh Kong until 5pm that evening.
But I made it. The road was long, the day was intense, but I made it to Koh Kong.
I spent two days in Koh Kong, one for recovery, and one making a quick visa run to Thailand. I’ll talk about that in a separate blog post.
Cycling Koh Kong to Kampot
From Koh Kong, my next section of the trip was riding down Highway 48, a paved road that would take me out to National HIghway 4, one of the busiest roads in Cambodia, and from there over to Kampot, a tranquil river town that had been on my Cambodian bucket list for months.
That first day out of Koh Kong was another intense day. At one point I had a 10km uphill climb of 350m. And another. And another. Just like the day from O Saom, this day seemed to stretch on forever.
These long days have taught me something. The challenging of physically pushing myself past my limits is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Sure, walking across Peru was also physically challenging, and maybe the memory of that has faded over the years, but there is something about riding a bicycle up a mountain that is just relentlessly hard.
I knew before I started this ride that it would be challenging, but I could never have imagined the extent to which I would be exhausted. Riding up these hills, my thighs burning, my lungs burning, my fingers going numb from some kind of pinched nerve in my palm, and yet still pushing through, knowing that I can’t stop yet.
As I climb the massive hills, I set tiny goals for myself. Get to that next corner and you can stop. Reach the corner, okay just kidding, get to that next sign and you can stop. Reach the sign and, oh theres the top, get to the top and THEN you can stop.
But I get to the top and I don’t stop. I roll down the hill, gratefully resting my legs for a few seconds before cranking into high gear and pumping down the hill. The sudden speed sending a burst of adrenaline into my mind and my muscles. All energy, I fly down the road towards the next uphill, ready to tackle this one just like I tackled the last.
This process of riding through unforgiving territory for hours on end triggers some pretty intense realizations, both mental and physical. In a single day I might think “I can’t do this anymore” at least five times. But what I’ve learned is that I can do it. I can reach my goal. I can ride until I can barely stand, but if I need to, I can keep riding.
I’ve learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined.
Two days out of Koh Kong, I had one of those days where your muscles just wont warm up. Where even after two hours of riding, you still feel like your legs are made of lead. The bike is the heaviest thing in the world. I wanted to lay down. I wanted to cry. I wanted to give up.
But I had 70km more to go.
It was a 93km day and I probably felt strong for 20 of those kilometers. It was the day I hit National Highway 4, the road that runs from Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh. It is one of the busiest roads in the country.
The ride down Highway 4 was a constant barrage of trucks, cars, buses, more trucks, big trucks little trucks all rushing by me at top speed. Truck drivers found it amusing to shout things at me as they drove by. Busses didn’t find it necessary to move over even 6 inches to leave me any space. I felt their gravitational pull as they passed by.
Through it all, I’m operating on my lowest energy reserves. As my legs grow more and more tired, my mind becomes more and more negative. I get taken out of the moment and thrust into the horrible cycle of “when will this end?”
I did my best to stay positive, but by the end of that day I was mostly just thinking about laying down in whatever bed I could find and not getting up until the next morning.
At 3:30pm I rolled into my intended destination for the day, a placed called Veal Rihn, which is really just a market situated at the turning point for Kampot. I found a small guesthouse and for $5 a night got myself a room with an ensuite squatty potty.
Not 10 minutes after I checked in, the heavens opened and it proceeded to downpour for the rest of the evening. After a shower and some time just laying in bed feeling thankful for cotton and synthetic foams, I got up and peeked outside to find some dinner.
A woman was holding court at a small khmer style restaurant, cooking up stir fried beef and spinach with steamed rice. I ordered a plate and sat down, half conversing with the locals, telling them where I was going, deflecting their offers of beer, and mostly just feeling like a zombie after 2 days and 200km of riding through mountains.
I fell asleep early that night, knowing I only had 55km between me and Kampot.
The Road to Kampot
After my dinner of beef and rice, I woke up the next morning feeling strong and confident. It was ready to bang out these 55km and enjoy my two days of well earned rest in Kampot.
The ride to Kampot was incredibly scenic. It was flat and tree lined. I enjoyed my smooth ride through small villages, market towns, and cresting little hills with views of the ocean and Vietnam’s Phy Quoc island.
I took my time, stopping to take plenty of photos and enjoy the scenery. I had no idea what awaited me in Kampot but I was expecting a typical out of the way Cambodian town. Some markets, women selling pork and rice, maybe a guesthouse or two.
Boy was I wrong.
Kampot: First Impressions
Kampot is a tourist Disneyland. Or at least, after days of interacting only with Khmers and staying in Khmer style accommodations, that is how it felt to me. I rolled into town and was immediately confronted with signs offering vegan and vegetarian meals, twice daily yoga classes, and backpacker hostels. Now I understood why everyone stopped here.
The town itself is gorgeous. French colonial architecture lines the river, with a view of the Bokor Mountains beyond. With all the little shops selling Kampot Pepper, cafes with charming chalkboard signs, and whimsical backpacker shops, it’s the kind of town that you can find anywhere in southeast asia, adapted to please the backpacker crowd.
It’s like Battambang, but with more tourists.
Kampot is charming, delightful, and I’m seriously considering living here for a few months after the ride. But in the middle of this ride, the transition from regular Cambodia to Tourist Cambodia was a bit jarring for me.
Tomorrow I ride to the beachside town of Kep, a mere 26km away, where I’m excited to do a few hours of hiking on the hills there, then spend an evening on the beach. After that, one day ride up towards Phnom Penh then, as a present to my mom from mothers day, I will swallow my pride and get a bus for the last 60km into Phnom Penh. You’re welcome, mom.
I don’t love the idea of putting my bike on a bus but when your mom asks you, as a mothers day gift, well… you say yes.