At 8am we arrive at Red Raid (www.motorcycletourscambodia.com) to pick up our bikes and two guides, Cross and Tan.
After a safety briefing and last minute tour discussion we are finally off!
Our first challenge is negotiating the streets of Phnom Penh. The best way to describe the Cambodian traffic system is ‘lawless’. Which means you have cars, bikes, tuk tuks lorries and even pigs (strapped to bikes) coming at you from all sides. Officially you are supposed to drive on the right, but its ok, apparently, to drive on the left if a) you intend to turn left at some point or b) don’t much like traffic on the other side of the road!
Instantly we turn off the main road, we lose Oli and have to wait while Tan goes off to find him (I’m thinking to myself what if this happens in the jungle!). We’re travelling on red earth roads, which are Cambodia’s equivalent to A roads. They are generally pretty good, but you can’t afford to lose concentration for a moment, because there are regular metre long pot holes, ruts and occasional breaks in the surface.
The land around Phnom Penh is very flat, but we are headed to the Cardamom Mountains for our first big test. If things go according to plan we should average 150k per day and get to the foothills in three days. Today we are headed for Kampong Chnang. We are told our first day’s riding will be an easy orientation day.
As soon as you get out of the city, the first thing you notice is how beautiful the country is with tall grass (rice) and the occasional palm tree as far as you can see. The second thing that strikes us is the complete absence of structured buildings. Nothing rises above one or two stories and the majority look like temporary structures with tarpaulin roofs. This is a poor country compared to its near neighbours Vietnam and Cambodia. The nightmare that was the Khmer Rouge still haunts the country. It was in the lifetime of the majority of the adult population and brought education to a complete halt and there is a very apparent loss of an age generation.
The first day’s ride itself is relatively uneventful bar a couple of falls. We do our first (of many) river crossing and experience some off road riding. However Bernard’s description of an ‘easy day’ leaves us under no apprehension as to how tough this ride is going to be. We arrive in Kampong Chnang, having travelled a little under 150k, utterly exhausted.
A quick word about the weather: By day its 94˚F and by night 75˚F, it hardly varies. Its also about 75% humidity, which means that within minutes of putting on your kit of three layers including protection you are dripping from head to toe in sweat. Hydration is therefore essential and dehydration probably our biggest risk. We each carry a back pack containing a 3l bladder of water which we fill up at least twice per day. Inside the water we add either a sachet of Dioralyte or an electrolyte tab, which helps reduce fatigue.
Today the real adventure begins, but it starts a little unexpectedly as we are given a tour of a local orphanage. Christopher Wilson runs a charity www.socialcapitaladventuredevelopment.com that aims to put clean water via an ingenious water filtration and pump system into 500 schools and orphanages in the region. Each one costs approximately £1000 to install and this one pumps water at the rate of 1000 litres per hour, through carbon filtration using a bicycle to pump the water through the system. This means all the children can pump their own water simply by riding the bike – genius!
Our plan is to ride 150k north west to Pursat. We leave the red roads and experience some proper off road riding. Alongside the scrubland, sand, mud and forest floor we have to negotiate our way past many wild buffalo and oxen that graze freely. The going is pretty tough and I manage to get a 2ft stick lodged through the face of my helmet splitting my top lip. I think everyone has fallen at least once today and it’s a relief that we’ve had no serious injuries. To give you an idea of how tough it is, we’re only on day two and already we have already experienced a period of what I would call utter exhaustion (i.e. more tired than anything I have experienced doing a triathlon – to date my most challenging pursuit).
At lunchtime we stop at a waterfall that’s a local attraction. We grab some lunch from a street side kitchen and all eat it nervously – the meat looks like its been hanging up for days and they use a motorised paper fan in a token effort to keep flies off.
After lunch, we enter the foothills of the mountains riding through some dense forest and crossing some pretty deep streams and rivers. This is terrain that will take time to master and is already significantly harder than anything we had encountered in our training.
We arrive in Pursat in time for some much needed local food and a few Angkor beers.
Our first trip into the jungle starts inauspiciously with a long canal side ride. Although its pretty flat, its also narrow, bumpy, dangerously cambered meaning you are riding on a spine that is no more than a few centimetres wide in places. Its also littered with ruts and craters. I’m the only one seems to be struggling and when I miss a bridge turn Tan has to come and shepherd me back to the group. As we cross the bridge, Tan pulls a wheelie and over cooks it. He ends up doing a complete 360. He lands horribly but we’re all amazed to see him get up with only a cut finger to show for the most spectacular crash. Unlike us, the guides wear no body armour. They are incredible bike riders and phenomenally tough. For us they will p[rove to be are quite literally life savers on more than one occasion. We then veer off into the jungle, miles from civilisation it seems. We stop by a lake for lunch. This is wild and remote country. There is one farm shack and as we approach it, we see a young boy of 6/7 who appears to be living alone. According to our guides, he lives with his parents but will get no education and so will remain illiterate for life. What’s more heart-breaking is that, because of the distance from civilisation, he is unlikely to have contact with any other children. We stayed by the lake for an hour and he was never more than ten metres from one of us. He caught live dragonflies to show us and swam in the water. What was disconcerting was his unwillingness to engage in any social gestures. He never said a word, he didn’t smile and he avoided all direct eye contact
Swimming in the lake has an immediately restorative effect to our overheated bodies and with the lunch eaten we are ready to move on.
We then find out the bad news. Moving on means riding up the steepest incline we’ve seen to date. Judging by cycling hills, it must be at least 45˚. The only way to get up it is full throttle in first gear, no clutch.
After negotiating that “heart in mouth” challenge, we continued to climb at an alarming angle but now it has turned to rock under wheel with 2 foot exposed boulders straddling a narrow pass. Any fall in this could easily result in a broken bone and the end of our adventure, so we ride with hearts in mouth. Images or video will do no justice to the physical challenge that this climb poses. At one point Hugh gets his wheel trapped in thick mud that looks like quicksand and is only able to get out with the help of Cross pulling him by rope. It was a heroic effort and clearly took a lot out of Hugh Half way up we have our first taste of total exhaustion. Climbing is hard and at 95˚f and 90˚ humidity it literally saps your energy in no time flat.
We rest for half an hour, simply unable to continue. We take on energy restoring supplements before cracking on. Towards the top we have to encounter a 20ft wide mountain stream. Its not deep but hazardous because the river bed is super slippery rock. In the end it claims two bikes, which both have to be tipped upside down to drain the water and left to dry out before they can be restarted. It was then that our first disaster struck. Andy realised that he had left his backpack at the stop. The bag contained all of Andy’s money, his credit cards, mobile phone and passport! It had been left for 30 minutes but by the time Cross returned it had already been taken. It seemed impossible anyone could have got there before Cross, given the remoteness of the location. Cross said that the locals listen for the sound of multiple bike engines and then take a look to see if anything has been left behind.
Andy is quite naturally distraught and you can tell he can think of little else for the rest of the day.
We end the day in the remote village of Pramaoy. Our accommodation is a guest house. The most basic accommodation we’ve experienced so far. There are cockroaches in the rooms and I doubt it had been cleaned for months. My bathroom furniture consisted of a black bucket and hose and a floor so dirty I had to wear shoes to go inside.
Dinner was at the local village restaurant. All the locals were watching Thai boxing on an old cathode tube TV and it looked like the whole town was out – all 50 of them!
Sleep was fitful. We are all worrying about food poisoning and stomach bugs. Not the best preparation for what proves to be our toughest day of the tour.
The morning starts on red roads and we encounter our first snake, a deadly green tree snake. We found him crossing the road where he is relatively docile and powerless. As soon as he reaches the other side of the road he immediately shows his incredible tree climbing skill and its time to get away. Apparently green tree snakes are highly poisonous and will aim high for the neck or face with their deadly venom!
Onto our first boat crossing – a motorised raft that can take three bikes at a time, weight precariously balanced.
We stop and swim in a weir with an incredibly strong current. Cross shows off some of his water riding skills. Later in the afternoon we have another river crossing this time using a rope pulley system. Most of the villages we pass through, if we stop we are instantly surrounded by local kids and here the kids wait to watch us take on the precarious exit ramp and goad us to pull wheelies on the way out.
The journey ends at Ko Kong, a bigger town that sits on the sea front. Our guest house rooms have air conditioning (luxury!) and we find a local cocktail bar that overlooks the sea – heaven!
Cross calls an evening meeting. Apparently we are headed for our toughest day so far, travelling deep into the jungle. I am struggling to imagine how it can get any harder, but am about to find out!
Cross presents us with three options, because we don’t all ride to the same ability.
- Split the team with the strongest riders (Sam, Andy and Oli) going deep into the jungle and Hugh and Tim taking an easier route.
- All take the jungle route
- All take the easy route after a tough day four
Sam is (rightly) adamant that we all stick together. After further discussion, Cross assures us we are all just about capable of the jungle route, so we all agree on option two. The problem for us is that none of us have any experience that is even remotely close to what we are about to take on.
The route will take us on an easy tarmac for the first 50k, followed by a progressively hard red and off road route for 30k followed by 50k inside the jungle proper. After three hours we are in the jungle and experience the first of several very different but equally debilitating challenges: Over a mile riding on wet, slippery clay. To give you an idea of just how slippery, it is impossible to keep the bike upright without using both feet as stabilizers. Every time you fall (which we did all the time), it feels like an almost impossible task to get the bike upright. In an hour we manage to travel a single mile and onto firmer ground. The gradient immediately increases and turns into a proper rocky mountain climb. We are already exhausted and this section is at least as challenging as the climb on day four. The difference being it goes on and on… and on. There several occasions where the only thing keeping me going is the certain knowledge that there is literally no other option than to keep toiling through. I begin to fantasize about a medevac out of the jungle!
The pass is now extra steep and narrow and punctuated by a mountain stream and rock outcrop. We then find ourselves in front of what looks like a sheer mud face. Incredibly, Cross tells us we are going to ride the bikes up it. It really doesn’t look physically possible. He shows us the way, one by one, hooking a rope around the front wheel with both Tan and Cross pulling the bikes up, while we throttle the engine in first gear. It works.
After another hour of climbing we are physically and mentally exhausted and can go no further. Unless you have experienced total exhaustion its almost impossible to describe what it feels like. Your body and mind quite literally closes down. You can sense the danger of it, because you lose the will to fight. The leeches and mosquitos lose all their prescient threat. What is worse, we have used up all of our snacks, water and energy sups.
Hugh has collapsed in a heap and is speaking incoherently. It is impossible to rouse him. I’m beginning to seriously worry that we wont get through the jungle before nightfall. Its now 2.30pm and we are only a quarter of the way. Being in the jungle at nightfall is a truly terrifying prospect. We have no liquid and no protection. It will be impossible to move up or down the mountain in the dark.
Cross makes the call. We have to turn back. It’s the right call but none the less heart-breaking, having to go back over everything we worked so hard to put behind us.
By the time we exit the jungle night has fallen. We are well and truly spent and we still have over 80k to travel in pitch black. At night, the roads will be treacherous for another 30k, before we hit tarmac. Tan leads the way with is his phone torch in his mouth as a headlight – his bike has no lights. We follow as close behind as safety will allow.
Finally we make it back to the hotel we stayed at the night before. We’ve lost a day and we are all utterly shattered. I have scratched my eyes and cant sleep with the pain – I couldn’t risk wearing my goggles on the return journey as the visibility through them had degraded in the jungle. and pay the price overnight.
I don’t need to ask, I know none of us have experienced a more physically and emotionally challenging day in our lives.
Because of our loss of time, today is going to be our longest ride of the trip. The good news is we have a comparatively easy route for the first half. The day is broken up when we hit the beach near Chrouy Svay – we are ecstatic to have made it to one of our milestones!
Early evening we arrive at Kampot. This big town is where Cross lives with his with and two boys. We have dinner at our first western style restaurant and drink cocktails.
Wake up with a hang over. Today is whole day of off-road riding. But no jungle. All of our riding has improved. The scenery is incredible and we see more animals (water buffalo, oxen, dogs) than people.
When we stop at a local village, EVERYONE comes out to greet us. This tiny village has the biggest temple with monks chanting inside. I want to take some pictures but I’m unsure of the religious etiquette so I resist. It’s a short, exhilarating but tiring day. We arrive at Kep and stop for a later lunch at a local crab restaurant. From our table we can see the fishermen reeling in the crab traps and the lunch is better than any crab I have ever tasted.
We are just a kilometre away from our hotel and arrive to find a comparatively luxurious seaside hotel with swimming pool and bar.
Tomorrow will be our last day. I can’t believe this exhilarating, exhausting tour is nearly over!
Even though we have several times felt in mortal danger, the most commonly quoted phrase has been “I’m having the time of my life”.
I can’t believe these two things aren’t intrinsically connected – I am brought back to a quote from one of our training coaches who said; the trouble with getting older is not your ability to do stuff, but the growing fear of risking the things you have. Zippy’s advice was simple; as you get older, work harder push through that fear, otherwise you’re in danger of not living, or at least, not living enough. Wise words!
We have a 180k ride back to Phnom Penh. Any thoughts that it was going to be a leisurely cruise back to base were quickly disabused, when we immediately went off road. For me this day had the most beautiful scenery and the most exciting riding to date. We stopped at spectacular rock formations. Unfortunately Oli dropped his bike and fell on rock – he has a big bruise on his side to show for it. Just what he didn’t need with a very sick stomach.
After lunch we set off on the interminable 120k tarmac road back to Phnom Penh. With little to relieve boredom, we had to keep changing sitting/standing position to get any relief from bum ache. Before we know it though, we approach the outliers of Phnom Penh. Then the crazy city traffic starts with cars, bikes, mopeds coming at us. It really is an assault.
As we get into city, Cross goes ‘wild west’. We overtake traffic through car parks and petrol stations. We overtake on inside and out. We jump over kerbs with our exhausts blaring above the rest of the traffic. It was exhilarating stuff and something I don’t think you could do anywhere else in the World.
Then suddenly we turn into a side street and there is Red Raid, where we started out eight days before. Feels a lot longer than that! We have done so much and I can’t really believe we are all back in one piece, more or less!
The team have been truly amazing: Sam has been the dad. He’s the most experienced and competent rider and has almost super human strength and resilience. He’s also about the kindest guy you are ever likely to meet. Oli is permanently happy. He is very quick-witted. With a quote or saying for every scenario. As he says, “I’m only living out my blood group” (B positive). Hugh is an elegant rider, his impressions are legendary, an incredibly funny guy and showed real mental endurance throughout. Andy lives in LA and knew only me prior to the trip. He arrived with a beard he’d been growing for a year, which he shaved on the first night. He is the second best rider and seemed to find nothing about the riding difficult. He was plagued by problems throughout the trip (the worst being the loss of all his most important possessions) but remained indomitable. I was the least fearless rider on road, but tried to make up for it off. I just loved every minute of it and felt blessed by the experience and the company.
We at last arrive back at the Hotel where we started, with a sense of relief and achievement. Pretty elated and chuffed with ourselves, having completed the toughest journey of our lives.