Cycling Across the Cardamom Mountain Range in Cambodia (Day 1)
This is long overdue – nearly a year! Why write about this trip now? Well, this afternoon I was filling out an intake form for an executive coaching program I plan to join. One of the questions reads “What would you say have been your 2 greatest accomplishments to date?” Without hesitation, this trip came to mind. It tested me physically and mentally, and was a true adventure with big surprises (literally), benevolent strangers, and sublime wild landscapes.
Pursat to Red-Hat Man’s House (Follow the Steel Pylon Road)
I’ve just decided to move to Hanoi to work with Joma and, sensing my dwindling time in Cambodia, Steve and I decide to tackle the big one on our bucket list: crossing the Cardamom Mountain Range. We shoot emails back and forth with packing lists and scour over different GPS tracks and military maps to determine our route. We decide to head from Pursat west to Pramaoy and then southwest through Oasom (Veal Veng) to Koh Kong and the Thai border. The route is called the Smugglers’ Trail (Contact Me and I can send you the full GPS tracks/coordinates), as the single track deep in the Cardamoms is often used to carry illicit goods along and around the border (and probably played some function in the Khmer Rouge’s operations in the area up until the late 1990’s). Compared to other journeys, it is relatively last-minute – just a week or so of planning and we’re off.
Note: GPS tracks start from Pramaoy – we started about 100km west in Pursat along the main highway
I depart my house just as the sun is rising and news of the Water Festival stampede deaths is circulating around the world. On the humble Capitol bus to Pursat, everyone is reading newspapers and discussing the horrific news. Because many of the dead were visitors from other provinces, the newspapers are providing rough death tolls from each province – people in the bus are SMSing and calling friends and families to make sure everyone is accounted for and safe. I receive SMSs throughout the morning from colleagues: “Everyone from Hagar accounted for” and “No one from PEPY at Diamond Island.” It is a a chilling backdrop and I feel guilty for heading out to Pursat that morning – but realistically, I don’t know what I would contribute by staying in Phnom Penh.
The bus drops us off on the outskirts of Pursat town and we enjoy a typical rural restaurant meal (lukewarm wintermelon stuffed with pork and other veggies) before doing a final gear check. It has been a year exactly since my ill-fated Preah Vihear trip where I seriously injured my knee (too many 100 km days and a grueling climb up the mountain), so I am a bit nervous about my ability to complete this trip. Neither of us have trained for it – we just bank on the fact that we’ve pushed ourselves hard in the past and made it out unscathed.
After a quick bike repair (Steve’s ability to collaborate with Cambodian mechanics to fix random bike gear is unparalleled – this time a faulty GPS unit to handlebar connector), we turn west on the long road to Koh Kong. It is noon and the sun is brutal on this flat tarmac road, so we pull over to buy some water. The kind shopkeeper is also quite the saleswoman and convinces us both to buy red sun hats, not unlike those your grandmother would wear while gardening. Hydrated and stylish, we press on.
We both expected the road to be a bit more rough – it is a bittersweet development: a good road means fast progress, but also signals less wilderness ahead. After a few kilometers, we see our first metal monster – a massive high-voltage electric cable pylon. It seems so out of place in such a rural part of Cambodia – it might be the dehydration, but I keep expecting one of them to just rip up its foundation and start shuffling across the flat landscape with its angry eyebrows and unfortunate T-Rex-inspired claws. The humanoid pylons oversee our progress on that hot, absurdly straight road – I ask the pylon “Excuse me, kind sir. From your vantage point up there, can you see any curves or small hills to break up the monotony of this road?” The pylon, perhaps a Zen master in disguise, stares blankly and simply points one of its rigid metal fingers west.
We didn’t plan on making the full 120+km to Bramouy (an outpost town at the foothills of the Cardamom range) in a half-day of riding. As the sun begins to set, we start looking for a suitable camping spot, but houses and farms run adjacent to this strip of road.
With few trees (and lots of landmines around) we opt to set up our jungle hammocks under a pylon. We briefly consider whether this might pose a lightning risk, but decide if a storm approaches we can vacate the death cocoons and seek shelter elsewhere. Each pylon is located on land owned by a farmer and adjacent to his family’s house – so we look for a kind-looking group of farmers and ask permission to set up our hammocks.
“Camp? Here? No, no… you can sleep at my house!”
We’re delighted at the opportunity and walk our bikes over to his stilted house. He introduces us to his family and the various animals that occupy his land (a dog, a kitten and a few cows). He takes a particular liking to Steve’s sun hat and keeps commenting on how nice it is (we give it to him as a token of appreciation – I give Steve my hat since he is very attached to it himself and the horizontal stripes make my head look fat).
Hot and sweaty, the farmer’s family leads us to a nearby river to bathe. Despite every travel doctor’s warning about streams in developing worlds, I love a nice dip at the end of a long day. Amoebas, urethra fish, and ecoli be damned. Plus, water buffalo are excellent lather buddies.
We return and prepare a delicious yet simple dinner of pasta, lots of garlic (to keep the mossies away) and fresh veggies we bought from the market. We share with the family, but they don’t quite like the strange taste of the flour-based Italian noodles. The family eats dried fish and rice – very little of both. It is a hard life out here and I am humbled that they are willing to share their house and food with me. We pass a recycled water bottle around and all take swigs of homemade rice wine. Steve and I share the news about the tragedy in Phnom Penh. To our surprise the father knows about it already – they recently got cellphone reception (Mobitel) and he received a call earlier in the day from a relative who got wind of the news up the road. No one he knows was in Phnom Penh – he’s only been as far as Pursat town 70/80 km down the road in his whole life.
The whole family sleeps in hammocks beneath the house. At first I believe this is because it is too hot inside the house and you can catch a bit of a breeze below. I am annoyed that the dinner fire is still burning – Steve and I are both sweating enough that you’d think our hammocks were in fact bulging water balloons . Risking indecent exposure, I shed almost all layers and slip on a kroma (scarf) to sleep in. This ends up being a poor decision, as the temperature drops to “Oh-my-Buddha-I-can-see-my-breath-in-Cambodia” a few hours later.
Neither of us sleep particularly well that night. We toss and turn and take turns getting up to wander around or stare at the beautiful stars above. I almost urinate on one of our host’s cows in the dense darkness, an innocent mistake that nearly leads to the end of my family’s genealogy. We both get a few hours of sleep before sunrise and the start of our first foray into the mountains.
It was a good day, incorporating many of the reasons I like to wander down random roads on my bike: warm strangers, curious/unforeseen sights and copious amounts of delicious food with kind company. And cool hats.