A Motorcycle Trip Through Northern Cambodia
Living in Bangkok, one sometimes gets an itch to escape the insanity and modernity of the place and get away for awhile. As far as I’m concerned, there is nowhere better to do this than rural Cambodia. The following is a detailed travelogue of a 5 day, 700+ kilometer motorcycle journey made last month across some remote and not-so-remote destinations in northern Cambodia.
After cruising around Phnom Penh for a couple of days, I was confident that the 250cc dirt bike I rented was in good enough shape for a long trip upcountry. So armed with a couple of spare tubes, pump, and various spare parts, I set out for Kampong Thom midday. It’s a journey I’ve made many times now, although the road has never been this good. The high rate of speed doesn’t seem to deter the Khmers from walking aimlessly onto the road without looking, so I had to deal with several near-misses on this 165 km stretch. A little over 2 hours after leaving Phnom Penh I was in Kampong Thom.
The real journey began on this day. 5 km from Kampong Thom the paved road ends and the long dirt road to TBeng Meanchey begins. There’s a time warp of sorts once you hit the dirt road, with mostly thatched huts lining the road with locals selling
drinks and fuel in whiskey bottles. For several long stretches it’s just you and the countryside with nothing else in sight. The road is quite decent for rural Cambodia, though the potholes get tiresome after 80 – 100km of them.
The huge wooden ox-carts that you see along this route serve as a reminder that you have officially arrived 1000 years back in time. As a friend in Phnom Penh put it: “Going out to the countryside in Thailand is like going back 100 years in time. Going out to the countryside in Cambodia is like going back to the middle ages.”
The last stretch to TBeng Meanchey provided a taste of things to come, with some sandy, broken stretches of road coupled with some landmine warning signs. Just under 5 tiring hours from Kampong Thom town I rolled into TBeng Meanchey, the capital of Preah Vihear Province. After getting a room in a guesthouse, I drove down the main street and found a snack and drink place. I watched ‘rush hour’ (ox-carts and Daelim scooters) over a baguette and a beer.
This day provided the first big reward of the trip – the 1000 year old temple complex of Koh Ker. Getting there from TBeng Meanchey started out easy, became extremely difficult, and then became easy again. After going about 25km on a wide dirt road, the turn off to the village of Kulen appears. It’s just a narrow road through the countryside, but I could not believe the quality of the road to Kulen. It’s easily the best road I’ve been on in rural Cambodia. After zooming into Kulen, I asked some boys about the road to Siyong (about 9km from Koh Ker). The road starts off very wide and very sandy, and soon I pass a few large construction machines. It looks like the road to Kulen is going to be extended. After passing the construction equipment, the road gets worse. Thick sand would often bring my bike to a halt, and getting moving again required rocking back and forth and gunning it in first gear. Most of the trees in this section of the forest have been cut down, which made for a hot and sticky ride. Eventually the road narrows and becomes what the entire way must have been like not long ago – a sandy ox-cart track through the forest. The stretches of thick, pink sand were very challenging, sort of like trying to ride on powdered sugar.
After stopping here for a drink break, a Khmer trio rode by on a Daelim. They asked where I was going and if I would like to follow them to Siyong. I passed, as the trail seemed to be fairly straightforward. I caught up with them later at a rest stop under a large tree. It was just after this point that the trail left the logged part of the forest and entered a heavily forested area with large trees. Many sections were still very green and beautiful, and the road was less sandy as well. The last section (around 7km) into Siyong was a lot of fun. The sand finally let up and I could safely ride above 2nd gear.
A lot of tight turns and huge trees on this stretch added to the enjoyment. 2 and half hours after leaving Kulen I was in Siyong.
I found the main street in Siyong and stopped at a place for lunch. I was just about to leave for Koh Ker when a policeman came and sat down at my table. He spoke good English and said he was the police captain at Koh Ker, emphasizing the word “captain” and pointing at his police hat, which I suppose was intended to impress me. Never being a big fan of the police anywhere in Asia, I doubted I would be able to get out of this without some sort of donation to his karaoke bar fund. Off we go to an amazing (for Cambodia) new gravel road for the last 9 km to Koh Ker. It was nice to be back on a real road again after slipping and sliding my way to Siyong. On arrival at Koh Ker, there were 4 more policemen and a western couple who had come on a guided tour up the good road from Siem Reap. One of the police had “tickets” (which were actually for another temple in another province) with $10 USD printed in the corner. I wasn’t in the mood to argue, especially being outnumbered 5 to 1, so I paid up.
Prasat Krahom (Red temple) was the first place I explored. The stone is indeed red, and it’s a nice place to explore even though looters have almost stripped the place bare. More impressive is the pyramid temple behind Prasat Krahom. It’s 7 levels and 60+ meters tall. I decided to save the hike to the top of the pyramid for the early evening and walked back to my motorcycle. Mr. Police Captain said there were several outlying sites in the area and offered to show me around. He jumped on the back of my motorcycle and we did a big loop around the Koh Ker area. Most impressive were the Elephant temple (with a couple of stone elephants still intact), and Prasat Neuhng Khmao (Temple of the Black Girl), made of black stone. We stopped at several other sites which had just been cleared of landmines and the Captain said that there are other, larger sites in the area which are still full of mines. We looped back to Prasat Krahom around 4pm, where there were even more police and few military men hanging around. Looking back now, I wonder if there was some sort of deal going down that night with looters or perhaps Thai antique dealers? Mr. Police Captain had previously said that it would be no problem if I wanted to hang my hammock in a shack and stay the night. However, upon return to Prasat Krahom he said that I couldn’t stay here now, and rolled his eyes in the direction of some of the military guys and new policemen. Perhaps they had an appointment to sell off some more of their history later on.
I walked back to the pyramid temple and began the long climb to the top. It’s easily the most impressive monument at Koh Ker.
At the top there are some wonderful carvings of muscled Khmer warriors holding up huge stone beams. There is also a nice view of a village (The captain said it’s the village of Koh Ker), which doesn’t look much different than it probably did 500 or 1000 years ago.
The military guys hadn’t changed their minds when I arrived back at my motorcycle, so I headed back to Siyong in search of food, beer, and a place to sleep. Siyong was well stocked and the beers were good after a long day. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is an actual guesthouse in Siyong. For 10,000 riel ($2.50) you get a bed and a mosquito net and some candles for light. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard the rumbling sound of a generator starting up. There was no doubt as to what was coming next – Khmer karaoke videos. They didn’t party too late though so I was able to get a decent amount of sleep.
The new gravel and dirt road into Siem Reap province is excellent and I made the 60km journey to Beng Mealea temple in about an hour. It was encouraging to see a lot of intricate carvings still intact at Beng Mealea. Unlike most of the sites at Koh Ker,
the place hasn’t been totally ransacked by looters.
The most interesting thing about Beng Mealea is the way the forest is trying to take it back, much like the much more famous Ta Phrom temple near Angkor Wat. A nice old Khmer man showed me around the complex. He knew a lot about the surrounding area, which was perfect because my next destination was the village of Kwow, 30 km to the east on an ancient Angkor-era road. This guy knew the names of the small villages enroute to Kwow and also knew about the ancient bridges. Ta Ong is the largest bridge but he said there were 4 more bridges before that and rattled off all the names, which I didn’t quite catch. We finished our tour of Beng Mealea and I tipped him for his information. Beng Mealea was getting fairly busy by that time with tour vans popping up everywhere. There is a paved road now which, I’m guessing, goes all the way to Siem Reap town and Angkor Wat. This place definitely can’t be called a ‘remote’ site anymore.
After having lunch at a roadside stall, I inquired about the road to Kwow and was pointed to a nice dirt road opposite the end of the paved road. I headed down this road for about 1km until it ended on the edge of some thick forest. There were 3 trails going into the forest and no one around to ask for directions. I was just about to go back and ask someone when an ox-cart rumbled out of one of the trails. They confirmed it was the road to Kwow and I rode into the forest.
The first section of the trail is rather ominous. Thick sand, uneven ground, intersecting trails, and landmine warnings on the trees on both sides of the road make for some tough riding. I tried to stay in the middle of the road and kept scanning both sides for remnants of bridges. After 9 km of grinding it out, I found what I was looking for. A lone Naga head on the left side of the road and a few humps in the sand marked the remains of a bridge. There were greater things to come, but it was an amazing feeling to find this in the middle of nowhere after sliding around in the sand.
After this point the trail was less sandy and I began to pass by a few “minefield cleared” signs. The first settlement soon came into site. It was just a few thatched huts on either side of the road. It would be pretty scary to live out here with this trail being your only link to the outside world. 30 minutes later I got another reward in the form of real bridge with stone railings and small stone arches. A couple of Naga carvings were lying in the forest off the road. After taking some pictures I continued on until I came to a steep river bed (no bridge). After making the hairy descent and riding back up the other side, I almost immediately came to another ancient bridge, though no naga or railings remained, just a few sandstone blocks and some humps in the road. From here to the next bridge was a scary section of the trail with high grass and weeds that would smack against my helmet as I rode past. The trail in this section was often down to 2 single tire tracks. This, combined with some tight turns and spots of sand made for a thrilling few km.
The overgrown section of trail finally gave way to an open section of the forest and soon I was riding up and then over a massive bridge. This thing was probably 20 meters long with several 2 – 3 meter high stone arches. Figuring this was “the big one”, I excitedly stopped and pulled out my camera. Just then a local couple on a little scooter rode past in the opposite direction. I asked if this was Ta Ong bridge, and they said no, motioning further up the trail. I got a few pictures of the naga, railings, and arches and then took a water break. Another local rode past, stopped, and said “Where you go?” I told him I was going to Kwow. He got a little gleam in his eye and said “I police Kwow.” Just great, 2 days of riding and I meet 2 policemen. He seemed to be giving me the evil eye and kept sizing up my gear bag. I continued on and he followed me. Only a kilometer down the trail I came to the big prize of the trip, Ta Ong bridge. There was certainly no way to miss this one. A bit awestruck at what I was seeing, I rode over the bridge and starting gawking at this thing. A couple of large carved Naga, as well as almost all of the stone railing are still intact. Mr. Policeman continued on to Kwow and I pulled out my camera.
A group of stone blocks scattered on the south side of the rode provided a way to get down to the river and view the bridge up close. From solid stone, the ancient Khmers somehow constructed this thing, with arches twice my height, well enough to stand up and still be used in the road 800 years later. I passed under the arches to either side several times and saw a few local children washing clothes in the river. They screamed and ran away when they noticed me. On the north side of the bridge there is a stone staircase leading down to the river. By this time a crowd of 10 or so locals had gathered and even Mr. Policeman had returned to pay me a visit. When I returned to my motorcycle he was switching his gaze from me, my bag, and my camera. He seemed to be interested in my bag most of all. I had an emergency stash of cash in there that probably amounted to 5 years of his salary, so any thoughts I had about spending the night in Kwow were history now. I took off and left him behind. The last 8 km to Kwow were hot and sandy, and when I finally arrived in the village I found a drink stand and downed a liter and a half of water. Happily, there was no sign of Mr. Policeman while I was drinking and I practiced my Khmer with nice lady who had a face like the 4-sided towers of the Bayon temple.
From Kwow, the ox-cart track continues on to the temple of Preah Bakan, but I had previously visited the Bakan temple and had no appetite left for sandy ox-cart tracks. I had heard that the road south from Kwow was good so I decided to head down to highway 6 and find a guesthouse there. I covered the 40km in under an hour, hit paved highway 6 and stopped for a drink. There was still plenty of daylight left, so I decided to continue on all the way back to Kampong Thom town. The paved road was a real delight to ride on after a few days of rough roads. I arrived in Kampong Thom just as the sun was setting, the end of a day in which I covered over 200 kilometers and 1000 years in time.
The next day I decided to take a side trip to the Sambor Prei Kuk ruins north of Kampong Thom. While interesting and definitely worth a trip, the ruins appear to have been looted to point where most of the remaining structures are bare stone and brick walls. The forest seems to be eating the ruins in several spots, which makes for some good photos.
The next day included several more near-accidents on speedy highway 6 as I made my way back to Phnom Penh. I was more than ready to resume life in Bangkok now. But I know that it won’t be too long before I’m ready to time travel again, and when the time comes I’ll return to Phnom Penh and head out into rural Cambodia.
Very nice trip report.