Cycling Across the Cardamom Mountain Range in Cambodia (Day 3)
This is part three of a four part series describing my cycling trip with a friend across the Cardamom Mountain Range in Cambodia. You can read Day 1: Pursat to Red-Hat Man’s House (Follow the Steel Pylon Road) here and Day 2: Red-Hat Man’s House to Oasom (The Climb Up “I Hate Myself” Mountain on the Cardamom’s Front Range) here.
Day 3: Oasom to a Riverside Campsite (or “Climb Mountain, Downhill Single Track, River Crossing, Repeat”)
It’s impossible to be unhappy when wearing a poncho or cooking oatmeal. I wish I had brought my poncho on the trip, as the morning mountain air feels impossibly cold for Cambodia. We huddle next to my camping stove and take turns sipping green tea from a tin cup. All packed up and resupplied (this is the last village we’ll see until we reach Koh Kong town on the Thai border), we’re back on the road at first light. We wind our way out of Oasom, passing farmers headed out to their fields. The village dissipates at the edge of an icy-cold river.
We descend into foggy valley of huge banana tree plantations – undoubtedly another massive land concession granted to a Cambodian official (or his wife).
The muddy road starts to harden as the morning sun pokes through the fog. After 15 or so kilometers, the plantations give way to the jungle and we arrive at an unusual sight: a large administrative building and dormitories. The area looks too orderly and nice to be way out here in the middle of dense jungle – almost as if it was constructed somewhere else and dropped in by helicopter. There is a t-junction with a wide dirt road that leads from the substation to another area of the project. We gather from our GPS maps that there is a massive river valley 10km or so in the direction of the road – we’ve reached the Stung Atay Dam project, one of the dozen or so controversial Chinese construction projects that are threatening some of Asia’s last remaining intact wildernesses. We decide to take the road and see how far we can get before Chinese security guards throws us out.
We descend and descend until we reach an abrupt turn in the road and a pretty stunning view.
Steve and I are awestruck by the scale and buzz of construction all around us – there must be a thousand workers (mostly Chinese) tearing down mountains, building roads, and damming the powerful river hundreds of feet below us. It is a sad sight.
We decide to keep pressing our luck and ride down toward the dam. There are UXO/mine signs every few meters, as well as a tent full of all sorts of explosive ordinance.
Steven practices a bit of his Chinese with a few workers lounging in a tent – but they’re so shocked by our presence that they don’t quite register he is speaking to them in their language. We turn another corner and are greeted with a security gate – we can go no further.
We turn back and rejoin to the Smugglers’ Trail. A few kilometers beyond the Chinese dam project is a little river outpost bustling with activity. This is where our new routine starts: climb mountain, descend rocky single track, cross river, repeat. It’s simple and beautiful, and I love how my body becomes accustomed to it. The vistas from passes are sublime, the rivers crisp, the downhills long (20+ minutes in some parts), and the peanut brittle breaks oh so sweet (thank you to VISSOT – your locally-made natural peanut butter products are the best treat a weary cyclist can hope for on an adventure).
With my trusty duct tape, I assemble a helmet camera to capture some video of the lovely riding.
About an hour later, we reach a major river crossing – the water is too deep and fast to fjord. Luckily, a pair of entrepreneurial men have a zip line (made from stolen Mobifone wire) and small bamboo ferry available for rent.
We continue on the Smugglers’ Trail, hoping to end the day at a big river 20-30km deeper in the jungle.
We climb “Oh-the-Pain” pass and make our final long descent for the day – a 15 minute, 450-meter, rocky rollercoaster with banked turns and canopies of lush bamboo to duck under. At the end, we’re rewarded with a lovely riverside campsite that I reckon I could have enjoyed for days if food supplies allowed.
We unload our gear on the remnants of an ambitious bridge (why plan such a large bridge for such a poor road with ridiculous grades?) and jump into the fast flowing river to wash off. Transporting our gear and bikes across the river is a challenge, but thanks again to creative usage of fallen Mobifone cables we make it across intact. Steve and I set up our hammocks alongside the river. I construct a crocodile barrier on one side of our campsite that opens to the river – though my fears are largely unfounded given the dwindling numbers of the rare Siamese crocodile.
Steve assembles a mighty fire and I cook a huge pot of chili with oodles of garlic (it is a malaria zone, of course). It’s only seven in the evening, but we both know all too well the challenge of keeping warm late at night in the jungle. Our strategy is to go to sleep as early as possible while it is still moderately warm, anticipating that we’ll wake up at 2:30 or 3AM due to the freezing air and condensation in our hammocks. We polish off a shampoo bottle full of sambuca around the warm fire and call it a night.