Cycling Across Northern Cambodia to Preah Vihear
Many roads, many possibilities. Sitting at a café, I sip coffee with my left hand and trace trails with my right. In my notepad, I review scribbled notes: “Rt. 211 – remote, mountainous, beautiful, impossible to navigate if rain. Rt. 212 S to Tbaeng Meanchey, safer alternative, add one day to itinerary.” A strong typhoon battered Northern Cambodia only a few weeks before and, just to up the ante, another one (albeit significantly smaller) was scheduled to hit later that evening.
I had already delayed departure by a day to see if the forecast would change, as well as nurse a nasty hangover from a night out with other ecotourism supporters in Kuala Lampur. Given my precious limited vacation time for extended trips, there was really only option. I fold up my map, pick up the tab, pack Johnny away in my pannier, and take the long road north.
Day 1 – Into the Typhoon
Siem Reap to Anlong Veng (130km)
The first few kilometers on a long adventure are exhilarating. The first beams of sunlight trickle over the horizon, the bike drifts along the road with nary a sound, and a world far removed from fluorescent lights and spreadsheets slowly comes alive.
I am departing Siem Reap at a time when thousands are arriving – it’s the annual Water Festival and anyone who’s anyone in the province is headed to Siem Reap to watch the boat races and celebrate the end of the rainy season. I follow the river out of town, watching teams of oarsmen fend off their hangovers with half-hearted stretches and plastic bags full of piping hot black coffee. The markets are already bustling – a myriad of fruits are on display, their exotic aromas tickling my western nose. Two little boys on a big bicycle pedal hard to race me – I let them win and they laugh that they can beat the big foreigner with a mountain bike (never mind the 40lbs of gear I have strapped to the back and 129.4km I have ahead of me).
Anlong Veng is nestled along the mountainous Thai border and served as Pol Pot’s residence and the Khmer Rouge’s final stronghold until the government finally regained control in 1998. Although residents have retired their flowing black uniforms and Kalashnikovs, support supposedly still exists. With its power consolidated, the Cambodian government has been eager to reestablish ties with Anlong Veng after nearly two decades of isolation. My loaded bicycle rolls along the most explicit evidence of the government’s rush to reign in the hobbled outpost: Route 67.
Heading north, I pass through the sprawling Angkor National Park and watch as the sun rises over Banteay Srei and Phnom Kulen – two of the Angkorian era’s more interesting sites. The latter, Phnom Kulen, contains a rushing river with thousands of lingas carved into the stone riverbed to appease the fertility gods. You’d be hard-pressed to find yourself surrounded by more male genitalia anywhere else in Cambodia, a fact that female Phnom Penh expats constantly lament. Though inviting, I opt to forgo a dip in the inviting clear stream; I have no desire for divine assistance in the fertility department at this point in my life.
The first day is tough. You can kill time, but you can only get down the road by pedaling. This simplicity and defined sense of objective is refreshing. How long it takes, what road I take, how hard I pedal… it’s all entirely up to me. And in the end, the only person I have to answer to is myself. After the first 70 km, the road becomes more remote and the winds pick up. While I encounter nary a drop of rain, the headwind becomes so strong that I might as well be pedaling uphill.
Escaping the intense midday sun, I stop for potato soup and pork at a small restaurant and chat with a lovely woman who is a guard at Ta Prohm temple. She suggests a hotel in Anlong Veng – “Very nice, family hotel” (read: not a brothel). I continue on the road, stopping for fried bananas and coca cola whenever my stomach rumbles. The road cuts through the dense forests of Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary and I am rewarded for my choice of a quiet mode of transportation with views of playful monkeys and oxen. I meet one particularly ecstatic eight year old who grasps a limp baby squirrel in his right hand and a slingshot in the other – no wonder I rarely see squirrels here.
The hum of chainsaws in the distance is an unfortunate reminder that the wildlife sanctuary’s days are probably numbered. Villages deeper in the forests don’t even attempt to hide the rampant logging activities going on in the preserve – very depressing, but the people also have to survive so there are no easy solutions. While the sanctuary is pleasant, it doesn’t offer the incredible diversity of wildlife (tigers, gibbons, elephants) or breathtaking views of those in Laos, so unfortunately community-based tourism would probably just be a bandage on a festering wound. Hopefully this new road will bring other economic opportunities. However, it’s just as likely that the main reason the infrastructure exists is to facilitate logging, a sad truth just about everywhere in Cambodia – beautiful new roads to remote pristine forests.
The sun melts over the rice paddies in the distance as I lay down on the side of the road with my map to figure out where I am at. 14 kilometers to go – the final push into Anlong Veng will be in darkness. Instead of a slow buildup of houses and other indicators of civilization, the road becomes more narrow and the scenery more desolate as I near Anlong Veng. Charred, lifeless trees claw out of the flooded, bleak fields of grass. The winds still blow ferociously and the sound of the swaying the grass sends a chill down my spine (it sounds like something is constantly alongside me).
I finally arrive in Anlong Veng at a little past 6 and find the family-friendly guesthouse. It doesn’t have hourly rooms, which means it passes my first test. However, the box of condoms carefully placed at the foot of the bed (instead of, say, chocolate mints or bottled water) doesn’t inspire much confidence in my friend’s recommendation. In the end I am too tired and not about to wander around town with my flashlight to find another probably equally poor guesthouse – I thank the proprietor for the room and his efforts to promote safe sex.
Thoroughly uncomfortable in the posterior and snuggled deep in my silk sleep sheet (“Your first line of protection in the war against scabies in rural Cambodia”), I dream of riding east the next day to Preah Vihear and a bit of respite from the southerly blowing winds.
Day 2 – Minefields, Broken Bikes, and More Brothels
Anlong Veng to Preah Vihear (106km)
Wake, hydrate, stretch, apply chamois butt’r (optional), fold, repack, hydrate, ride – the morning routine of touring by bike.
From the moment my nose crosses the threshold of the door leading outside the guesthouse I can feel the nasty headwind that contributes to another long, tough day. The only solution was strong coffee and my secret “use in case of emergency” playlist, featuring selections from the Rudy soundtrack.
Just as everywhere else in Cambodia, Anlong Veng comes alive at first light. An old woman sets up a blue tarp roof over her store on the side of the road. A young girl drags a bright orange cooler in front of another stilted wooden hut – these coolers are ubiquitous in even the most rural areas of Cambodia and serve as a vital supply line for bottled water, sugary drinks, and other cycling necessities. My search for a café ends in the central square of Anlong Veng, where a perplexing peace statue erected in Dictator for Life Prime Minister Hun Sen’s name stands (in Hun Sen’s defense, he did recently announce he will only remain in power until the age of 90 and no longer). The deer look more cautious than peaceful, likely due to the massive snakes lining the monument thus preventing any chance of escape.
I order some rice porridge, munch on some peanut butter oatmeal trail mix, and wait for Coffee Lady to bring a pot of water to a boil in her flower pot barbeque. I think I enjoy the anticipation of coffee more than the actual beverage. This is probably why I never bought into the “Starbucks experience” at home; what’s so special about lining up, carefully memorizing strange terms for your allocation of 10 seconds with the cashier, and being yelled at to pick up an overpriced cardboard cup? I prefer the 20 minute Vietnamese drip or comparatively quick French press.
Coffee Lady wafts the coals with a discarded Angkor Beer box and smiles at me as I ask questions about the road ahead. “Aut dung”, I don’t know – the standard reply. The idea of cycling to the next village 20km away was daunting, let alone Preah Vihear which was more of a mythical temple somewhere east and where Thai soldiers were lying in wait to invade Cambodia. She mixes the boiling water with a heap of NesCafe and carefully arranges the glass on a serving plate with a jar containing a lovely mix of sugar and ants.
Despite the winds, I have a comparatively easy day ahead – only 100km or so if my map scale was accurate. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to visit any of the major tourist attractions tucked away in the mountains north of Anlong Veng: Pol Pot’s house, the site where Pol Pot was hastily cremated, the house of Ta Mok (“The Butcher”) – all feel-good sites that certainly warrant another visit.
I am back on the saddle. Today my direction is east. I pass the shallow lake in the center of Anlong Veng – a few blackened dead trees jut toward the sky and the grey waters look completely devoid of life. Ta Mok, one of the Khmer Rouge’s top leaders, had the fields flooded to produce a man-made lake, a permanent monument to the death and misery of the KR reign.
The tarmac road deteriorates into red dirt and after a few kilometers the world changes: chirping birds, tall grass swaying, trees (!), and nary a man or motorcycle in sight. I stop to take the view in and remind myself that I am allowed to linger on my vacation – no need to break speed records. While searching for a sabai dum chur (“happy tree”) I do manage to spot a symbol of civilization: “DANGER MINES – HALO FOUNDATION”. While I am not necessarily surprised (this area is one of the most heavily mined in the world), it is a shock nonetheless to see it firsthand. I briefly ponder the question of whether a strong stream of urine can set off a mine, but decide against testing the theory and get back on my bike.
Rolling into a small town I put on a great show for a group of younger Khmers by taking a spectacular tumble. I suffer only a minor gash on my left knee, which I fix with a band aid and a dose of fried bananas. Out on the flat deserted roads again my bike feels a bit unbalanced – a quick glance over my left shoulder reveals that the left support for my back rack had snapped. I survey the damage by the side of the road: the screw has snapped and one half is lodged in the bike frame. There’s no way I can fix it out here. Despondent, I chew on a mandarin orange and contemplate my next move. Three men appear on a moto and observe at the problematic screw. Uncharacteristic of the typically resourceful Cambodian male, the lead man simply nods and passes gas.
I remove the pannier, pull out a length of rope, and tie the rack back to the bike frame. While it certainly won’t support the weight of both panniers, it’ll get me to the next big town 20km or so away. I ride onward – albeit significantly slower with one pannier hanging from my handlebars – and find a store that I am told had the equipment to solve my bike issues. Mr. Niey, juggling a baby boy and power drill, shakes his head tsk tsk tsk, insinuating “How the hell did you manage this? And what a poor knot job you did – can’t even get a simple knot right.” He places the baby in a hammock, starts up a gas generator, and drills down into the frame determined to disintegrate the screw. After running through a few drill bits, Mr. Niey breaks through and we both celebrate with a hop.
Newly repaired ride, stomach full of instant ramen noodles, and high spirits, I sprint the next 40km to the turnoff to Preah Vihear. With the sun fading fast, I gulp down a few cokes at the town market and turn north toward the base of the mountain. The road meanders through patches of forest, pillboxes, military camps, and minefields. Complete darkness finally falls and I continue down the “dancing road” (common Cambodian description for bad trails) with a tiny flashlight in hand.
An hour or so later I finally arrive at the base of Preah Vihear and begin another difficult quest to find a place to sleep that doesn’t double as a brothel for local soldiers (http://cambodiatonight.blogspot.com/2009/07/brothels-spring-up-at-cambodian-thai.html – very sad/ laughable quotes from military officials regarding necessity of brothels). I settle on an excellent guesthouse with 24 hours of electricity and en-suite bathroom.
Cycling 8-10 hours/day requires a constant battle for calories and rural Cambodia does not always offer the ideal foods to satisfy the intense hunger at the end of the day. No matter how many chunks of ginger chicken, fried veggies, and bowls of rice I consume, I can’t seem to find that elusive fullness. Luckily I have my camping stove and a can of Chunky chicken soup to supplement minced pork and six bowls of rice at the guesthouse restaurant.
Day 3 – I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends
Preah Vihear (14km) and Kantout Samraong (25km)
I heat up a cup of green tea and enjoy a bowl of noodles as the sun rose in the distance and winds blow red dust into the restaurant. Up in the dusty north, shopkeepers wage a constant battle against dust and it seems like there is one staff member devoted solely to constant sweeping and wiping. I close my eyes and pretend my brackish tea is fortified with extra minerals.
A crowd of army men, moto touts, and one or two Cambodian tourists gather: “Are you really going to ride to the top? It’s steep you know. I have to have a special chain on my motorcycle. Where did you come from? Can I touch your thighs? (they didn’t really ask, just went for a grab instead) Do you want a ride up?” One of the touts is especially aggressive, but an elderly soldier diffuses the tension by calmly stating Bah – da jit mui kinyome “Okay – let’s go together.”
The old man chain smokes Liberation cigarettes on his motorcycle as we make our way toward the start of the climb. Another group of military and moto touts, much more aggressive, chide my plan and swear I’ll never make it. Liberation Man stands by my side quietly while I try to justify cycling to the top: “I like to exercise. I want to try it. If I can’t do it, I’ll come back down and take one of your motos.” Finally a commander walks over and, with the force of a starting gun at a marathon, shouts “Fine – go!”
I circle around a few times to stretch out the legs, unfortunately giving a few of the touts time to hop on their motorcycles and prepare to follow me up. The first climb is brutally steep and my progress slow. All the while the touts follow by my side yelling, pointing and laughing. Finally after 100 or so terrible meters they turn around. Liberation Man appears by my side and nods. I turn the corner and continue the climb, but can’t make it to the top of the hill and have to push the bike up the last 50 meters. I read my GPS – from zero to 200 meters altitude already in less than 500 meters distance.
Only one way to go, keep pedaling I tell myself. After each wrenching climb I spin out the legs to lessen the sting of lactic acid and stop to suck down some water. After each all-too-short rest, Liberation Man lights up another cigarette and utters Da dtiat “One more.” And we go for one more.
As we near the top more and more pillboxes and trenches lined the roads. Surprised soldiers appear from tents in the brush to cheer me on and more than a few ask for a quick photo. Liberation Man is not pleased with these stops and seems resolved to get me to the top as fast as my poor hamstrings will take me.
With only two climbs remaining, I meet Viriya and Roep. Viriya is a 20-something soldier in the Cambodian army and has joined up after leaving Kompong Thom province three months earlier. Roep is new to the army and, at only 15 years of age, seems to strain under the weight of his Kalashnikov and hand grenades. Viriya volunteers to escort me around the temple, since clearly he and the thousands of other soldiers have nothing to do but sit around and stare at Thailand. Liberation Man lights up another, gives a final nod and heads back down the mountain – our brief camaraderie dissolved as quickly as one of his cancer sticks.
The road deteriorates but the gradient decreases and I accept this development with glee. I cycle the final few meters to the end of the road and lock up my bike to a drink stand full of bewildered poker players. I promise to return to buy a drink and perhaps play a hand.
Viriya and Roep lead me along the “front line,” a trail that skirts the edge of the plateau. Soldiers crouch in trenches, wipe down sparkling new machine guns, and adjust the angle of artillery. Another group of well-to-do Cambodian tourists surveys the front line and hands bags of rice to soldiers. While to me the military presence is a strange display of military force (and political gerrymandering), this gesture reminds me that Preah Vihear is, arguably, the current confluence of national pride and therefore a very special place for many Khmers.
A commander, a spot-on Kim Jong Il lookalike with giant aviators and dozens of gold necklaces, stands atop a small pillbox and peers through binoculars at a house on an adjacent mountain. “Thailand army headquarters,” he explains. I can’t imagine a more obvious and unprotected target to put a base, but don’t feel like questioning his judgment. “Before Cambodia land – Ta Mok’s house for long time and many Khmer Rouge here. Now Thai take and we watch.” He hands me the binoculars and I take a closer look at the house. After his failed experiment with the lakeside property development, I can see why Ta Mok would choose a mountaintop villa where little landscaping is necessary to preserve the view (except landmines to protect from interlopers). I don’t see any Thai soldiers about – just a few artillery guns pointed our way. “Thai hide in forest.” Is this all a hoax? The Cambodian side is bustling with military activity and I literally can’t see a single Thai soldier on the entire adjacent mountain.
The commander proudly displays some unexploded ordinance and landmines found around the plateau. Bouncing Betty’s, Chinese-made plastic mines, pineapple grenades, and hand grenades are the most popular, but there are a few much larger shells/bombs as well.
We head back along the ancient stone path that leads to the entrance of Preah Vihear temple. Built in the 9th-century, Preah Vihear has served as both a temple and fortress. The temple has been largely off-limits over the past 40 years due to the heavy presence of landmines in the region and occupation by Khmer Rouge, Thai and Vietnamese military forces. With the Thai border closed due to an on-going border dispute, visitors can only make the journey to Prasat Preah Vihear via remote routes through the Cambodian countryside.
Only partially restored, Preah Vihear temple isn’t necessarily the most stunning of Angkorian temples. However, its location on the side of a sheer cliff provides amazing views of the sprawling Cambodian countryside 700m below. Perched on the edge off the drop-off, Viriya, Roep and I chat for awhile and then, true to my word, share a few drinks at the vendor where I left my bike. After taking a tour of Viriya’s humble tent and home, I bid the pair farewell and gingerly maneuver my bike down the steep road.
I arrive back at the base and whiz by the naysayers with a big smile on my face. After a brief afternoon nap, I load up my bike and head back toward the turnoff. Tomorrow I will have to make a decision – do I head east through remote jungle to the Mekong as originally planned or do I press south toward the ancient temples of Koh Ker and Preah Kham? For the afternoon, at least, I am content to let the question fade and enjoy a leisurely 25km ride back to town.
I stop at the market for a glass of fresh sugarcane juice. This vendor knows how to do it right with a generous splash of orange juice and hint of lime. Throngs of on-lookers join me around the sugarcane juice cart and I collect as much information as possible about different routes. The vendor must have been pleased as sales went through the roof. If his cart was a publically-traded enterprise, I could see the headline on MSNBC: “Preliminary Q4 earnings report for SC Juice Enterprise, Ltd. exceeds analyst expectations due to unanticipated celebrity endorsement of product.”
A few kilometers down the road I check into a shockingly beautiful log cabin guesthouse and pour over my map on the communal porch. A man at an adjacent table keeps offering me beer until I consent. In exchange, I learn immediately afterwards, I have to provide my mobile number. I now get calls weekly to ask if I have eaten rice yet and when I plan to visit him in Kompong Cham. I boil a bit of pasta and some veggies I picked up at the market for dinner – the result is unexpectedly poor and I dare not waste additional words on this depressing meal. As I take prepare my mossie net and bed, I decide on my next destination: Koh Ker.
Day 4 – The End
Kantout Samraong to Middle of Nowhere (60km)
My daily routine is more or less perfected by day 4. I even add a little extra stretching, since my legs are quite tight from the climb the day before. After a quick breakfast of oranges and oatmeal, I head out. The first half hour is pleasant enough – the usual early morning sunrise, vacant minefields (and therefore forest/birds) and a cool breeze. At about 10km I arrive upon another junction: east to the Mekong and south to Koh Ker. I don’t second-guess my choice from the previous evening and head south. As my trail cuts right through the middle of a large national park for 100km or so, I stock up on water.
I am a bit surprised how quickly the few shards of humanity fade on the road. It’s actually one of the few times in Cambodia that I feel completely isolated. Not a village, hut, or human in sight. On top of that, the red dirt road has recently been smoothed and widened a bit. While not an intrepid trail, it cuts through the heart of a giant national park full of lush trees and wildlife. A nagging pain in my left knee forces me to take breaks – I don’t mind though. The solitude and quiet forest breeze encourage a bit of lingering.
50km down the road, the breaks are becoming more and more frequent. I experiment by pedaling with one leg or adjusting the handlebars/seat. Nothing is helping and I finally confront the disappointing truth that I probably risk a significantly worse injury if I keep pressing ahead. I pull over. I sit down on a mound on the side of the road and briefly consider staying put for a day or two. I had anticipated a few days camping and have enough food to get by. I have maybe 13L of water – I could ration that off to last another 1.5 days if need be (though it wouldn’t be ideal). Best of all, I have a safe camping spot – a little mound just off the road made by construction crews probably the year before.
In the end, though, the pain doesn’t feel like it will go away anytime soon and I don’t want to tempt fate should a storm or something else strand me there for more than a day or two. I accept the decision to stop, pull out Kafka on the Shore and savor the citrus from my last few mandarin oranges.
A few hours later a logging truck (probably illegal logging truck) passes by and, after a bit of negotiating, hitch a ride with the family to the provincial capital some 60km further south, where I can recover for a day and figure out next steps. The truck winds through the forest and we arrive in Tbaeng Meanchey in less than two and a half hours – it probably would have taken me the rest of the day.
Tbaeng Meanchey – I like it. Remote, mountainous, green, many roads leading every which way. None of them to a major destination – all inviting an adventure. It’s a frontier town and you get that feeling… both isolated and connected. People arrive and sit at street side restaurants or enjoy fruit shakes at the market. Discussions of road conditions and which minibuses are leaving for where the next morning. When you hit the edge of town, that’s it. It doesn’t sprawl on – the paved road is suddenly dirt and you’re out there. I can’t wait to return.
Leg wrapped and bike secured, I take a grueling eleven hour bus back home the next day. I pushed too hard, was too ambitious, and for the first time I can remember my body couldn’t keep up. The result was a 4 day trip instead of 9 days. The doctor said it was an inflamed tendon caused by overuse. One month on and my knee is slowly returning to normal. I am able to ride my bike again and get to the gym, biding my time until I can undertake another adventure.
-Originally written in November 2009