Last Month I and Mr. La took the Hanoi SMC, a group of expats who ride dirt bikes in Vietnam, through Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains on our Extreme Enduro. Mike Keenan of Wide Eyed Tours, a travel company based in Vietnam, had done a day tour with us earlier that year and had rounded the boys together. We had a great week on a wide range of terrain that offered amazing riding and beautiful scenery. They were a strong group and it was a good pace for the week, but being used to the higher altitude and cooler temperatures in Hanoi the lads suffered bit with the heat, as we went in a very hot week for March, and the closed jungle trails were a boiling pot. It seems to be getting hotter earlier every year. Even we suffered a bit!
We picked the group up at the airport. Riders for the week were Mike, James, Zac and David Knight. [Not the big Manxman, but his Australian twin… they are both enormous standing at nearly 2meters!] After dropping the guys at their hotel to freshen up, we met for an evening meal over barbecued beef, tongue and a local specialty; steamed bee grubs. Lots of protein for the ride ahead!
Day One – Siem Reap to Battambang
We met early the next day and went over our route and the bikes. The group had upgraded to the Yamaha WRFs; Zac and James were on the 450s, David was on a 250 and Mike went for the sturdy XR400R. Soon we were on the road and made our way out of Tourist Town on a mixture of single track through the surrounding forest and graded roads. About half an hour in, I got a big fat nail through my rear tyre. Not the best of starts, but it was the only puncture of the trip so all good. After our first stop in Angkor Chum we then noticed a lot of oil had leaked out of Zac’s 450; on one section the trail cut in between rice paddies where it was a bit wet [surprisingly!] a load of long grass had got wound round the font sprocket and broke the oil seal behind it. Luckily there was a mechanic shop who sold us a spare seal from a Honda Dream moped. The seal was a little small so La had to machine the shim behind the sprocket. The people here are so resourceful that most breakdowns are quickly overcome. There always seems to be a way!
We had some local iced coffee as we waited and soon we were back on the trails. We traversed the wide open flood plains of the Tonle Sap. As we flew through the tall grasslands we noticed mini tornadoes were being kicked up which are pretty common this time of year due to the heat; quite a sight. Our plan for the afternoon was some nice sandy single track that wound through the villages and ended up at the Kamping Poy Khmer Rouge Dam near Battambang. However we had lost a lot of time with the repair so by the time we had lunch it was 3 O’clock and the guys opted to take the easy route into town. Don’t want to overdo it on the first day! We arrived in Battambang at around 4:30 and chilled by the hotel pool to discuss the day. That evening we took everyone to a local joint that served some delicious beef soup. A good end to the day!
Day Two - Battambang to O Soum
We were up early to go over the bikes, and after a buffet breakfast we went through the upcoming route on the map. Today we were heading to O Soum, which is the first stop in this beautiful mountain range. Following the idyllic Battambang River we stopped at Wat Banan an Angkorian era temple atop a hill on the way out of town. We could see the mountains in the distance from the top and couldn’t wait to get on the trails. As we entered the hills the terrain started getting more interesting with a mixture of sand, rutted single track through the forest and even a couple of river crossings. There were patches of mud here and there which is a good sign as it had been raining which would keep the heat and the dust down. We stopped for a welcome lunch and refreshments at Pramoey. To escape the stifling heat we took turns throwing water over each other to cool down in front of the restaurant.
The afternoon offered breathtaking views as the altitude got higher on the famous Cambodia red dirt roads that wound through the mountains. We had to keep good distance apart from each other as some sections especially one of the steeper hillclimbs consisted of a very loose, silt like surface in which you couldn’t see more than a meter or so in front. As we reached the plateau near O Soum we were greeted with little pockets of rain and by the time we arrived at our stop for the night the temperature was most agreeable. We were staying at a charming little family run guesthouse overlooking the nearby valley.
Day Three - O Soum to Koh Kong
Today was fairly easy going as we had less distance to travel and the old route has become so overgrown it is now impassable so we had to take the Chinese road; a red dirt road that is carved through the mountains. Literally!; In the last two years several Chinese made dams have been built which have had a disastrous impact on the local flora & fauna, not to mention whole communities relocated; a very sad trend in Cambodia today. We stopped at a large waterfall on the way and ‘Young Punk’ James tested the 450’s capabilities in the nearby quarry with a couple of hill climbs. We had loads of time so we relaxed for a while and cooled off in the pools of water that were few and far between in this premature dry season.
The morning’s ride still offered spectacular views and although the roads weren’t technical, they provided fun fast riding with wide sweeping bends that were perfect for power sliding through. We arrived in Koh Kong at around 1 in the afternoon. The group was tired after the high riding temperatures of the previous two days and welcomed the early finish. The lads went for a drink on the Koh Kong estuary banks, while we did some important bike maintenance.
Day Four - Koh Kong to Chipat
Today was the most technical section of the tour. This is one of our favourite trails on this route as it still remains untouched. We were treated to fast forest sections, deep sand, technical hillclimbs and insane rutted, rocky descents. After the first river crossing at Areng we were met with our first challenge. After a rock garden style dried out riverbed, there was a steep climb which in itself was not too difficult, but the combination of this and deep ruts in the corners with low overhanging vines and bamboo made the going tougher. We all made it to the top. We rested for a while but the sweltering heat was too much so we pressed on. In the thick jungle it was as if there was no air at all!
After a while we came to the next obstacle, a fairly deep gulley with two options of crossing it; one was the ‘sturdy’ tree branch that had been laid across with a couple of struts either side for balance, or to walk it through. With a combination of the two we got the bikes safely across. Mr Knight walked his bike across making it look easy with his height advantage. Those that took the tree branch route didn’t fare as well… myself being one of them. I have got across using this method before so was fairly confident, but this time didn’t line up the back wheel and just as the front end was safely on the other side the back slipped off and the bike fell on top of me in the gulley. With the help of the group we got the bike out. Only problem was my bike needs a new carburetor as the slider is well worn and floods easily. After what seemed like 100 kicks I finally got the bike going by which time I was exhausted. I’ve lived here for 16 years now, but you never really get used to the temperature. It was now noon and the heat was ridiculous.
We all pressed on until we got to the most technical part; a steep descent with large boulders and deep, deep ruts. Great fun, but you don’t want to come off here as this part is remote and pretty inaccessible. We all got through safely and enjoyed a well needed refreshing dip in the river at the bottom. Aside from another dodgy bridge and the thick patches of overgrown Bamboo stretching across the trails, we had a nice smooth ride into Chipat, our stop for the night. We had a great evening over some beers whilst enjoying local grub as we went over the crazy day we just had. Mike got very drunk
Day Five - Chipat to Kep/Phnom Penh
Next morning we arose early as we had a long day today; about 250 km of dirt and 100km of highway. Unfortunately our coastal destination was cut short by a broken collar bone. [More on that in a bit] As we left Chipat we crossed the rapids, which were dry at this time of year. We were soon on tight overgrown single track through the surrounding forests. It had been raining the night before and was very slippery in places. The trail was broken up with a few little rocky climbs and dried out river beds, but was mainly fast, exciting single track.
There was very deep sand in places so you had to be on the throttle a lot. We were wary of the endless vines and branches cutting across the path, A few of us, myself included had got caught up in the vines. David got pulled off his bike when his Go Pro got snagged by a branch. The same would have happened to me but the bracket snapped. Luckily I found the camera.
By midday the heat was unbearable again, and we resorted to the old bucket showers, which helped for a while. After refreshments of sugar cane juice we then jumped on the trail to Srae Ambel. More deep sand as we made our way out of the Cardamoms and towards the coast. We were making good time and after a break on the cast just outside we started out on the trail towards Kampot.
Then disaster; on a particularly fast sandy section, as it met a piece of hardpack, Zac hit a pothole at speed , went into a tank slapper and couldn’t save it. It was big stack and he ended up with a broken collarbone. Luckily we had our support vehicle so we loaded the bike up and took Zac to hospital. As Phnom Penh was the only option really, the rest of the group rode back following their buddy. We arrived in Phnom Penh fairly late as the traffic going into Phnom Penh was a nightmare and visibility was poor at night. We got Zac sorted and after a late dinner hit the hay.
Day Six - Around Phnom Penh
The final day ended up being an impromptu sightseeing Day. We took the boys to The Killing Fields [Choeung Ek] so they could get some perspective on what happened here, and then in the evening a quiet sunset cruise on the Mekong River. It was a nice end to what was an awesome tour. You guys were great fun and me and La thoroughly enjoyed the ride! A perfect enduro adventure. We will definitely be in Hanoi one day to ride them hills and enjoy a nice cool climate. I may even come when it’s snowing. Ride safe and I give you the SMC salute!
Mike 'The Hoon' Keenan esq.