The story of my trip cycling from Pursat to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains started with me, sitting at my desk at work, daydreaming about being somewhere else.
Moving to Cambodia to work for an NGO was a dream come true for me. My expectations before moving here were very high. The reality of living in Cambodia, though, especially in the city of Battambang, has taught me something: I am happiest near the mountains.
But Battambang? Flat as a pancake. Here, they call a 50m tall hill a mountain and mean it seriously.
As I slowly realized that the only thing I was going to climb were the stairs to my fourth floor apartment, the reality of my situation, and my lack of mountains, became clear. As a coping mechanism, I began typing in variations of the phrase “Mountains in Cambodia” into google.
I discovered Cambodia’s storied Cardamom Mountains. The Cardamom’s aren’t famous for their height. The tallest peak, Phnom Aural, is just over 1,800m (5,900ft). However, they are blanketed by one of the largest and still unexplored forests in Southeast Asia.
The Cardamoms are some of the last territory in the region that is home to wild tigers, elephants, and nearly extinct Siamese Crocodiles. Additionally intriguing, as late as the 1990s, these remote mountains were the last home and battlefield of the Khmer Rouge. Obviously, I had to explore them.
Geographically speaking, the Cardamoms aren’t so far away from Battambang. Naively, I believed getting into the mountains would be easy.
As I typed in as many variations of “Battambang to Cardamom Mountains” as I could, I kept getting the same results: I’d have to go down to Koh Kong (2 separate 7 hour bus trips) in order to get into the Cardamoms. It wasn’t possible. There were no options for entering the Cardamoms from the north.
Deep in the dusty recesses of forgotten google search results, I found a sliver of hope. A post, written in 2010, described a possible mountain bike trek through the Cardamoms, beginning in a town called Pursat, just 100km south of Battambang on Road 5.
But here in Cambodia, a country that is changing more rapidly than Putin’s opinion of America, a blog post from 2010 has limited viability for 2016 travel plans. In short, I couldn’t trust it.
The only post I could find to corroborate the story came from 2013. This second blog post contained a vitally important footnote: the author claimed it would be possible to make this bike trek without camping gear, going from Pursat to Koh Kong in three days, staying in the only two towns in the mountains with guesthouses: Pramaoy and O Saom.
Welp. That was that, I was going for it. I just needed to find a time when I had 5 days free, 2 days for travel to and from Battambang, 3 days for bike riding. There was never a question of if I would do it, it was simply when. After all these years of exploration, I’m not hesitant about traveling alone. Even when it might seem like a crazy idea.
And so I waited, biding my time as the months went by,
following a rigorous training schedule not ever riding a bicycle, nor, in fact, even owning one. Still I waited patiently until the day would come that during some Cambodian holiday with little to no relevance to my life, I would take off for the mountain wildernesses.
Then during the water festival in November my work gave me 3 weekdays off, so I had 5 days, from Saturday to Wednesday, to get this shit done. Was I worried about my lack of fitness and preparedness? Excrutiatingly. I didn’t sleep well for weeks leading up to it. And when I did sleep, I would spend half the night suffering through illogical stress dreams. But I was determined. I had to get the fuck out of Battambang and find my way into the mountains.
When it came to planning, I stuck to my usual travel approach: don’t.
Okay, well, I rented a bike from a local bike tour business, went to the market and bought a small backpack to hold a change of clothes, rolled up my hammock “just in case” I didn’t make it to a guesthouse any night, and bought a bus ticket to Pursat the day before. It was tricky finding a bus company that would agree to take the bike, I was surprised by how many of them ended up saying no. Eventually I found a bus ticket on Sorya bus for $6 from Battambang to Pursat, including the bike.
The only thing left to do was start.
Day 1: Bus from Battambang to Pursat
After two sleepless nights of stressing out thinking I was going to die on the road, I picked up my bike from Soksabike around noon on Friday and biked to the bus stop outside of town for my 1:30pm bus to Pursat.
Following the great Cambodian tradition, the bus was one and a half hours late, so my 1:30pm bus left at 3pm. Naturally. Then the 1 hour ride to Pursat of course took two hours. Because, why not?
So it was that at 5pm I stepped off of the bus on the side of the highway in Pursat with no hotel reservations, no clue about the layout of the town, armed only with the confidence that everything would work out, eventually.
Cycling around town, I discoverd that once you get off of highway 5 Pursat is a lovely place. There is a river with a park alongside it meandering through town and a massive central market. The city seems to be a center for agriculture and I was very comforted by the giant market with lots of families selling their produce. It reminded me, in a way, of the mercado central in Urubamba, Peru.
Riding around the attractive tree lined streets surrounding the market, I did see a sign for a small, family run guest house, and popped in to find out how much a room cost.
Inside, two young Cambodian girls weres playing a game on a smart phone, and when they looked up and saw me, they both froze, wide eyed, unable to move or greet me. It didn’t help that I forgot the Cambodian words for hotel and night, so I had no Khmer vocabulary and was forced to ask in English. After a long and awkward silence, they broke out of their stupor and put me in an air conditioned and only slightly moldy hotel room for $7 a night.
Got some dinner from a street side seller and took advance of the free cable TV to watch CNN in my hotel room, always an interesting contrast when traveling in Southeast Asia, and went to sleep early, determined to be well rested for my 110km journey the next day.
Day 2: Pursat to Pramaoy – 110km
I knew, because I had read a blog post about it naturally, that from Pursat to Pramaoy was 110km. What I did not know was the location of Pramaoy on the map, or how the fuck do you even pronounce Pramaoy!? It’s pram – owee, turns out, but I didn’t figure that out until hours into day one.
My alarm woke me up at 5am and I jumped out of bed, determined to have as many hours as possible to ride 110km. Have I mentioned I wasn’t in cycling shape? I figured (hoped) I would need about 8 hours to cover that distance.
On the plus side, the first day was meant to be completely flat, so I anticipated being able to finish a bit ahead of schedule.
Hopped on my bike by 5:30 and rolled slowly out of town, looking for the turnoff for the road to Pramaoy. It was easy to find, just past the bridge over the river on highway 5, the sign points to Phnom Kravahn, the Khmer name for the Cardamom Mountains.
The road is paved for the first 20 or so kilometers and the riding was easy. Cruising along at a good clip, watching the sky turn from dark blue to purple to pink and white and sky blue, while the sun turned the tropical forests and rice fields around me a beautiful mix of gold and green, I felt at peace. This was the way I was meant to live. Traveling, moving through the world, experiencing life at its most raw.
After an hour of this, my stomach finally got in touch with my brain and reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything yet. After a little less than 20 kilometers, I stopped at a roadside restaurant and ordered a bowl of Bor, Cambodian rice porridge. Needless to say, it was spectacular.
As I ate, I was joined by a collection of school kids and their mothers. They gathered around the table in what seemed to be a normal morning ritual. Only this day, the morning gossip hour was interrupted by the appearance of me, the foreigner. They asked me where I was going, and I did my best to have a conversation with them. At one point, one of the women put my bike helmet on her head and started walking around laughing at herself.
Stuffed with rice porridge, I payed my $0.50 and went along my merry way. Not too far after my breakfast stop, I passed through the town of Phnom Kravahn and out along a bridge across the Pursat river. After the bridge, the road changed from pavement to dirt and I thought to myself, here we go. Now the adventure really begins.
But all that really began was my slow death by dust asphyxiation. The road is a well trafficked road and is under construction for most of the way between Phnom Kravahn and Pramaoy. For the entire day I was covering my mouth with my karma scarf while trucks and cars roared past me, churning up huge clouds of dust. By 11am I was covered in dust, my shirt, pants, shoes, and face all a unique orange hue.
Aside from the horrible traffic and dust situation, the mornings riding was pretty easy, but not overly scenic. There was nothing particularly exciting or challenging about it.
I stopped for lunch at a shack that seemed to have been set up to cater to the construction workers who were working on the road. In Cambodia, it is fairly normal to eat lunch around 11 and then take a rest during the hottest part of the day, from 11 until nearly 2pm. When I popped into the shack and asked for food, there was a group of men sitting there who all immediately started to talk about me.
I was feeling tired at this point and anti-social, so I am somewhat ashamed to admit I pretended not to speak Khmer. I could understand a lot of what they were saying, but I didn’t want to struggle through a conversation, so I didn’t reply.
Through a series of pantomimes, the woman running the shop put a bowl of noodle soup in front of me with some kind of meat and vegetables inside. It was one of the most delicious bowls of soup I have ever had in my life. The broth was light and fresh, not too salty but not bland either. The rice noodles were the perfect balance between chewy and firm.
After the soup, I crawled onto a pallet at the back of the shop and fell asleep for an hour.
When I woke up, around 12:30, the people in the shop were still talking about me! Only now, having eaten and had a nap, I had the energy to reply, so we had a bit of a limited conversation. I don’t want to over exaggerate the extent of my khmer. I can listen fairly well, and can say things like “I’m riding my bike from Pursat to Pramaoy” or “I work in Battambang” and “I’m staying in Cambodia for one year.”
We didn’t delve into the heavy stuff.
Around 1pm I hopped back on the bike to continue my day. I was anticipating more of the same. Flat, wide, dirt road, heavily under construction, with a slight hint at uphill grade sometimes. I felt confident I would finish the 110km day.
As I’m basking in my post lunch nap energy, feeling strong and rejuvenated, I came across something unexpected. The road was moving in a huge sweeping arc up a huge hill.
Alright. This wasn’t part of the plan.
But I’m strong. I love climbing hills on bikes. And the grade wasn’t very steep. I dropped into a lighter gear and kept pedaling. Then, a few minutes up the hill, I noticed an older much more rundown road off to the left, half buried by this dirt mega highway I was currently pedaling. I’m guessing that this was the old road, the one I had read about in the blog posts prior to undertaking this trip. That old road looked rugged and tough. It was much steeper and would have been a challenging climb.
If anyone is reading my blog looking to follow my bike path from Pursat to Koh Kong, I should probably tell you now, the day from Pursat to Pramaoy, you follow a flat, highly processed road that is probably going to be paved in the next 2 years.
So I snapped a photo of the old road and the new, and continued to climb. And climb. And climb. And climb. The hill went on forever. It was ridiculous. Outrageous. My whole world was this uphill climb.
Yet as with all things, the hill did eventually come to an end. The road flattened out and after a few moments, went back down. I cruised down the hill and after that point, the territory was more rolling hills. Even after the climb, I was feeling strong, and I powered through the rolling hills for another hour.
But sometime in the midafternoon, something inside me broke down. I felt myself hitting the proverbial wall. I pulled over at one point to buy a snack and a drink from a roadside house, and when I hopped back on the bike, it was like my legs refused to warm back up. Pedaling became agony.
Not to mention, since I hadn’t been riding a bike before this, my bum was wicked sore.
Pushed on for another hour or so, but by 4pm, I was wrecked. My willpower was completely crushed when I came around a corner and saw another climb in front of me. Tired and beaten down, I stepped off of my bike and checked my maps.me app to see how many more kilometers I had to go before Pramaoy. The map said I had ridden 105km and had 28 more to go.
In that moment, I figured I had 2 options.
Option 1: force myself to ride the final 28 km through rolling hills, and probably get to Pramaoy around 6pm completely exhausted. Most likely, I would be unable to ride the 60km through the mountains that I knew awaited me tomorrow.
Option 2: Stop here and try to flag down a passing car or truck to give me a ride the rest of the way to Pramaoy. Swallow my pride, and save my legs so that I could continue my ride tomorrow.
I went with option 2.
I propped my bike up on the side of the road and sat down to wait for the next car. And I waited. And waited. And waited.
A woman, probably the matriarch of the family, came out of a nearby house and asked me if everything was okay. I explained my predicament to her, that I was riding to Pramaoy, trying to go all the way to Koh Kong, but that I was tired, my knees hurt, and I didn’t want to ride any more.
Her reply? She offered to let me sleep at her house, and to feed me dinner. I was stunned and so honored. I thanked her profusely, but explained that I really had to get to Pramaoy today, because tomorrow morning I needed to ride from Pramaoy to O Saom, the village in the mountains.
To give her credit, never once did she tell me just to toughen up and get back on the bike. In fact, when no cars went by for awhile, I did start to get back on the bike to keep riding, and that was when my hostess offered me her own solution. She called out her son, and told him to drive me and my bike to Pramaoy… wait for it… on the back of his moto.
So he rolled out on his 100cc honda motorbike, I propped my bicycle upside down in my lap and sat behind him, and he drove me out to Pramaoy. Which, it turns out, was really less than 10km away, my map had been wrong all along.
Pramaoy was perfect. Dusty dirt roads intersecting a town of small shops and restaurants in the middle of farmland with mountains in the distance. I took in the sunset over town, grabbed some fried noodles, and fell into bed completely exhausted.
I have one piece of advice for intrepid mountain bikers looking to follow in my footsteps: if you’re looking for a rugged, wild mountain bike adventure, skip this day. From Pursat you can just get a bus to Pramaoy/Veal Veng. Unless you’re doing a cycle tourism trip and want to ride every mile, just skip this day. The fast driving trucks and cars are relentless and it gets unpleasant. Save yourself the energy, bus to Veal Veng, and tackle the extreme challenge of the ride from Pramaoy to O Saom. It’s much more fun.