Cycling Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Mondolkiri

This leg of the trip has been incredibly scenic, empowering, physically challenging, and overall rewarding. But despite this, it all started off with more of a fizz than a bang.

After waiting 9 long days in Phnom Penh, my 6 month visa extension finally came through. Gratefully clutching my passport to my chest, I rushed back to my room to pack up my bags and get ready to finally, finally head out of Phnom Penh.

Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, Take One

I left Phnom Penh around 7am, excited for the 112km day ahead of me.

My bike, however, had other plans.

While in Phnom Penh, I had taken my bike into a fairly high end bike shop for a check up. I told the guys at the shop that I was having trouble switching gears and that I kept getting flat tires. They told me they would look into it.

$85 later and I had new, fancy inner tubes, a new cassette, new bottom bracket, and a few other touch ups. It hurt my wallet but I figured it was worth it. No more flat tires.

Yeah, about that.

On the road out of Phnom Penh as I was coming around a bend in the road, I felt it. The horrible thumping feeling you get when the back tire goes flat.

Are you f****** kidding me?

My back tire was flat! 30km outside of Phnom Penh! How was this possible? I pulled to the side of the road and set about changing the inner tube. As I did, I felt the inside of the tire. It was shredded in places. My tire was almost worn through.

IMG_0339.jpg

I decided to swallow my pride and head back to Phnom Penh to buy a new tire.

New inner tube in, I headed back the way I had come, off onto some side roads that meandered through rice fields towards a ferry across the Mekong and into Phnom Penh.

Just kidding! You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?

20 minutes later, once I was well and truly too far away from the highway to walk back, my tire was flat again. The same tire! The new inner tube! I was overpowered by anger, frustration with myself, frustration with my bike, and fury that the guys in Phnom Penh hadn’t noticed this.

Also, I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t want to fix up this inner tube or worse, put in a new one just to have it ruined. I needed a ride back to Phnom Penh. But how was I going to get one this far from a main highway?

I walked my bike along the road until I came up to the back of a garment factory. There were a group of Khmer people there. What transpired will go down as one of the most overwhelmingly frustrating moments of my life:

I approached the group of people and one man came up to me speaking broken English. He immediately noticed my flat tire and tried to direct me to someone who could fix it.

The last thing I wanted to do right then was pay for yet another inner tube, only to have it burst in a matter of minutes.

“No” I insisted, “I don’t want to fix it, I’d like to go to Phnom Penh.”

But despite my repeatedly saying “I want to drive to Phnom Penh. Please take me to Phnom Penh.” the English speaking man continually tried to lead me to someone who could fix the flat.

This went on for about 15 minutes. Him saying “we can fix it” and me replying “No, thank you, I don’t want to fix it, I just want to go to Phnom Penh.”

After about 10 minutes of it, I started crying.

Finally, in a fit of frustration, I told him rather firmly that “no, I don’t want to fix it. I fix it again and again and again and again but it always breaks.”

That got through to him.

It only took a few more minutes for them to arrange a cart to take me back to the ferry into Phnom Penh. That part was actually pretty fun. Sitting in the back of a farmer’s cart that normally trucks sugarcane around. Got some pretty funny looks from the other locals we passed by.

20170531_120756.jpg

And for a 20km ride, it only cost me $5. Seems fair.

Back to Phnom Penh, replaced the tire, and woke up early the next day to really leave Phnom Penh.

This is a nice moment to remark on something I’ve learned over the course of this ride: you are never alone and never without help in Cambodia. Even in remote areas, on backroads, deep in the mountains, a Khmer person is always going to come by and 9 out of 10 times, they will help you, fix your bike, find you a ride, give you food, or do whatever they can to make sure you are ok. Knowing this is what allows me to do this ride every day without an ounce of fear.

Cycling Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham, Take Two

With the tire problem sorted, I hit the road feeling positive and energetic. I was ready to put those 10 days in Phnom Penh behind me and get back into the groove of cycling.

I had two potential routes to get to Kampong Cham: one was quite boring following National Highway 8, to National Highway 11, to National Highway 7 into Kampong Cham. Highways are the actual worst and should only be used as a last resort.

The other option was much more appealing, if a bit riskier: I’d follow the National Highway 8 for about 25km, then take a turn onto a country road that cut through the rice fields, met up with a small river, and finally, followed that river until it reached the Mekong and Kampong Cham. It looked like it would work out, on Google, but if I’ve learned anything on this trip it is this:

Don’t trust google maps in Cambodia.

IMG_0343.jpg

Even as I left Phnom Penh, I didn’t know which route I would take. I wanted to take the country road, but I was nervous that it either didn’t exist, or would be impassable from all the rain.

Nonetheless, I was willing to try.

I rode out to this country road quite quickly, making it there before 10am. Stopped to have a second breakfast/early lunch at a restaurant. While I ate, I asked the locals about my potential route. Does this road go to Kampong Cham?

“Oh nooo, no.” They told me. “No it doesn’t.”

Despondent, I consulted google maps on my phone. I really, really wanted this route to work. I didn’t relish the idea of spending a whole day on highways.

After the chorus of “noo’s” was finished, one guy spoke up. He mentioned that in fact, it was possible to get to Kampong Cham that way, but it wouldn’t be easy.

That was all the encouragement I needed. I turned onto my country road and in so doing, began one of the best rides of the trip.

IMG_0356.jpg

This road begins at a village called Prey Pnov and heads north towards Sithor Kandal. At first it was paved and cut a straight line through the rice fields. I flew along, admiring the traditional Khmer houses and basking in the palm tree lined glory of the street. The rice fields were a vibrant green, the sun was shining, and I was delighted.

Eventually the road turned to dirt, but remained in good condition. I continued to fly along. After a time, I came upon a market town. In the middle of nowhere. What was this market doing here?

I had reached the T junction at the river. The market down does have a name, but I’ve forgotten it and it isn’t listed on google. Sorry.

IMG_0370.jpg

I’ve noticed something about rural Cambodia vs. Main Highway Cambodia. On the main roads, people are usually pretty open when I pull into a shop or restaurant. Sure, they might be nervous that I don’t speak Khmer, but they are still willing to try, open to talk with me, grabbing their youngest child who might maybe have learned some English in school.

But out on the backrounds, in markets or towns like this one, buried deep in the rice fields, miles from any main road or city, things are a bit different.

When I pull into remote places and stop my bike, I’m greeted with silence. In this particular market, everyone around me froze. There were plenty of people there but none were speaking. They all stood, still as statues, and watched me as I looked around. Trying to break the tension a little, I smiled at a few of the women. One smiled back but the rest looked down, shy. I walked down the road and took some photos of the river. By the time I came back, a small crowd had gathered around my bike. One of the braver men there struck up a conversation.

“Tos na?” He asked me, “where are you going?”

“Tos Kampong Cham.” I replied. “I’m going to Kampong Cham.”

It was as if I had spoken the magic words to break the spell. A wave washed across everyone’s face, the relief was palpable. She speaks Khmer! Suddenly, questions were coming at me from all sides. Everyone wanted to talk to the strange foreigner, find out where she was from, what she was doing there, and if she was hungry.

I’ve learned over the last weeks not to be afraid or uncomfortable if people are unfriendly at first. Sure, not everyone is happy to see a random foreigner in their home, but usually someone ends up being welcoming.

After that market, the road conditions deteriorated significantly. The road was dry, but narrow, rutted, and filled with puddles I had to dodge. If it had been raining, I’m not sure this road would have been passable.

It wound along next to the river, passing through villages, rice fields, bamboo forests, and Buddhist temples. Because of the poor conditions, I was forced to ride slowly. This road was only for the final 26km, but with the bad conditions, fatigue, and stopping to take pictures every five feet, it took me three hours.

IMG_0388.jpg

But what a glorious three hours it was. I’m not kidding when I say this was one of the most beautiful rides I’ve ever done in Cambodia. Truly a special route. I highly recommend it.

Reached Kampong Cham late in the afternoon and curled up in a nice riverside guesthouse for $5.

Kampong Cham to Memot

I spent one night in Kampong Cham, then rode out 7km along the Mekong to visit the Chiro Village Homestay. It is a local NGO where I once volunteered, back in 2014. I’m not a fan of voluntourism anymore and I must say that I didn’t find my return visit all that satisfying. It’s a great place to stay, though, if you want to get a glimpse of Cambodian village life.

IMG_0401.jpg

After my day in Chiro, I woke up bright and early, literally before the sun came up, and was on my bike by 5:30am to begin the 90km trek to Memot, a small town on Road 7, along the way to Mondolkiri.

This day was, much to my regret, entirely along the highway. Luckily, the further away from the Mekong I rode, the less crowded the highway became. Flat at first, it wasn’t long before I found myself riding up and down rolling hills. Pepper farms extended away from me in all directions. I had no idea what to expect from this part of the ride, but so far it was proving quite beautiful.

And then, about 50km into my day, I saw an interesting sign on my right hand side.

“Knoung Sdech Kan Temple 5km”

If you know me, you know I can’t resist the lure of an ancient temple. Plus it would only add 10km to my day. A drop in the bucket, surely. And who knows what kind of magical forgotten place I might find…

Turning off the main road, I followed the signs down a paved road through undeveloped countryside. This was about when I realized just how remote an area I was really in. There were a few rice fields, but not many. No houses to speak of, and very few people. The people I did cycle past didn’t wave, didn’t shout hello, didn’t do any of the things I’ve come to expect from Cambodians.

Instead, they stared. Eyes blank, shy, or cautious. I’m not sure what they were thinking and they certainly weren’t giving me any hints. All along the empty road I was met with blank faces hidden behind scarves and visors.

IMG_0439.jpg

After about 5km, I came across a moat, similar to the moat around Angkor Wat, and a village. Here the people were a bit more welcoming. The response was still mostly silence but at least a few of the children waved.

Then I came upon the wall of the temple. Cycling into the complex, at first all I saw was the large modern temple rising up in front of me. Then I noticed two ancient towers, similar in style to the towers of Prasat Kravan in Siem Reap, only less well preserved.

And of course, I had the place almost completely to myself. As I stood beneath the ancient towers, I heard footsteps behind me. Turning, I saw two little boys watching me. One was dressed in typical schoolboy clothes, the other in the saffron robes of a monk. They couldn’t have been older than 10.

Walking behind the modern temple, I found a massive reclining Buddha, beautifully painted and surrounded by a small garden and other meditative statues.

IMG_0457.jpg

Places like this, Buddhist temples and their compounds never fail to instill a sense of peacea nd calm in my mind. There is something in the air that requires you to pause and appreciate the stillness. Although peace and quiet can sometimes be hard to come by in Cambodia, I can usually find it in a temple.

As long as they aren’t chanting over a loudspeaker.

After my solo adventure to the temple, I hopped back onto the bike and out to the main road. Oddly enough, this time around the people were much more friendly. Waving, saying hello, cheering. I’m not sure what the difference was.

IMG_0486.jpg

Back to the main road and onward to Memot. The rest of the ride was smooth and uneventful. Rolling hills that gradually got larger until I arrived in town. Took a room in a guesthouse just off the main road before 3pm. Spent some time exploring town, took a walk around the temple, visited the market, and had a lovely chat with some locals over my rice and pork dinner.

Riding from Memot to Snuol

The next two days threw a bit of a wrench in my plans. I originally intended to ride 50km to Snuol, then 120 to Mondolkiri. But life happens, and I got my period. I know there are some women out there who can just keep on ploughing through no matter what. I am not one of them. I am incapacitated by my menstrual cycle. Literally cannot get out of bed.

But there’s no crying in bicycle touring! So I split up my 120km day into two 60km days.

IMG_0501.jpg

From Memot to Snuol was a real treat. I found an alternate route by following the paved road up past Memot Temple. Up and down rolling hills through pepper farms and rice fields, the ride was easy and scenic.

Came to a four way intersection and took the righthand turn. The road became dirt but was still in great condition. Up and down many rolling hills, through rubber plantations, pepper farms, and untamed jungle. Every once in awhile I’d roll through a remote village and people would stare, yell “Hello!” and call out “Barang chi kong!” (A foreigner riding a bike!)

After awhile I decided to stop and take a break. I wasn’t feeling particularly tired but my own personal honor code is this: If I’m passing through a remote, rural area, I want to spend at least a little bit of money. To give back, in my own small way.

IMG_0509.jpg

I stopped at a shop for a sugar cane juice and the family offered me a seat. Not long after that, pretty much the entire village had gathered around to chat with me. My khmer is pretty limited but we managed to work out where I was going, where I was coming from, that they had all voted in the election that morning, and my age. Hilariously, they told me that I looked 15. Thanks but.. no.

The rest of the ride was euphoric and smooth. The road was deserted, rugged, and perfect. The day was short. I pulled into Snuol before lunchtime. Got a room, and rested my poor, cramping, menstrual ravaged body.

Snuol to Keo Seima: Swallowing My Pride and Cutting It Short

From Snuol, I had planned to ride the 120km to Sen Monorom in Mondolkiri provide. This would involve rolling hills, and an ascent of over 2000 feet during the last 50kms. But because of my period pains, cramps, nausea, and a fitful, sleepless night, I absolutely wasn’t up for it.

In true Megan style, I couldn’t just give myself a break. No, first I had to berate myself and give myself a hard time. But in the end, I listened to my body and did what was right. I rode only 60km to a place called Keo Seima, where I hoped to find a guesthouse.

IMG_0493.jpg

Ride itself was nice, but I was in a bad headspace. Tired and in pain. I made it to Keo Seima sometime before 11am, found quite a nice guesthouse and curled up in bed.

Keo Seima to Mondolkiri: The Most Beautiful No Good Very Great Terribly Awesome Day

The ride up to Sen Monorom was everything I had hoped and feared it would be, and more. It was relentless rolling hills, more up than down. It was remote, it was devoid of human life, it was incredibly hard, it was unbelievably beautiful.

The day began with dense rainforest. I’m talking about massive rolling hills coated in a thick jungle. I even saw a family of monkeys watching me ride. When I looked up at them, they began to jump away through the trees.

For the first few hours of the day, I was having the time of my life. I’d power up the hills and giggle as I gained ridiculous speed on the downhills. But after about 35km with no breaks, I began to feel some fatigue in my legs.

During one particularly steep uphill slope, I started grunting and yelling. Not really saying words, just making noises, giving voice to the pain in my legs. Some Khmer guys rode by on their motor and looked particularly alarmed.

With only 5 more kilometers to go before the next village, I gave myself a small pep talk. If I could push through these final five, I could have a break.

And, cursing my very existence, cursing the day I decided to do this ride, I pushed onwards and upwards. That climb was beyond physically exhausting. And yet even as I was cursing myself and burning from head to toe, I loved it. I knew I would look back on this day as one of the best of the ride. And it was. It really was.

Stopped at a shop in Ou Rieng and had a plate of rice and pork. Rested for about an hour. Read my book. Generally felt proud of myself for what I had accomplished and optimistic about the final 20 kilometers of the day.

After Ou Rieng, the landscape changed. Due to deforestation, the rainforest has been cut back from the tops of the hills, clearing the way for villages and their livestock. While in my heart I know this is a bad thing, it makes for a very beautiful ride. Huge sloping hills covered in vibrant green grass, dotted with trees, stretching away to the horizon. I mean, really?

IMG_0546.jpg

I know I’m supposed to complain about it but I just couldn’t.

The hills continued to be unforgiving, but since I was riding through verdant green elysian fields, I found myself cursing less and giggling more.

During one incredibly long downhill I even belted out “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morrisette. Don’t ask me why that particular song. I can’t control the weird songs that get stuck in my head while I’m riding. They’d make a pretty eccentric mix tape though.

Rolled into Sen Monorom tired but pleased around 3pm. This was a part of Cambodia I’d been aching to visit for years. And finally, here I was.


Stay tuned to hear more about my day with elephants in the jungle and my ride along the Death Road from Mondolkiri to Ratanakiri.

Like this post? Pin It!

CYCLINGCAMBODIA-min (1).png

4 thoughts on “Cycling Cambodia: Phnom Penh to Mondolkiri

Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: