This post is for the people who seek the thrill and danger of backcountry adventure. Those whose greatest desire while traveling is to get off of the well-trodden path and discover roads that most people never stumble upon.
If you’re looking for an adventure through the wilds of Cambodia, it’s time you read a bit more about the little known Cardamom Mountains.
A quick word of caution, this is not a journey for the faint of heart. You will struggle, and you will probably be in pain. You will ride through mud up to your knees and you will possibly get lost. Yet when you make it out the other side and see the waters of the Bay of Thailand shining far below, the only thing you’ll remember is the outstanding beauty and overwhelming sense of awe.
Road through the Jungle
This rugged journey takes you from the city of Battambang, in Northeast Cambodia, through rural farmland, ascends into jungle-clad mountains, follows roads that haven’t been repaired since the day they were built, and spits you out, three days (or more) later in Koh Kong, Cambodia’s forgotten outlaw city on the Bay of Thailand.
Am I overselling this? Not at all. I’ve riding a mountain bike through these roads several times and I always come away feeling overjoyed that my life lets me experience something as great as this ride from Battambang to Koh Kong through the Cardamoms.
Ready to tackle the adventure? Let’s get into the finer points of how to get from Battambang to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains.
At the end of this post, I’ve included links to simple google maps instructions to illustrate the route that I describe.
Riding Through the Cardamoms: The Itinerary
Day 1: Battambang to Pramaoy
Day 2: Pramaoy to O Soam
Day 3: O Soam to Koh Kong
O Soam Village with Phnom Samkos in the distance
Tips for Riding from Battambang to Koh Kong
Choose Your Mode of Transport
This ride can be done on a mountain bike, motorcycle, or dirtbike. As far as I know, you cannot hire a car to drive you along this exact route.
I’ve completed a version of this ride twice, and both times on a mountain bike. It is easily one of the most challenging bike tours I’ve ever done. The roads are often in terrible condition and through remote areas with no villages, shops, or places to purchase supplies.
Pay Attention to the Weather
This trip should really only be attempted from November to June. Once the rains start, the road up to O Soam becomes completely impassable. Cycling it would be beyond dangerous. Same goes for a moped. Dirtbikes might still be able to make it but it is still dangerous.
Basically, don’t do this trip in the rainy season.
Why Battambang and Not Pursat?
You can easily find many blog posts that describe the ride from Pursat to Koh Kong as a great adventure. In fact, the first time I did the ride I started in Pursat. My advice now? Don’t do it. The road from Pursat is wide, paved, and boring. If you’re in it for the adventure, start from Battambang and take the mountain roads to Pramaoy.
Accommodation Along the Way
Hotels and Guesthouses are available in Battambang, Pramaoy, O Soam, and Koh Kong. You can make this journey on a bicycle without camping gear as long as you are very fit, accustomed to the Cambodian climate, and know what you are doing.
If you are an inexperienced cyclist and don’t know any basic bike maintenance, do not attempt this ride solo! This ride passes through remote areas without villages or support. If something happens to you, it could be hours before someone passes.
Make it a 5-Day Journey
Though I will outline this trip as a three-day itinerary, I can’t encourage you enough to spend several days in O Soam. A man named Mr. Lim runs a homestay there with his family and it is the best-kept secret in Cambodia. Just go, and spend two or three days hanging out with Lim, visiting waterfalls, mountain biking in the jungle, and generally having a great time.
If you’re on a mountain bike, there are some sweet trails winding back through the jungle you could easily spend a week exploring.
This is an extremely remote and rugged ride. Whether you’re on a dirt bike, moto, or a mountain bike, bring the tools you need to make basic repairs along the way. Make sure you carry enough food and water to get you through each day. Especially on the road from O Soam to Koh Kong, do not expect to stop and buy supplies on the road as there are no villages! More than any other stretch of road in Cambodia, it is important to be prepared for anything in the Cardamoms.
Day 1: Biking Battambang to Pramaoy – 73 miles (118km)
Okay, first things first, Pramaoy is pronounced Pram-Ow-Ee, like pram as in the UK English name for a baby stroller, ow, as in ow my toe, and E as in the letter E. Pram-ow-ee. You’re welcome. Now you can at least ask for directions when you get lost.
Leaving Battambang, you want to head south out of town following the river towards Banan Temple. Follow the paved road as it winds through fragrant farmland with fruit stands dotting the side of the road. A canopy of trees offers much-needed shade from the rising sun.
After you pass Banan Temple on your right, the land opens up and you will start to see some hills rising around you. Finally, come to a roundabout with a statue the woman carrying a pot on her head. By this point, you’ve ridden 21.5 miles (34.6km).
This intersection is a good place to stop and have a coconut or buy some snacks. You won’t pass another shop for at least an hour, you’re probably hungry, and the sun will be beating you into the earth with its wild tropical heat.
From the rotary, continue straight for another 1.5 miles (2.3km), then take a left onto the dirt road. This road should, in a short while, cross a river.
Cross the river and continue straight for another 15 miles (24km) through the wide open farmland. You’ll begin to see the first ridge of the Cardamom mountains rising in the distance.
Nearing the Cardamoms
Follow the road in a more or less straight line until you come to a kind of T junction. Here you’ll find a small market and collection of buildings. If you’re lucky, someone will be serving lunch. Keep in mind that Cambodian markets generally stop serving lunch by 11am, 11:30 if you’re lucky.
From this T-junction, take a right and follow the road for 6.5 miles (10.5km) until you come to yet another T-junction.
This is a road in Cambodia
By now, the mountains will feel formidable, the weight of their presence pushing down on you, impressing the magnitude of the trials you are about to face on their steep slopes. At the final fork, you take a right and head on up into the mountains and your first massive climb of the journey.
If you’re one of the adventurous souls on a mountain bike, get ready for some serious climbing. Whoever built this road clearly skipped the day in urban planning class where they discussed switchbacks because this road is steep. Impractically steep. Relentlessly steep. As the road plies a straight line directly up the mountain all hope leaves your soul, your strength deserts you. Your lungs, heart, and legs beg for relief.
But you push on. You gain the first rise, then the second. You finally reach the crest of the hill.
From that point, you are blessed with the most perfect downhill of all time. It is gradual, flowing, and nearly neverending. You fly down a wide open valley between two steep mountain ridges. Cambodian villages cling to both sides of the road. The locals call out and cheer as you ride by but you’re too absorbed in the thrill of the downhill to stop and make small talk. The pain in your legs is replaced by euphoria as you fly ever downwards through the stunning Cambodian mountain scenery.
At the top of the downhill
You didn’t realize Southeast Asia could be this beautiful.
Eventually, the road heads uphill again, passing through jungle and farmland before dumping you out on the main road from Pursat to Pramaoy. It’s just 7 more kilometers (5 miles) along this road, then you reach your goal for the evening, the wacky and whimsical village of Pramaoy.
There are several guesthouses in Pramaoy. I like to use the one right off of the rotary in the middle of town. Rooms are $5 a night for a single bed and a private bathroom. There is a shop just next door on the corner that sells fried noodles and fried rice at dinner for $2 a plate.
What more could you need? Get to sleep early because you’ve got quite a day ahead of you tomorrow.
Road to O Soam
Cycling Battambang to Koh Kong Day 2: Pramaoy to O Soam – 18 miles (30km)
Though each leg of this journey has its own beautiful moments, this leg, the second day up to O Soam, holds a special place in my heart. It’s the shortest day in terms of mileage, but possibly the most revelatory and wonderful in terms of adventure.
Waking up in Pramaoy is a real treat in and of itself. The town is bisected by a wide red dirt road that churns up dust in the dry season, giving the entire town a lost-in-time feel. It’s classic old school Cambodia. The houses and shops line either side of the road but are separated from it by a ditch, so everyone throws down a couple planks to act as bridges to their shops. Stand still for a moment and you’ll soon see Cambodians driving their motos across these makeshift plank walkways. It’s great. I love Pramaoy.
Once you’ve had your traditional Cambodian breakfast of Bai Sak Chru (rice and pork) or Bor Bor (rice porridge), it’s time to hit the road for the magical mystery tour that is the road to O Soam.
From Pramaoy, head south out of town from the rotary up towards the mountains in the distance. If you’re facing the main section of town, this is the left-hand road. The road will take you down a short hill and across a bridge. If you don’t cross a bridge almost immediately, you’ve taken the wrong turn.
Looking Backwards on the way up to O Soam
From here, the conditions deteriorate rapidly, especially in the rainy season. The road will be swamped with mud and half of the adventure is riding through puddles without knowing exactly how deep they are going to be. Expect wet knees.
For the first 5 miles of the day, the road winds uphill through farmland, then through some rolling hills and small villages. Occasionally the jungle opens up onto farmland, offering stunning views back along the valley towards Pramaoy with rock-faced mountains rising beyond.
Up and Up and Up
After the final rolling hill, you’ll come to a small climb and then a sudden drop-off. Across the valley from you, a wall of jungle-clad mountain rises up, blocking out the sky. Please note the thin red line peeking out from beneath the foliage. That is your path. You have reached the climb.
Not as steep as the previous day by any means, this climb is no less strenuous and daunting. The road is generally in terrible condition. Even just a small amount of rain will turn the dirt into a thick and sticky clay that latches onto your tires and covers everything in a thick layer of muck. This mud is incredibly slippery so if you do run out of momentum, expect to slip and slide down into the dirt.
Compound these muddy conditions with sweltering heat and the savage glare of the Cambodian sun and you’ve got yourself an adventure. But don’t worry too much, as long as you head into it knowing it’s going to be tough, you’ll have a great time. This is easily one of my favorite single days of cycling. Something about the noises of the jungle, the challenge of the road, the beauty of looking around and seeing only jungle clad ridges rolling off into the distance makes this day unforgettable.
As you ascend, the road crosses several ridges before reaching the end of the final climb. On the way up, you will pass no shops and no homes. Bring enough water and snacks. There is a small hut a little over halfway up where you might run into some Khmer military types hanging out. They might give you water, or they might just give you funny looks.
You’ll know you’ve made it to the top when you see a wide valley open up below you. Far in the distance, a small village sits on a lake. That is O Soam and your goal for this day.
After soaking up the view, it’s time for the downhill. The road heads downward at a steep grade, finishing in a ramshackle village perched on the edge of the lake.
From there, the road carries on and winds around the lake for a further 20km but it is not necessary to take the road. From the ramshackle village, it is possible to take a series of two ferries across the lake almost all the way to O Soam. The total cost for the ferries is, I believe, $2.50.
When you disembark from the final ferry, you have just a few miles left to go.
The road winds through the rich jungle and you’ll begin to see some signs telling you that the “O Soam Homestay” is only a few kms away. This is where you want to stay. There is no better accommodation in O Soam, or possibly even in Cambodia.
O Soam Homestay
The O Soam Homestay is a slice of heaven in the middle of thick, mountainous jungle. Perched on the edge of the lake, a man named Mr. Lim brought his family up here to open a homestay and educate the local population on the importance of stopping deforestation and poaching. He is truly a wonderful human being and a delight to stay with.
If you have time, I can’t encourage you enough to spend a day or two relaxing in a hammock, eating family style meals with the Lims, swimming in their lake, or heading out on an adventure or two with Lim and his local guides.
You won’t find another place like this anywhere else in Cambodia.
Cycling Battambang to Koh Kong: Day 3: The Final Marathon – 67 miles (108km)
The final day of the ride has the greatest change in elevation and is the most unforgiving and tiring. If you’re on a mountain bike, this day will challenge you physically, mentally, and spiritually. It will break you down into bits and build you back up into a better, if slightly traumatized, human.
If you’re on a motorcycle or moped, just be ready for a really long day with no shops and nowhere to buy food. I don’t know if it will break you as a person and motorcyclist, but it will be stunning, I can promise you that.
No matter what mode of transport you’re on, carry enough water with you! I had 4 liters with me and I barely made it.
This is a long day through mountains. Do not expect to finish in a few hours. An early start is key to success; it gets hot in them hills in the middle of the day.
From Lim’s place, cross the river and head into O Soam village. At the fork, take the right-hand road across the river and then out across the farmlands. The road here is in terrible condition but things improve quickly once you get onto the main road to Koh Kong.
After 6 miles (10km), you’ll come to a junction with some restaurants and shops, and a big sign pointing the way to Koh Kong. It’s a right-hand turn and very important not to miss this.
If you’re using google maps, it will tell you to go straight. Very important advice about riding in Cambodia: do not trust Google! They have no idea what is going on. That road doesn’t exist. You need to take the right-hand turn as signposted. The locals will make sure you don’t miss this. If you try to ride straight through, several people will shout at you.
From this turn, it’s basically a straight shot until you hit the paved road about 31 miles (50km) further down. But don’t let that relatively short distance deceive you. Those are a long and adventurous 31km. I won’t ruin too much of the surprise but expect several long climbs, many dramatic downhills, and a few truly horrendous Chinese-built dams. Yay globalization!
On a personal note, the first time I attempted this ride in November of 2016, I got a flat tire after only 40km and had to be driven out by some friendly Khmer people. As I stood on the side of the road hoping that anybody would drive by and save my dumbass (I was riding without any extra inner tubes or tools), I heard a whooping call echoing through the jungle. It sounded quite nearby. I gazed up into the trees, not sure what to look for, and I heard it again, a whoop whoop whoop sound. Then I saw it, a gibbon was hanging from the top branches of a tree just above me on the side of the road. Our eyes met, the gibbon paused, whooped at me one last time, then turned and swung off into the jungle. If I hadn’t had a flat tire, I never would have seen such a beautiful creature.
The Road to Koh Kong
Back to the directions.
After many an epic downhill and some truly breathtaking views, you’ll come out onto a paved road. Turn right. Not too much further, you come to another split, and the signs here are misleading. The paved road heads to the left, while a dirt road heads right. The signs will tell you to take the dirt road, and you can. But you can also stay on the paved road to the left. This will take you down to a Chinese dam, through a workers camp, and then will meet up with the dirt road further on down the line.
Everyone I speak to who has taken the dirt road says it’s horrible. Take the paved road.
Not much else to it really. From there you just follow the road down to Koh Kong. If you’re cycling, there will come a beautiful moment where you break out of the jungle and see the ocean and river fanned out below you. Your legs will rejoice, thinking the end is nigh.
The end is not nigh. The end is still very far away. Keep your chin up and keep pedaling. You’ll get there.
Koh Kong Harbor
I could barely walk by the time I rolled into Koh Kong at the end of the day, but it was so worth it. And now, sitting here at my kitchen counter writing this post 6 months later, I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
If you love bike touring, are going to Cambodia, and want to have a life-changing and stunning adventure in one of the last remaining mountainous wildernesses in Southeast Asia, I can’t encourage you enough to ride from Battambang to Koh Koh through the Cardamom Mountains.
As promised, here are the google map directions for each leg of the journey. I’m not overly tech savvy so I just broke it up into chunks wherever google maps didn’t want to let me plot the route as is. Sorry that it isn’t a KML or GPX file.
Day 1, First Part: https://goo.gl/maps/GfUBk1wr2F62
Day 1, Second Part: https://goo.gl/maps/MavkLdeEn8E2
Day 2, First Part (to the ferry): https://goo.gl/maps/YwtNsPfTfy92
Day 3: https://goo.gl/maps/Uhq4GPgB84q
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