Memories: Bicycle Diaries (Kep, Kampot and Bokor Mountain)
I love Hanoi, but there is a serious lack of nature in and around the city. To compound my cabin fever, it’s almost impossible to find a gym under $100/month (even if you sign up for a annual membership), which just means my previously strong legs are becoming jelly. Needless to say, I am going through a bit of wanderlust and looking back fondly on old adventures.
The video and story below is from a cycling trip to Kep, Kampot and the Bokor Mountain hill station. This ride is one of the most beautiful in the country and I’ve since repeated it at least a half dozen times with different groups and slightly different routes. Bokor Mountain is also a must-see, though a new $1 billion casino and condo development on top of it will destroy the national park and eerie/interesting old abandoned French colonial city on top. Download trails and GPS coordinates from my friend and I here.
Watch the video below or at this link. Also, I’ve copied the story I emailed to friends about the trip.
On a whim, Michael, Jonathan and I fixed up the PEPY bikes, packed supplies, slid into our biking shorts/bibs, and set off for the 110 km ride from Phnom Penh to the sleepy seaside town of Kep. Hoping to avoid the traffic and the pollution of the factories on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we sped off to the minibus station to catch a ride part of the way. After bargaining hard, we arranged $3 “seats” on top of bags of rice, bicycles and some doped up chickens (farmers supposedly feed animals marijuana during transport instead of killing them so they are fresh to market) strapped precariously to the top of a minibus. We all kept our bicycle helmets on the for the ride and held on tight.
Halfway to our destination, a giant chunk of metal popped out from underneath the minibus chink! and flew behind us 10 feet up in the air. We kept driving so apparently the driver didn’t think that metal part was necessary to the operation of the car. Only 30 minutes later did he pull over to examine the damage – serious enough to warrant rolling the minibus to the nearest station for fixing.
We finally arrived in Ang Tasom at 2 pm and just in time really… the bus was so behind schedule that the chickens were beginning to either wake up or get paranoid or maybe just had the munchies for my legs.
We hoped off the bus, set up the bikes, and immediately took off toward Kep. With only 4 hours left of daylight and 110 km to the sea, we were resigned to the fact we might be riding through rice fields blind. The ride was wonderful… perfect temperature, sunny, and a little wind (but not headwind!). As always, shouts of hello carried from fields far away, the culprits usually small naked kids running to get a closer look at the crazy barang riding yellow bikes. Sometimes we’d hear the murmurs and the kids would run to greet us, sometimes they’d only notice just as we passed and ran as fast as they could to get a hello in, and sometimes then ran up to the road and just held a look in between terror and curiousity. We contemplated turning around at points and riding back and forth to see if we kept getting the same reaction, but alas lack of daylight pushed us to ride as fast as our sunburnt legs would take us.
I could go on and on about these rides – there are so might sights and smells and memories… just a few thoughts: school kids cycling up to us and keeping pace just to practice english on their way to night school, stopping for pure sugarcane juice in a mug on the side of the road from a toothless elderly women grinning uncontrollably as I speak broken khmer, eating patte spam sandwiches as a snack, drinking a coconut next to train tracks where a man is constructing a makeshift bamboo train powered by a moto engine.
To anyone thinking of purchasing a road map in Cambodia, just forget it. None of them have any sense of scale and pretty much neglect 3 out of 4 roads. How many times did we think “oh!!! we’re only 10 km! there it is, that mountain,” just to get to that mountain and see another. At one point we almost thought we had turned the wrong way and were at the border with Vietnam.
Daylight faded quick at 6 pm and I witnessed one of the best sunsets I have ever seen (this trip would be a trip of sunsets)… surrounded by phosphorescent green rice fields which seemed to change shades of green by the moment as the sun went down. Layers and layers of clouds: purple, dark blue, orange, yellow, aqua… it was amazing… all setting behind huge mountains in the distance.
These beautiful moments were quickly erased when we were spotted by a pack of dogs and chased for a kilometer in the dark. Night riding was full of less scenery – it was so pitch black we could barely see the road. We finally arrived in Kep at 8 pm, bruised, sunburnt, sore, hungry as the dogs who chased us, and ecstatic to relax.
Kep is a sleepy seaside town that used to be a French colonial resort area. So there are plenty of cool little French houses and shops… well, now almost all of them are falling apart and empty. It’s even sleepier with only a few hundred people living along the 4 km square mountainous pennisula. We spent the day on Rabbit Island, a 45 minute boat ride away, swimming in the clear, smooth as glass Gulf of Thailand and hiking around the small island. I split off from the group, hoping to avoid the sun which had taken a big toll during the ride.
Alone in the jungle I felt like a character of Lost, and I pretended that a herd of cows blocking the trail were in fact “The Others”. So I ran off the trail trying to avoid raising suspicions. Of course they’re cows and really don’t look at anything, but I think I did a respectable espionage job. I sat on the other side of the island, relaxing in an abandoned hammock and watching some fisherman fix their boat down the beach. That night we feasted on crab and local fish before turning in to our bungalows.
The ride to Kampot seemed like nothing – 40 km? no worries. We rode straight to Bodhi Villa, a little collection of bungalows on the side of Kampot river run by a crazy australian man and his wife. The motto at Bodhi Villa is “Chill Out” and they take that seriously. We arrived at 9 am – there were 5 bodies laying on pillows around the bar, two on a pontoon floating on the river, and more sleeping away in the upstairs “chill out room.” A Norweigan man in his 50s offered me a joint, his second of the day. But after seeing this strung out hippie who had been living at Bodhi for 5 months, I politely declined.
We arranged a pickup to take us to the top of Bokor Mountain, where in from 1920 the French built a little resort city escape to beat the heat. Abandoned in the 50s and holdout for the Khmer Rouge in the 70s/80s, it is ridden with scars of war and an eerie abandoned symbol of colonial life. We started the journey – about 40 km away horizontally and 30 km vertically in hitchback, completely delapidated cliff side roads. I was ready to jump off the back more than a few times during that ride up… we crossed sloppily repaired bridges (bamboo and rice sacks of gravel replaced stone). The jungle punished each of us in the pickup truck with its thorny branches, giant bugs, and seemingly coordinated fruit dropping on heads. Things only got worse as it poured, the clouds rolled in on us, and visibility sank to nothing. 4 hours later we arrived at the top of Bokor.
The driver dropped us off at the ranger station so we could put out bags down for the night. We hiked around the top of the mountain, exploring the abandoned buildings: an eerie casino with stairways leading to nowhere, 90 guestrooms, and just a really strange fog from clouds rolling in over the mountain; a small church on the top of a peak, still with its alter and acoustics that make a drip sound like a footstep; two small hotels in complete disrepair, with half of the building sinking into the ground. I could only imagine how extravagant everything must have been back in its heyday…
Jonathan and I hiked around the ridges, looking for a little climbing and nice views. Check out the pictures below – really amazing sunset and views of the ocean… we could see Phu Quoc (Vietnamese island in the distance) and hordes of fishing boats returning from a day at sea.
The ranger station was the place to be. We dined on ramen soup initially, but some jolly germans started a camp fire and started to pass around sausages grilled on a stick, fresh cheese, wine, bread… Soon a bird watcher from Britain joined the circle, and a family from PP working with Doctors without Borders. We chatted, passed around a $2 bottle of rice wine we bought from the ranger, and enjoyed the beautiful setting. Apparently the Germans are the lead organizers for Oktoberfest in Cambodia, which features a live Boverian band and real German sausages. They will be closing off a street of Sihanoukville for 3 days (coming this November) for the event. We pointed out this date discrepency and he just said “we drink when we want to drink! take this car – you wont find alcohol in a german car… we drink it dry. and when that runs out, we’ll even go after the diesel fuel.”
The next morning we encountered a major issue – we didnt have a ride down the mountain and due to the holiday (Pchum Bun), it was likely that few if anyone was coming up. The only option was to begin the hike down. Peaceful for awhile… we saw some amazing birds that weren’t scared away by the loud pickups… namely a huge eagle swooping around above us. We took in a waterfall off to the side of the road, where we realized it had taken us 4 hours to go 15 km and we had a solid 30 more. We resolved to hitchike on anything – moto, bicycle, or car that came by. Hours later, a nice Khmer family gave us a lift down to the base and we caught motos back to Bodhi for the night.
Bodhi was alive and well with the young crowd. We jumped off the dock into the river, relaxed in hammocks, feasted on fish amok, drank to our adventures, and met great people. At the end of the night, one very intoxicated and high Austalian who apparently is a co-owner let me in on a special secret: “Jeff (he forgot the name)… look at these drawings (sketches on a napkin in crayon). This is my new brainchild. I built all of these bungalows and the floating bamboo island out there… but this will be the greatest one yet.” It was a crude drawing for a human catapult that would throw guests 50 feet out into the river, which he came up with in the “Chill Out Room” earlier that month. Surely this as some crazy talk… but he led me behind Bodhi and to my shock stood a 10 ft tall catapult with a oil barrel counterweight on one end and a leather lazyboy on the other. And IT WORKED! While still being tested, the thing can throw a 200 pound human shaped bag of rice 30 feet out into the river. Impressive.
-Originally written 30/10/2007