How strong can your body get over just 3 weeks? Could it really be possible that riding 100km could go from impossible to easy? And do my legs have the strength to race the rain?
It’s been awhile since I sat down and wrote one of these trip reports. But here you go, this is what happens when you try to ride a bike from Kampot to Phnom Penh, via Kep and Angk Ta Saom.
Kampot To Kep: The Short Day of Pleasant Surprises
After two days in Kampot, riding motos up mountains and kicking it in cafes, it was time to make the incredibly short 26km ride out to Kep. It could easily have been a day trip, but I had other plans.
The ride from Kampot to Kep follows Highway 33, a well paved road in good condition. It cuts through several different Community Based Tourism initiatives, marked by their big green signs with arrows on the highway. I turned off the road to go explore one but after the recent rains the road was in terrible condition. I was forced to abort.
Back on road 33 I road until the turn for Kep, featuring a statue of a white horse rearing into the air. Why a horse in particular? Not sure. Take the right hand turn and follow that road until you reach Kep. You’ll know it by the signs for guesthouses, and the big green sign that reads BEACH.
A Surprisingly Nonsensical Arrival in Kep
Kep, or Kep Sur Mer as the French once called it, is a small town situated on a peninsula that juts out into the bay of Thailand. The peninsula is dominated by a fairly small “mountain” rising to an imposing 300m (984ft). Bungalows and boutique accommodation dot the lower hillsides and a massive, four lane road sweeps around the perimeter, providing access to all the major attractions, and a neat loop back up to road 33.
As I cycled into town I couldn’t stop laughing at the absurdity of this massive road. It was one of the cleanest and most modern roads I’ve ever seen in Cambodia. Once you pass the construction just off road 33, it turns into smooth blacktop that is four lanes wide.
Who are they expecting?
Kep is in many ways a beach resort turned ghost town. Picture Cape Cod in the winters except it isn’t winter. The infrastructure is set up to receive a massive tourist influx but the tourists never arrived.
Oh well. I love quiet, deserted towns, especially on this bike ride, so I was pumped. Kampot had been too crowded for me after the solitude of my ride and I was charmed by Kep’s empty streets and deserted accommodations.
I checked into Tree Top Bungalows, a cute but slightly overpriced guesthouse nestled into the foothills of the mountain. I say overpriced because I saw online that there were bungalows for $5 but I had to pay $7. Oh well. It isn’t the best hotel in Kep, but it is the cheapest.
After that it was time to explore all that Kep had to offer.
What To Do in Kep, Cambodia
There are basically three main things to do in Kep: go to the beach, eat at the crab market, and explore the Kep National Park. Obviously I went for the national park first.
The park sits on the mountain in the center of the peninsula. A frenchman who owns a cafe up there has spend the last 10 years creating and maintaining a network of trails and roads that wind around and over the mountain.
The most popular trail is a small road that circles the mountain. It’s a 7km trail that is more or less level, in alright condition, and doable on a moto, bicycle, or by walking. I road my mountain bike around it. It’s not overly technical but it’s more fun than riding on pavement.
The park costs $1 per day for use. There is a sign off the main road pointing to the entrance. Just follow the road up to the gate, then follow that dirt road all the way around. At one point maybe 4km in, the road turns into pavement again. Stick to the right and you’ll find the dirt road again about 1km further down.
After the national park, I went to check out the famous fresh Kep Crab market. I was pleasantly surprised by how accessible and fun the market is. There are a series of restaurants right on the water where I assume you can have someone cook up your crab and serve it to you on a nice place for a premium.
If you want to do it the rustic way, head down all the way to the end (or the beginning) to the rougher looking market stalls. Walk all the way back to the water and you’ll find people hauling up crates of crabs straight from the reef. You can buy fresh crab from the women there. A half kilo is enough for one person, 1 kilo is enough to share. 1 kilo is $6, or five if you are particularly good at negotiating.
Once you get your crabs, you have two options: you can have them steamed on site or have them chopped up and fried with fresh green Kampot pepper and a mild spicy sauce. I HIGHLY recommend the peppercorn fry. Having your crabs cooked is an extra 5000 riel or $1.25
Women in the market will sell you rice for 1000 riel or $0.25. Have a seat at one of the tables, order a sugarcane juice (2000 riel, $0.50) and enjoy your gourmet seafood meal right there.
After my late lunch in the market, I headed back to Kep National Park to try out some of the trails that cut up into the hill.
To access these, head up the dirt road from the gate until you see a trail heading off to your right. This is the transverse trail. It was pretty steep at the beginning, so I opted to chain my bike to a nearby tree and head out on foot. That afternoon I followed the signs to Sunset Rock to get a nice view of Kep beach and Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island in the distance.
Hiking to Sunset Rock in Kep National Park took me probably 30 minutes. It’s steep at first, then a fairly level walk around the mountain to the rock.
Headed back to Tree Top for some dinner and a decision. Should I ride to Phnom Penh the next day, or did Kep deserve one more day of exploring?
In the end, I spend two more days in Kep. Hiked to the top of the mountain, road my mountain bike around the trail again, had another lunch at the crab market. I also spent some time exploring the deserted mansions from Kep’s heyday in the 1960s. A really fascinating and ghostly view of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge changed everything.
But all good things must come to an end, and after three days I had to head out. I needed to get to Phnom Penh to extend my visa for 6 months, and anyway, I was missing the open road.
Cycling from Kep to Phnom Penh
From Kep, I took Highway 33 towards the Vietnam border, then followed Highway 31 up until it meets Road 3 just south of a small town called Angk Ta Saom, which, I hoped, would have a guesthouse. The whole day would be 93km, a distance that had almost killed me just a week before on my way from Koh Kong to Kampot.
Would it kill me today? I admit, I was nervous.
From the beginning, the roads were quiet. I flew along their flat surfaces through wide open rice fields and quaint villages. It was the kind of picturesque day I had imagined when I dreamed up this trip in my apartment in Battambang.
I had to deal with the occasional truck flying by but for the most part it was just me and my daydreams cycling down the road, pedaling to the rhythm of my breath.
Along the way I passed by Kampong Trach, a small town that featured an unexpectedly stunning view. Rock formations like those that characterize east Asian landscape paintings rose up from a flooded wetland. It looked like a pretty great place for some rock climbing.
The rest of the day was smooth sailing through rice fields. Minus the two flat tires (YES TWO) in one day. I also met a peace corp volunteer along the side of the road just after lunch. Like most peace corp volunteers I’ve met in my years abroad, she seemed friendly, happy, and a bit starved for English language conversation.
Let’s talk about flat tires and the trouble they cause.
My last flat tire of the day came 10km outside of my destination, Angk Ta Saom. It also happened to be on a pretty deserted slice of road. I didn’t have any extra inner tubes with me, so I had to wander off down a nearby dirt road until I walked into a village.
In my best Khmer, I asked around for a mechanic and was eventually pointed to someone’s house. Indeed the guy there could fix my tire, and of course the whole village had to come out and watch.
As with many things in rural Cambodia, fixing my bike tire was a leisurely affair. They took their sweet time, because whats the rush? Nothing else was going to happen that afternoon.
Except for me, the rush was building in the sky to the north, threatening me with impending doom.
Deep purple clouds were gathering in the sky, an ominous rumbling beginning to sound from far off. The wind started to sweep across the rice fields, bringing dust and garbage.
The tempest was about to begin.
The villager fixing my bike continued on at his leisurely pace. Stopping to just kind of sit there, or talk to someone else, or just look at me.
I tried not to get frustrated. It was only 10 more kilometers. I’d be fine.
At long last, the bike was repaired. Ahead of me, the sky was a warning sign. Dark clouds pregnant with rain gathered on either side, with just a narrow strip of light blue sky between them, seemingly positioned just over the road. I knew that when those two rain clouds met, I was fucked.
Those 10km were the fastest I’ve ridden yet on this trip. My heart rate had to be up above 180. It was a full on sprint. My muscles were screaming, my lungs dying, and my mind was frantically praying to the Cambodian spirits to please just hold off the rain for 10 more minutes.
The sprinkles started as I reached Road 3. Only 4 more kilometers to go. I ignored my protesting muscles and continued to race. Would I make it? I had to make it.
As I passed the road marker that said “Angk Ta Saom 2km” the heavens opened. The rain came down, first in fat splattering droplets, then in a heavy pour. I screamed, shouted, but kept riding. 2km! You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
I wasn’t going to stop 2km short of town.
Thankfully, just as the water began pouring down in sheets, I saw a sign for a guesthouse. I pulled in gratefully and even though it wasn’t yet 3pm, asked for a room. The bewildered looking Khmer family that owned the place showed me to a simple yet clean room and left me alone.
As I sat in the room, I took stock of my day. I’d just ridden about 95km, with the last 10km being a full on sprint. I felt good. I felt like I could ride another 50km if I needed to. I felt like 90km was basically nothing, a walk in the park.
I was getting stronger.
That was one of the best gifts I’ve received from this ride.
Bussing to Phnom Penh
I’m not happy about it but I had promised my mom I would take a bus into Phnom Penh, avoiding the heavily trafficked road 3. And that is exactly what I did. I found a bus stop in Angk Ta Saom and hopped on a bus coming up from Kampot the next morning. Made it to Phnom Penh by noon.
Since then, I’ve been in Phnom Penh waiting for my 6 month visa to Cambodia to come through. I’ve ridden into and out of the city numerous times on day trips. Yes, riding in the city is stressful but it’s totally manageable.
So if any other bike tourist are reading this, just don’t tell your mom about it and cycle into Phnom Penh. You’ll be fine.
Next up is a 154km day out to Kampong Cham and then it’s up into the remote mountain wilderness of Mondolkiri!
Let’s see what happens.
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