Review of MSR FreeLite 2 Tent

Adventure Travel, Gear

My in-depth review of MSR’s Freelite 2 Ultralight Backpacking tent.

I purchased the Freelite 2 last Spring when it was on-sale at REI and I still had some left over dividend bucks to play with. At the time, I’d been camping with my now 8-year-old REI Quarterdome 2 tent. That tent has been around the world with me, from camping at music festivals in California to hiking through the Huayhuash region in Peru. I loved that tent. But it was time for an upgrade.

For my new tent, I wanted something that could offer the same spacious interior of the Quarterdome but without all the weight. My ideal tent would be a two person tent weighing less than 3 pounds. After weeks and months of exhaustive research, I came across the MSR Freelite 2 on the REI Garage Sale website. I wasn’t going to find a better deal, and I bought it.

If you’re wondering if you should buy the MSR Freelite 2, read on.

MSR Freelite 2 Features:

Ultralight: this tent weights in at 2.75 pounds
Spacious: Room for 2 sleeping pads with a 36” peak height.
Floor area: 29 sq ft
Vestibule area: 17.5 sq ft
Doors: Two side doors that unzip completely.
Ventilation: micromesh canopy for maximum ventilation and moisture control
Separate rainfly
Packs up small 18 x 6 x 6

Where the Tent Was Tested

I used this tent for 5 months across the Summer and Fall of 2018 primarily in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire in environments that were wet, had fairly extreme temperature fluctuations, high wind, rain, and lots of bugs. The MSR Freelite 2 held up beautifully for its first season and I have close to no regrets about my purchase. We’ll get to my issues about this tent, but first: the things I like.

MSR Freelite 2

A Truly Ultralite 2 Person Tent

Having carried around a heavy 4 pound tent on solo backpacking trips for many years, I was happy to find that the MSR Freelite is genuinely a 2 person tent below 3 pounds. Personally, I like to carry 2 person tents even on my shorter solo trips because I like the comfort of having my pack and all my gear inside the tent with me with room to move around. We all have our quirks. I see you, people who hike fresh vegetables into the mountains.

Most ultralight tents cut a lot of corners to reduce weight. They decrease interior space, choose flimsy material, or the tent doesn’t have a separate rainfly. The Freelite doesn’t cut these corners. The nylon is thin, yes, but it held up beautiful against the ferocious rain storms that swept in on me one night in mid-July.

More Interior Space

The Freelite cuts down on interior space, but they did it in a really smart way. The peak height is 38” and is located not at the center of the tent but slightly more towards the head area. The roof lowers down towards the feet. So, unlike a dome tent, you’re limited in which way you can sleep. But at least the interior space is large enough that I could sit up straight while getting organized in the morning.

The Freelite 2 is Sturdy (once staked)

MSR claims that the Freelite 2 is freestanding. And it is… technically. It will stand up without being staked down. But you don’t really want to sleep in it like that.

In truth, this tent needs to be staked or tied down to be completely standing. Once staked firmly into the ground, this tent is capable of withstanding quite high winds. I never had any issues with leaks or moisture collecting inside the tent. A tent that can keep a hiker completely dry throughout the entire humid summer season of New England is basically a miracle.

Easy Camp Set Up and Breakdown

I found the Freelite an easy tent to set up and take down on my own, even in high winds. The single pole construction snaps together effortlessly and the external clips make it fairly simple to erect the tent.

The only tricky part is figuring out which end of the tent is the foot when you are laying it out. It’s just a matter of finding the clips for the poles really, but does take a second of finagling.

The rain fly goes on easy, with my only small complaint being that the interior snaps on the rainfly have to be stretched quite significantly to get them onto the short pole that supports the roof of the tent. I did worry I was going to split a seam on the rainfly a few times.

Positive Overall Tent Construction

The overall construction of the Freelite 2 works for me. Like I mentioned before, the peak height allows me to sit up straight, I don’t mind having the area around my feet a bit more constrained.

Once set up and staked down, the poles are fairly strong and able to withstand the force of strong winds or even my hand pressing down on them. Though perhaps not the most structurally sound tent that has ever been created, it’s good enough for me.

The tent is wide enough for two people, if you’re close. We’ll get into this a bit more in the negative section of the review. The double doors are great, everyone likes a tent with two exits (looking at you, Big Agnes…). The doors unzip completely which is controversial feature but I’ll say that I like them.

The vestibule area under the rainfly is spacious enough for a bag and some shoes. My only issue is with the doors on the rainfly. They have two zippers, which means you can unzip from the bottom and from the top. I really don’t understand the utility of this, and often in the middle of the night when trying to re-close the rainfly door after a quick, cold midnight pee I’d accidentally pull down both zippers, so that the door would still be open, but pinched closed at the bottom. It is a weird feature and I don’t love it.

This seems like as good a time as ever to transition into…

What I don’t love about the MSR Freelite 2

Before we get into the negatives, let me preface with saying that I like this tent a lot and am not unhappy with my purchase. It provided a safe home for me all the way until just before winter hit and I appreciate that. But there are some gripes and some small things I would change about this tent.

Interior Space Not Fully Optimized

This could be a bit picky, but I feel that the interior features of the tent aren’t fully optimized. Namely, that there is only one mesh pocket in the interior, near your head. I wish there would be a second pocket down by the feet, sometimes I don’t want all my stuff hanging just over my face while I sleep, you know?

Not Quite A 2 Person Tent

The MSR Freelite 2 claims to be a 2 person tent, and it is… technically. My boyfriend Erich and I used this tent in mid-October for a single night trip into the Pemigewasset and it was perfectly comfortable for the two of us, but again, he is my boyfriend.

If two fully grown men were to lay on their backs in this tent, I think it would be a tight squeeze. So while, yes, it is a 2 person tent, it is a very cozy two person tent. If you and your regular camping partner are both big humans, this tent might not be the right fit.

If you’re small like me, I’m 5’3 and 150lbs, boyfriend is 5’7 and has a fairly thin/smaller frame, it’s a great tent.

MSR freelite not freestanding

Not Freestanding

This is my biggest caution to those considering the MSR Freelite 2. It is not truly freestanding.

Camping in the White Mountains, you have the choice between backcountry camping or camping at designated AMC campsites. The Freelite 2 is a perfect tent for backcountry stealth camping in the Whites. The soil is usually soft yet rocky, so with a little fiddling, the stakes will slip right into the earth and the tent is secured.

The challenge comes when you choose to sleep at an AMC campsite. Here, tents are often placed onto flat wooden platforms. It’s nice to know you’ll be sleeping on a completely level surface, but it is not so easy to set up a tent that needs to be staked down. I managed to mostly make it work by tying the tent down using some creative string work, but the hardest part is getting the rainfly set up. Thankfully it never rained on me in that situation.

So, if you often camp on wooden platforms or on terrain where it is not possible to stake down a tent, you may want to bypass the MSR Freelite.

TL;DR Pro’s and Cons

Pros
Below 3 pounds (allows for a 2 person tent on a 1 person trip)
Ultralight tents often cut down on materials to cut down on weight, they made smart decisions with this design so while yes, the interior is smaller than a typical dome tent, it’s still roomy above your head
Can set it up in the rain by putting the rain fly on first (but it’s awkward)
Have camped in this tent in the rain and very high winds and never had a problem
When staked down, really roomy and wonderful, when I had to set it up on a platform, not so much.
2 Doors for easy access and great views.
Easy to compress down, doesn’t take up too much space in my bag

Cons
Not enough pockets inside the tent
Hard to get the rainfly on completely properly
VERY cozy for 2 people – it works for my boyfriend and I but if you were with someone you didn’t know super well, it could be weird
Hard to set up on the platforms featured in campsites on the white mountains, or hard to set up on rocks – great as long as you can stake it down properly

Should You Buy the MSR Freelite 2?

At the end of the day, this is a great ultralight tent for solo hikers and duos who are comfortable with each other. It’s easy to set up, can withstand the elements better than a lot of other three season tents, and doesn’t weigh down your pack.

I like my MSR Freelite 2 a lot and would recommend it to friends who understand the compromises that are inherent in purchasing an ultralight tent.


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Read a review of the MSR Freelite 2 Ultralight Backpacking tent

Trip Report: 3 Day Presidential Traverse

Adventure Travel, New Hampshire, Uncategorized

This is a trip report on my absolutely incredible first 3-Day Presidential Traverse. To get details about my plan and learn more about what the Presidential Traverse actually is, check out my 3-Day Presi Traverse Plan.

I spent most of the summer training for my first Presidential Traverse. To say I was feeling a bit hyper about it would be an understatement. I did several overnight hikes in the Whites and plenty of day hikes. I strength trained and cross-trained and did everything right. But in mid-July, I had to accept I had developed an overuse injury. My knees were a mess. After summiting Mount Washington during the Seek the Peak, I was forced by my body to take a month off.

Then in August, I started looking for a fair weather weekend. But I was hit by rainy weekend after rainy weekend. I started to despair. I didn’t want to push it out until the fall. I had hoped to complete the hike in the summer when the sun still stayed up past 7 p.m. Then finally, one weekend in late August, the Washington Observatory weather report spoke of clear skies all day on Saturday. That was all I needed. It was time for my first Presidential Traverse.

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Day 1: Appalachia Trailhead to Valley Way Tentsite | 3.1 Miles

Friday was hectic. This late into the summer the sunset was at 7:30 p.m. and book time from the Appalachia trailhead to the Valley Way Tentsite was 3 hours. By my calculation, that meant I ought to start hiking by 4 p.m. in order to set up camp before dark. Cooking in the dark I could handle, but choosing a campsite and setting up a tent in the dark is not one of my favorite pastimes.

I left my office north of Boston at 1 p.m. on Friday. Normally, some of my more relaxed summer hiking excursions, I take the time to stop at Chipotle and get a burrito to carry up for dinner on the first night. Not this time. I was anxious about reaching the trailhead by 4, nervous that the persistent summer traffic would slow me down and I’d be limited to a two-day Presi traverse.

The trip went quickly however and I pulled into the Appalachia trailhead at 4:02 p.m. I was on the trail by 4:15 p.m. at the latest, my heart and mind racing at the thought that I wouldn’t make it to Valley Way before dark.

My feet hit the trail and I rushed through the woods. Though I tried to appreciate the experience of being in the forest; the wandering route the path took on its way up the side of Mount Adams; the way it wove prettily around rocks and streams; in truth, I climbed up that hill like the Devil himself was on my heels. Breathing hard and sweating, I arrived at the Valley Way Tentsite at 6 p.m.

Valley Way is a fairly large, unhosted tent site just below the Madison Springs Hut. There are only two platforms but many additional clearings spread out into the woods, probably unsanctioned but filled with hikers nonetheless. By the time I arrived, early in the evening on a Friday, the place was nearly full. After walking around a bit, I asked a couple setting up a bivy if I could share their clearing.

With my tent pitched sideways up the slope, I spent the night curled up in a ball leaning into the hill. Sleep took its time to find me that night, in part because I was hyped up for the next day, but mostly because I was actively trying not to roll back down the hill.

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Day 2: Appalachia Way Tentsite to Nauman Tentsite | 15.5 Miles

Filled with an eager anticipation for the day of hiking ahead of me and uncertain about my inability to finish, Friday evening I had set a 4:30 a.m. alarm for Saturday morning. Of course, when that alarm actually went off in the pre-dawn dark, my half-asleep brain was fairly certain I could still finish before sunset if I slept in for another half an hour. I rolled over.

At 5 a.m., the sky still mostly dark, just the faintest tinge of dawn turning the sky a rich deep blue, I changed into my dirty clothes, munched on a dry, cold pop tart, and was on the trail by 5:30.

Almost immediately, trail runners starting to pass me, jogging up the mountainside with their simple packs and minimal water supply. With my 20 pound pack on my back fully loaded with two liters of water, I was more than a little jealous.  They were the hare, I told myself, but I was the tortoise. I think I can, I think I can.

View from Mount Madison, White Mountains, New Hampshire

Mount Madison

Coming over the rise and around some rocks, I arrived at the Madison Springs Hut, pink in the fresh dawn light. Tucking my pack into a nook near the base of the hut, I grabbed my poles and took off towards the summit of Madison, less than a half a mile from the hut and my first peak of the day, reaching it by 7 a.m.

Up here, in the cool morning air, I peered through the haze towards Mt. Washington. The day was clear, but smoke from the wildfires on the west coast had blown across the continent on a jet stream, coloring everything a burnt orange. The people around me were mostly other Presi Traverse hikers, congratulating each other on making it to the first peak by 7 a.m. For the first time, I had the comforting realization that I may be doing this on my own, but I wasn’t alone. There were so many other hikers up here to do the traverse with me. We were all sharing the sense of eager anticipation. Could we finish? The excitement was palpable.

Back down to the Madison Springs hut, a quick stop for some hot coffee, and I headed on up the trail, still nervous about my ability to finish before sundown.

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Mount Adams and Jefferson

Without looking at my map, I walked out of Madison Hut and followed the signs that pointed the way towards Mt. Adams, following the Star Trail. You may think, outdoor enthusiast that I am, that I would’ve at least looked at the trail map and assessed the topo before heading off in the direction of my dreams. But of course, I did not.

The Star Trail, for the uninitiated, is by far the most challenging and rewarding way to reach the summit of Mt. Adams. Starting from the Madison Springs Hut, it curls around the base of the peak, teeters on the edge of the Great Gulf, and then lurches straight up the side of the mountain towards the summit.

The trail is pure, unadulterated New England scramble. A giant field of boulders leading inexorably uphill. It was awesome. I forgot all about my heavy pack as I picked my way up the side of the boulder field, constantly on the lookout for the little blue blaze and the short cairns that proved my only guide. This is less of a trail and more a test of your internal compass and agility. The final scrambled to the summit passes through a narrow chasm before emerging, victorious, at the peak. From here, Madison seemed like a distant dream, far off and long forgotten. Mount Washington appeared no closer, but Jefferson, previously invisible, sat just beyond my reach.

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A day hiking couple came up just after I reached the summit, we were alone at the top of the mountain and I learned they were also doing a Presi Traverse but in a single day. We were mutually impressed, I with their single day bid, they with my ability to do a hike like this with my heavy pack. They pressed on and I said goodbye, assuming I wouldn’t catch up with them again.

I set off, slowly picking my way down the rocky boulder-strewn landscape towards Thunderstorm Junction and Mount Jefferson.

In the weeks and months that led up to my Presidential Traverse, I’d heard many people say how easy it is to get lost up there. How could that be possible, I thought, trails are so well marked in the Whites.

Please trust me when I say, as a fellow skeptic, that it is incredibly easy to get lost and turned around on the Presidential Traverse, especially in low visibility or cloudy weather. Luckily for me, it was clear as a diamond for my traverse, but even then, Thunderstorm Junction is a confusing place. It took me several tries to figure out how to get back onto the Appalachian Trail, the cairns are not obvious and the signs point in confusing directions.

The way to Jefferson was my initiation into one of the realities of a Presidential Traverse, the illusion of proximity. The first two peaks of the day, Madison and Adams, are really quite close together, so although my route to the top of Adams was challenging, the distance between the two peaks was overall quite short.

From Adams, Jefferson had also looked fairly nearby. But that was an illusion. The trail to get there was rough and winding, going up and down and around several humps before making the lurching ascent to the top. A trail runner came up beside me as we pushed up the final ascent and introduced herself with a “God, I hope this is really the summit.”

It was. I stopped to take a break and have a quick snack. Happy to have made it to my third summit, eager for more. Mount Washington was finally starting to appear within reach. As I stood up and shouldered my pack I heard a surprised, “oh look who it is!” The couple from Mount Adams was sitting just in front of me, snacking away and taking in the view. We were pleasantly shocked to see each other, though they had been strangers on Mount Adams, now they were my hiking partners. We were in this together, and as I set off, we promised to see each other again for pizza on top of Mount. Washington.

The only thing that stood between me and Mount Washington was the small shoulder of Mount Clay. Technically not on the list of New Hampshire’s 48 4000 footers, and not technically part of the official Presi Traverse, I still wanted to include it in my hike. I stepped off and headed down the tricky granite boulder field towards Clay.

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Mount Clay And the Big Push to Washington

As I slowly picked my way down Jefferson, tentatively navigating the massive granite boulders, the pain and strain of this harsh landscape started to make itself known. My knees and feet started to ache with each step. My pack dragged on my back, straining the muscles along my spine.

To make matters worse, that tricky little thing we call perception started playing its game again. From the top of Mt. Jefferson, Clay had looked like an insignificant hump between me and Mount Washington. But by the time I made it down to the shoulder in between the two peaks, Clay was looming ominously above me.

For the first time that day, I had the thought “I’m not sure I can do this.”

Morale was at its lowest point. I pulled on the straw from my water bladder and took a big gulp, I swallowed once, twice, and then I felt and heard that terrible sound, the rasping drumroll that a bladder makes when it hits empty.

I had run out of water.

I stood at the bottom of the trail to Mount Clay and looked up. I wanted to reach that summit, but realistically, with no water left, the responsible choice was to take the path of least resistance. It was going to be a long, dry, thirsty walk as it was, I’d only make it worse by adding the several hundred feet of elevation change.

Reluctantly, I bypassed Mt. Clay and took the Gulfside Trail around its hump, heading up towards Mount Washington.

With single-minded purpose I strode along the rocks, resolutely ignoring my thirst and ignoring the various signs pointing the way to the Jewell trail and other options. I had but one goal: make it to the summit of Washington and refill my water.

Once I made it around the side of Clay, the air filled with the noises of Mount Washington. The roar of car motors and the chugging of the cog railway burst through my solitude, urging me ever onwards. As I ascended the final mile to the summit of Mount Washington, the sound rose to a cacophony.

Trail Runner on the Presidential Traverse to Mount Washington

During that final stretch of trail to Mount Washington’s summit, the trail runs parallel to the cog railway. Train after train rolled by, tourists peering out the windows at me as I struggled up the hill, tired and dehydrated.

This was simultaneously the most hectic and one of the most beautiful parts of the trail. The trail grazes the very edge of the Great Gulf, at one point so close to the edge of a cliff that a simple misstep could send you tumbling down hundreds of feet. The Gulf opened up beneath me and I could see all the way back down the ridge to Madison. Each peak loomed tall and crashed suddenly down into the Gulf, where the slope evened out into a pine covered valley. It called out to me, begging to be explored. But for now I was on a different journey, and turned my face upwards, towards the summit of the Northeast’s tallest peak: Mount Washington.

The final push to the summit went by in a flash. It was more of the same granite boulder jungle gym but somehow the rocks felt flatter and more forgiving up here. Perhaps to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of tourists that ascend to the top of this famous mountain each year.

I arrived gratefully at the peak of the mountain. Without even pausing to take in the view, I pushed through the throngs of tourists and made my way towards the water fountain. Taking several deep pulls of the ice cold water I finally relaxed. Time for pizza.

Perhaps it’s time for a note about the summit of Mount Washington.

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The Summit of Mount Washington

If you’re picturing the summit of Mount Washington, the tallest peak in the Northeast, as a place of solitude and tranquility, where weary hikers sit on rocks and soak in the glow of their achievement, staring out at the vast landscape and marveling at the glory of nature, you’d be wrong.

Mount Washington is a wildly overdeveloped summit, home to a cafe, gift shop, log cabin, and viewing deck, as well as a scientific observatory and weather research center. If it sounds overwhelming, it is, but it is part of a long tradition in New England of development on mountain summits.

The oldest structure on the summit of Mount Washington is the Tip-Top house, a former hostel built in 1853. The New Englanders of old just loved building on top of mountains. There was once a luxury hotel on top of Mount Moosilauke. Most of these hotels ended up blowing away or burning down, but the Tip Top house remains, and tourists can pop inside to get a sense of historic New England.

Those who would prefer not to have to hike to the summit of Mount Washington have options as well, the historic Cog Railway, building in 1863 but now a for-profit business, chugs up and down the mountain at regular intervals. The Mount Washington Auto Road gives ambitious road trippers the opportunity to drive to the top of the highest peak, an activity especially popular with motorcyclists.

All this means that when I reached the summit of Mount Washington, I was not alone. Smelly and covered in a day’s worth of dirt, I stood in line with clean smelling tourists fresh from their drive to the top to get my slice of pizza and a cookie. Hiking to a gift shop is one of the weirder experiences I’ve ever had in my years of adventure travel. The first time I summited Washington I thought it was pretty amusing. This time, I was just ready to get out of there.

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The Southern Peaks

From the summit of Washington down to the Lake of the Clouds hut just a few miles away, the trail was packed. I mean, slammed with people. It was early afternoon on a bright Saturday afternoon at the end of the summer on one of the most popular trails in the northeast. Of course it was packed, but still, I missed the solitude of the morning trails. I dreamed hopefully of a few miles down the trail when the crowds would disperse and I could walk along in silence, passing only other Presi Traverse hikers or the odd smelly AT thru-hiker heading up to Maine.

At the Lake of the Clouds hut, I stopped again to top off my water, aware that this was my last reliable water source before my final destination for the day at the Nauman Tentsite.

At the back of my mind was a low hum of panic. Convinced I had fallen behind schedule, I pulled out my phone and turned it on. 2 p.m. Then I turned to my map, convinced I still had 7 miles to go. That may seem insignificant, but up in the Whites, a pace of 1 mile per hour is not unusual.

Looking at my map, relief flooded my system. I only had 5 miles left. I was practically done! Even if I did hike at one mile per hour, I’d still make it to the campsite by nightfall. Hope and optimism surged through me. The despondent exhaustion I had felt a few hours ago on the top of Jefferson was long gone. Munching on a gooey brownie cooked by the genius crew of Lake of the Clouds hut, I shouldered my pack and set off towards the summit of Monroe.

The distance from Lake of the Clouds to Monroe is kind of laughable. It is a short and steep 300 feet of elevation gain, hardly enough to be called a separate mountain peak but then again, still quite a challenging scramble with a 20-pound pack on. From there, the rest of my hike rolled away into the distant haze. I was standing on the highest point, and although I knew it wasn’t all downhill, that I still had two more official peaks and one more unofficial, I felt like I had already finished the hike.

The rest of that afternoon was pure, glorious, unadulterated magic. The footing became smooth and sandy as the path wove its way along the top of the ridge, slowly ascending and descending the smaller humps of the Southern Presidentials. I crested the top of Eisenhower riding a high of adrenaline. This was the kind of hiking I always dreamed of. This was who I was meant to be. I was floating along, dreaming of a life where all I ever had to do was walk along mountain ridges just like this, experiencing and discovering new lands and never before seen views.

“Hello again!”

There they were. My friends from Adams and Jefferson, sitting on the ground at the broad sloping peak of Eisenhower, looking exhausted.

We took pictures and said goodbye, they were moving faster than I was and going further, I wouldn’t see them again.

My lighthearted journey continued to my final peak of the day, and last official peak of a short Presidential Traverse, Pierce. The trail dipped down below tree line for the first time since 6 a.m. that morning. The pines enveloped me, embracing me and welcoming me back into their arms. The expansive views of the White Mountains vanished and I entered their beating heart, the land of pines and moss and silence.

The summit of Pierce is unremarkable, shrouded in trees without a real view. But as I came over the final rise to the summit I heard the crack of a beer can and saw two people sitting down on nearby rocks.

“This is our 48th” They smiled clearly excited. They were finishing all 48 of New Hampshire’s 4000 footers. My heart swelled. I’d never actually been present to see anyone finish their 48. It felt like a fitting end to my day.

“Congratulations!” I raised my poles in their direction and continued on. The only thing between me and my dinner was a short descent to Mizpah Springs Hut and the nearby Nauman tent site.

Or so I thought.

The final descent was steep, a dramatic granite staircase tangled with tree roots and slippery with water. Each step sent pain ripping up into my knees and hips as the toll the day had taken on my body finally showed itself. Even more painful, the sound of people laughing and relaxing outside of the Mizpah hut drifting up through the trees for the final half mile of the trail, taunting me with thoughts of hot mac n cheese and sleep.

But nothing lasts forever, not even unforgiving downhills, and at long last, I popped out of the trail in front of the Mizpah Hut. The Nauman Tent site is literally right next to the hut, I’m pretty sure its the only place in the White Mountains where an AMC Hut has a tent site so nearby. It’s really super convenient.

By 5 p.m. I was pitching my tent on one of the platforms and getting to know my neighbors, a boy scout dad out for a solo hike and a group of three Appalachian Trail hikers who’d met on their second day and hiked together all the way from Georgia.

It was a pretty great night in the woods.

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Day 3: From Nauman on Home

I woke up a little after dawn the next morning and rolled over in my sleeping bag, safe in the knowledge that I only had to hike about 5 miles that day. Drifting in and out of sleep, I laid on my inflatable mat and basked in the feeling of having nothing in particular to do.

I heard the soft sounds of my Appalachian trail campsite comrades packing up their things. The slither of a tent collapsing, the click of tent poles, the hushed sounds of the first hikers setting out for the day. I decided to see how the outside world looked this morning.

Sticking my legs out of the tent, I crammed my feet into my hiking boots and stood up. Immediately my legs screamed out, shredding my peaceful state of mind. Overnight my muscles had transformed from human flesh into ice cold stone. Every movement hurt. I stepped tenderly across the campsite, carrying my water bladder down to the stream to refill. I had to take the stairs one at a time, gripping nearby trees as my calves screamed in protest. It took another hour of hobbling around for my legs to fully wake up and the pain to recede.

Sitting on my bear vault, I cooked up a pot of oatmeal. Normally on backpacking trips, I scarf down a cold pop tart and head out of the campsite as the sun rises, usually one of the first on the trail. But I had hiked almost the entire Presidential ridge yesterday and I was going to have a long, relaxing morning in the woods. I had earned it.

I munched on my cinnamon oatmeal while the Appalachian trail hikers packed up their things and ate their cold ramen noodle breakfasts. My other tent site partner, the boy scout father out for a solo hike, was approaching this morning with the same attitude as I was. We sat next to each other and watched as everyone around us packed up and headed out. We were in no rush.

“I’ve decided I’m going to skip Jackson.” He confided in me. “My legs aren’t feeling it at all.”

From the Nauman tent site, Presi-Traverse hikers have two options, you can take the Mizpah Cut Off directly down to the Crawford Depot, a two-mile hike, or head up to the peak of Mt. Jackson, not an official peak on the Presi traverse but still hit by many, and from there, either follow the Appalachian Trail over Webster and down to Route 302, or take the Mt. Jackson trail down to Crawford Depot.

Even as I packed up my supplies that morning, I wasn’t sure which route I was going to do. I headed on the trail up to Jackson, waiting for my body to tell me whether or not Webster and Webster Cliff were in the cards for me.

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Nauman Tentsite to Mount Jackson

The trail up to Jackson was quite beautiful. It wanders through a dense pine forest, sometimes quickly ascending before descending again, twisting through moss covered boulders with sunlight dancing through the trees.

The final pitch to the top of Jackson is sudden and steep, a classic New England scramble that requires full use of all four limbs and your problem-solving capabilities. I was winded and euphoric by the time I reached the summit.

From the peak, you have a stunning view of the entire ridge, all the way back up to Mount Washington far in the distance. Mount Tom, Field, and Willey are across Crawford Notch. On this morning the views were splendid and pine-covered mountains stretched in every direction.

Now it was decision time. Was I going to continue on the Appalachian trail to the lower Mount Webster, along the cliff, and down to Route 302, or head straight down from here to Crawford Notch. My legs had shown up for the climb to Jackson, but my knees were worn out from the day before, and I knew from the topographical map that the descent from Webster Cliff would be steep. I decided to take the shorter, gentler route directly down to Crawford Depot, saving Webster Cliff for another day.

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Mount Jackson to Crawford Deport

Getting off of the summit of Mount Jackson is much the same as getting up to it, a sharp, steep scramble down exposed granite. But it ends soon enough and the trail is your typical New England descent, massive granite stairs just a little too big to be comfortable on the knees, descending through gorgeous pine forests and passing by streams and rivers.

Close to the top, a fellow backpacker flew past me with a quick and cheerful, “hello!” as he passed. I remember thinking, the only people who hike that fast are Appalachian Trail hikers… but this isn’t the Appalachian Trail. I considered yelling out to him but I didn’t want to be a mansplainer. He surely knew where he was going, he was walking with such confidence. And by the time I finished this internal debate, he was already long gone.

I continued my slow descent.

The descent felt long. My legs were undeniably tired from the day before and I was ready to sit down and eat a big meal, maybe even have a tasty IPA. But the trail just kept going, sometimes crossing along the side of the mountain, rolling up and down.

After another hour or so, I saw a familiar face heading back up the mountain. It was the backpacker. My surprise must have shown in my face because he greeted me with a sheepish “hello again.”

“Are you an AT hiker?” I ask. He nodded.

“Oh no!” My dismay was hard to conceal. “I thought so when you passed me earlier and I was going to shout out to you, but I didn’t because I’m too shy! Ugh, I’m so sorry!”

He was surprisingly positive about it. “It’s ok! I’m still hiking. Where was the turn-off?”

“At the summit.”

“Oh, that far? Yikes.”

He pushed on back uphill, his spirits still high. I continued down, trying not to feel responsible for the extra miles and several hundred feet of elevation gain that my timidity had added to his day.

The descent took most of the morning, but I popped out onto the road around noon. The trailhead ends up at the far end of the lake, with a tiny road walk to get to the Crawford Depot itself. At the depot, I plopped my bag down on one of the picnic tables and sat down, staring around, basking in wave after wave of satisfaction. A quiet euphoria humming in my mind, tingling in my toes and fingertips, fluttering in my heart.

I had just finished my first Presidential Traverse. Next time, I’m going to try for a single day.


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A Trip Report of a 3 Day Presidential Traverse, one of the most challenging hikes in New Hampshire's White MountainsA Trip Report of a 3 Day Presidential Traverse, one of the most challenging hikes in New Hampshire's White Mountains

Planning My 3 Day Presidential Traverse

Adventure Travel, New Hampshire

Sometime at the very beginning of the summer, I had a crazy thought. I’m going to do my first Presidential Traverse this year. I briefly considered attempting a one day traverse, but the idea intimidated me. I doubted my own fitness level, and I was nursing and recovering from an overuse injury after years of abusing my body through various forms of exercise.

If it wasn’t going to be a single day trek, then, I ought to try to span it across a weekend. This summer, I decided, I would complete my first 3-day Presidential Traverse. Now, I just had to plan for it.

View of Mount Madison from the Appalachian Trail

What Is The Presidential Traverse

The Presidential Traverse is a 22 to 28-mile hike, depending on the route taken, that covers the full length of the Presidential Ridge in the White Mountain National Forest of New Hampshire, so named because the eight peaks of the traverse are named after United States Presidents.

This hike is known to be one of the most challenging and often dangerous hikes in the Northeast, and arguably, in the country. Though the tallest peak, Mount Washington, is only just above six thousand feet, the weather is so changeable and the terrain so challenging that mountaineers will use this mountain to train for conditions on Mount Everest.

Yeah, it’s serious stuff.

The Presidential Traverse traditionally begins at the Appalachia Trailhead near Gorham, New Hampshire, traverses at least the 8 Presidential Peaks, and ends at the Crawford Depot. Many hikers add-on Mount Clay, Mount Jackson, and even the smaller Mount Webster.

These peaks are not part of the official route for various reasons, some aren’t tall enough, Mount Jackson is actually not named after President Andrew Jackson but a different local politician and Mount Clay isn’t distinct enough from Mount Washington to count as an individual peak.

At any rate, it’s a long route, can be dangerous in bad weather, and is extremely challenging even on a sunny day. Many people do it in a single day, beginning their hike before dawn and finishing after sunset, even during the longest days of the year.

But hiking it in 2 or 3 days presents a different challenge. Backcountry camping in the White Mountains is only allowed below the treeline and 200 feet away from the trail. Above treeline, camping is only allowed in winter, on top of 6 feet of snowpack. But, the bulk of the Presidential traverse, the entire 15 ridge walk, is above the treeline, with no backcountry camping options. Campers can choose to stay at the very expensive ($120 a night with reservations) AMC huts or use the AMC or RMC tent sites, which are only located at the extremes of the hike, none in the middle.

The end result, you’re going to hike a long day, no matter what you choose.

Trail Runner on the Presidential Traverse to Mount Washington

My 3-Day Presidential Traverse Route

Day 1: Appalachia Trailhead to Valley Way Tentsite 3.1 miles
Day 2: Valley Way Tentsite to Nauman Tentsite 15.5 miles
Day 3: Nauman Tentsite to Crawford Depot via Mt. Jackson 4 miles

For my plan, I was going to start hiking late on a Friday afternoon in August, hiking the three miles up to the Valley Way Tentsite, a small forest service campsite located just below the Madison Springs Hut. I’d then hike the entire ridgeline on day 2, camping at the Nauman Tentsite at the other end, before hiking down to Crawford Depot.

Now, all that was left for me to do was wait for a good weather weekend, throw my things in my car, and take off.


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Planning a 3 Day Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains National Forest of New Hampshire, a hiking guide from Into Foreign Lands

Planning a 3 Day Presidential Traverse in the White Mountains National Forest of New Hampshire, a hiking guide from Into Foreign Lands

Hike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: The Adventure of a Lifetime

Adventure Travel, Peru, Travel, Trekking & Hiking

You’ve got two weeks in Peru. You want to visit Machu Picchu and see the most famous place in South America, but you also want to have a wild, life altering adventure deep in the Andes. It may not sound possible, but you can have all this while staying under budget on your two week trip. How?

By hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide.

Choquequirao is a stunning ancient Incan temple built about 100 years after Machu Picchu. Much like it’s more famous cousin, Choque sits on top of an Andean Ridge, overlooking a river thousands of feet below. But unlike Machu Picchu, Choque has hardly any tourists. Fewer than 20 people visit each day.

condor

Photo by Macie J

To put that in perspective for you, Machu Picchu gets 5,000 visitors a day. One more time for the people in the back: Machu Picchu gets 5,000 people per day. Choquequirao? 20.

Why the difference? Because the only way to reach Choquequirao is via a grueling two-day hike.

As if that wasn’t adventurous enough, for those in the know, those passionate, outdoor-loving, backpacking maniacs who want to immerse themselves in the Andean wilderness, an even greater adventure awaits you beyond the gates of Choquequirao: the 9-day trek from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu.

It’s an epic journey that follows an Incan trail over two high Andean passes, through verdant valleys, and up to a deserted mountaintop ruin overlooking Machu Picchu.

Imagining, beginning your week at one of the most remote religious sanctuaries in the world, traversing Andean mountains on the same pathway the ancients walked and ending your journey at the fabled Machu Picchu.

This is all possible. Hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide is challenging, it is stunning, and it is totally doable in less than two weeks.

hiking choquequirao to machu picchu

Photos by Macie J

Hike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: The Itinerary

Day 1: Cachora to Chiquisca
Day 2: Chiquisca to Choquequirao
Day 3: Choquequirao to Pichauhuyoc Ruins
Day 4: Pichauhuyoc to Pajonal
Day 5: Pajonal to Yanama
Day 6: Yanama to Colcabamba
Day 7: Colcabamba to La Playa
Day 8: La Playa to Aguas Calientes
Day 9: Machu Picchu

This is a long and extremely challenging journey. Before you go, make sure you are prepared for this trip both mentally and physically. Only take on this journey without a guide if you are an experienced trekker and confident navigating backcountry terrain. Though the path is clear throughout, there are still plenty of opportunities to get lost in the Andean highlands.

As with any hike in Peru, the most important consideration of all is altitude. Give yourself at least one day to acclimate in Cusco before beginning the trek. The path from Choque to Machu Picchu crosses extremely high elevations, the highest point at Yanama Pass (4500m/15,000ft). The air up there is thin and no matter how fit and knowledgeable you are, you will struggle. Acclimate!

This trek is no joke. But for those who are fit, smart, and capable, hiking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu offers a chance to see a part of Peru most people have never even heard of.

Choquequirao Peru

Photo by Mark Rowland

Trekking from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu: What to Expect

I’ve covered what to expect from days one and two when you hike to Choquequirao, so let’s continue to day three, and the morning of your Choque explorations.

After you’ve finished reveling in the tranquility of this ancient temple, head towards the highest part of the temple and off into the jungle. From Choquequirao, the trail winds up the side of the mountain, weaving through dense shadowy forests before descending sharply towards a river valley.

andean flowers choquequirao hike

Photo by Macie J

A little more than halfway down to the river valley floor, you’ll come to a set of ancient Incan terraces carved into the wide open mountainside. This is Pichuhuyoc. These terraces and the small temple in the center are the location of one of the last still-functioning Incan water systems in Peru. It also makes a great place to camp for the night.

Come the morning of day four, follow the trail all the way down to the river below. There was no bridge in June 2014, but the crossing was easy nonetheless. From there, the trail is slightly off to your left. Ahead of you is a long and steep climb up to the village of Maizal. Village is perhaps a generous term, it is a collection of four or five houses perched on a mountainside. Not a human soul to be seen when I visited, but I did have a great conversation with a cow standing next to the only source of water.

From Maizal, the trail continues up more gradually, working its way towards the Victoria Pass. Through the lush jungle, the trail clings to the steep mountainside. A glance over the edge of the trail will send your heart thumping up into your throat. When I hiked this in 2014, the path was very wet and treacherous. Quiet narrow, especially when I had to share it with donkeys coming the other way.

Along the way, you’ll pass abandoned Victoria Mines, a narrow chasm cut deep into the mountain. Shortly after the mines, the trail cuts sharply up the mountain in a series of stairs and switchbacks. Once you climb into the sparse, high Andean environment, it should be nearing the end of the day. Though there is no official campsite up here, camp on whatever wide, flat, empty space you can find.

path to victoria pass

Photo by Macie J

Here is your reminder to practice leave no trace! High elevation environments are extremely sensitive, do your best not to crush plants and other life underneath your camping equipment.

Come dawn of day five, continue up towards Victoria Pass. I cannot encourage you enough to get there as soon after sunrise as you can. Further, into the day, the clouds will gather and obstruct the views. But if you arrive early enough, you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of the surrounding glaciers and sharp Andean peaks.

From the pass, it’s a long but fairly gentle descent down to Yanama Village, where you can camp for the night.

Waking up in Yanama will be a bizarre contrast of modern and ancient. This small village is home to a road. In fact, it is home to the only road that accesses this remote corner of the Andes. You may hear trucks and cars heading in and out of town, a grating contrast to the serenity of your days on the trail.

yanama pass

Photos by Macie J

No need to share the road, however, the Incan Trail you’ve been following for days continues its meandering path up the center of the valley. It’s difficult to get lost at this point as there is only one way to go from here.

Up and up the valley floor you go, gaining altitude and increasing in grade as the day continues. The final push to Yanama Pass is a steep and relentless wall of scree. But make it to the top of the pass and you’ll find views of a glacier so close you could reach out and touch it.

But don’t. Glaciers are very dangerous.

After Yanama Pass, you have a long yet gentle walk all the way down to Colcabamba. Savor the silence because in Colcabamba you’ll meet up with the Salkantay trail and all dirt, grime, people, and noise that come with a heavily touristed trail. But on the plus side, you can talk to another human!

trekking to yanama

Photo by Macie J

Once in Colcabamba, you can say goodbye to free campsites. Camping here is limited to a few houses and licensed spots, and they will expect you to pay. The good news is you can get a home cooked meal for the first time in almost a week.

On day six, follow the Salkantay hikers and their guides as the trail winds its way down to La Playa, a small village perched next to a river. At this point, you’ve returned to relatively low altitudes and the heat will be intense. Best to drink lots of water and try to stay in the shade.

On the final day of the trek, you have the (boring) option to follow most of the Salkantay Trekkers down to Santa Teresa and from there hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. Or, if you have the strength and want to see Machu Picchu in a way most tourists never will take a lesser known track up to Llactapata.

Llactapata is a forgotten and unimpressive ruin that sits on a ridge overlooking Machu Picchu. Its true beauty is the unparalleled opportunity it offers to look down on Machu Picchu from afar, just as the Inca once would have.

From La Playa, cross the river and continue to hike along the road. Be on the lookout for signs pointing towards an Incan Trail to Llactapata. They are hard to find but you will see it eventually. As of 2014, it was a faded red sign.

After this, the Incan Trail winds up the side of the mountain, not too steep but after a week of Andean hiking pretty much every incline feels steep. Your effort will be rewarded when you stumble out of the jungle onto a small clearing with the still standing walls of a modest temple structure.

Walk to the edge of the plaza and look out across the landscape. On the distant ridge, you’ll see a place where the jungle has been wiped away. Stones cling to the bare mountainside. This is Machu Picchu, and you are standing by yourself in the Andean Jungle looking out over it just as the Inca did long ago.

overlooking machu picchu from llactapata

Photo by Macie J

From Llactapata, the trail down to the valley floor is easy enough and then its just a slog along the train tracks until you reach Aguas Calientes, the town below Machu Picchu.

For accommodations in Aguas, your options are paid camping or budget hospedajes. Take your time and find the right option for you. The cheapest hospedajes are going to be up the hill and far from the main plaza. If you’re not too picky, camping is probably the way to go. Before you go to sleep for the night, make sure to buy your entrance pass to Machu Picchu for tomorrow! Do not wait until the next morning. Apparently now they assign times of day for your visit, so check your ticket to see when you’re allowed to enter the temple.

machu picchu

Photos by Macie J

The next day, wake up early to make the walk up to Machu Picchu! Because you didn’t walk all this way just to take the bus, did you?

If you did, best to get in line for the bus at like 4am I hear. It’s pretty hard to catch a bus. The stairway up to Machu Picchu is tough but not impossible. I say hike it.

All that’s left is your exploration of Machu Picchu. Take all the time you need. This place is worth it.

After your temple visit, I recommend catching the train back to Cusco. It is by far the easiest way to travel back to civilization. If the train is outside your budget, you can follow the train tracks back towards Santa Teresa and from there catch a taxi or collectivo out to Santa Maria, and from there a bus to Cusco.

If you’re really hardcore, you can walk all the way back to the Sacred Valley by following the train tracks in the other direction. This is a 28km walk and takes the full day. Get started early. When you get to KM 82, you’ll find yourself in a small village and from there you can easily get a collectivo back to Ollantaytambo.


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Hike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide: one of the greatest adventures in PeruHike from Choquequirao to Machu Picchu without a guide: one of the greatest adventures in Peru

All photos on this post from Macie J.

How to Ride from Battambang to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

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.

cardamom mountains to o soam

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

view of o soam cambodia

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.

Be Prepared!

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.

cardamom mountains battambang to koh kong

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.

tough cambodian road

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.

Cycling Battambang to Pramaoy

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.

cardamom mountain road cambodia

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.

cardamom mountain road

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.

cycling battambang to koh kong

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.

cycling in the cardamom mountains

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 community homestay cardamom mountains 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.

cardamom mountains homestay 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.

cardamom mountain road koh kong

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

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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How to Ride from Battambang to Koh Kong through the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia

Franconia Ridge Trail: One of the Best Hikes in New Hampshire

Adventure Travel, New Hampshire, Trekking & Hiking, United States

Visit New England and you’ll face one unavoidable truth: the Appalachian Mountains just aren’t that big. This might lead you to assume that hiking in New Hampshire is easy. Yet if you assumed this, you would be wrong. Trails in New Hampshire are some of the toughest I’ve ever encountered. Most especially, one of the best hikes in New Hampshire: the Franconia Ridge Trail.

There is something special about hiking in New Hampshire. I love the way the forest changes as you ascend up the mountains, going from leafy green deciduous trees; to pine forests; to sparse, high alpine environments with little cover and excellent views. Once you enter the mountains in New Hampshire, you are transported to another world.

Few places are as good for that as the Franconia Ridge Trail in the White Mountains.

Falling Waters Trailhead Parking

Trailhead and Parking

All About the Franconia Ridge Trail

Before I get ahead of myself and start gushing all about how much I love this trail. Let’s just go over some of the fine print.

The Franconia Ridge Trail traverses the Franconia Ridge (surprising, I know) from Mt. Flume at the southern end, all the way up to Mt. Lafayette to the north. In between the two peaks, it summits Mt. Liberty, Little Haystack Mountain, and Mt. Lincoln. The section from Mt. Liberty to Mt. Lafayette is also included in the storied Appalachian Trail.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of this trail, apart from the views, is the biodiversity. From Mt. Flume to Little Haystack, the trail passes through pine forests typical of New Hampshire. In here, it smells like Christmas and the air is blanketed with silence. From the peak of Mt. Haystack, the trail emerges into a high alpine environment where low shrubs and lichen reign supreme. This is an exceedingly delicate environment. Though small, many of these plants take years if not decades to grow. But it’s not all doom and gloom up here. Not only are the plants quiet fragile; they are also quite short. This means more views for us hikers.

The views from the top of Franconia Ridge are breathtaking. To the east, you can look down into the remote Pemigawasset Wilderness and across to the rolling peaks of the Bondcliff Trail. To the north, you’ll see the rest of Franconia ridge rising above you. And to the west sit the Kinsman and Canon ranges, as well as the steep cliffs of Franconia Notch, former home of the Old Man in the Mountain. (RIP)

The tricky thing about the Franconia Ridge Trail is that it never intersects with a road or parking area. Given that it sits on the top of one of the highest ridges in New Hampshire, that kind of makes sense. So for us intrepid hikers hoping to best this trail in a single day, we face a small problem: in order to enjoy this hike, we must first ascend to it.

A word of caution before we keep going: because the Franconia Ridge Trail is high and exposed, it can be particularly dangerous during harsh weather conditions. Up there, hikers are prone to lightning strikes and at the mercy of strong winds. The weather in the White Mountains is highly changeable so be sure to check reports before hiking. If you see clouds coming into the ridge, better to delay your hike until another day.

Waterfall in the White Mountains

Waterfall #3 on the Falling Waters Trail

Hiking Franconia Ridge Trail as a Day Hike: Planning the Trip

When my mom recently had the idea to spend a weekend on the trails, I knew I wanted to tackle the best hike in New Hampshire: my beloved Franconia Ridge Trail. The only problem was, I’d never done it as a day hike before.

Usually, I include the Franconia Ridge Trail as part of the Pemigawasset Loop, a 2 to 4-day backpacking journey that combines the Franconia Ridge with the Bond Ridge for a truly epic experience. But mom wasn’t game for a camping trip, so it’d have to be a day hike.

Luckily, there was an obvious loop that began and ended at a parking lot off of the Franconia Notch Parkway called Lafayette Place.

We’d hike up the Falling Waters Trail (because I suppose Waterfall Trail was just too obvious) for three miles to the peak of Little Haystack Mountain. From there, follow Franconia Ridge trail for 1.7 miles to the peak of Lafayette. Then hike down Greenleaf Trail to the Greenleaf Hut (open May to October), and finally, down the Old Bridle Path for 2.8 miles and back to our car.

Great. I had the whole day planned.

Before we get into the meat of this post, I need to talk about my boots.

Prior to this trip, the soles of my hiking boots had started to fall off. They were old boots and I knew I ought to get them resoled but I was unorganized and didn’t. In lieu of a cobbler, I bought something called “Shoe Goo” at REI and tried to glue the soles of my boots back onto my boots.

And up until the morning of our Franconia Ridge hike, it seemed to have worked.

Just to be safe, I used some duct tape to secure the heels. I considered bringing the duct tape with me, but the glue seemed secure and I didn’t want to add the weight to my day pack. I left the tape at home and we headed for the mountains.

IMG_20170924_103600

Waterfall #2 on the Falling Waters Trail

Hiking the Best Hike in New Hampshire: Our Epic Day on the Franconia Ridge Trail

Given that this would be a long day, hiking 9 miles through tough New Hampshire terrain, we wanted to get started bright and early.

So, of course, we arrived at the trailhead at 10am. Oh well.

Mom had convinced herself and, reluctantly, me that we ought to hike up the Old Bridle Path and back down the Falling Waters trail. I thought it was a bad idea but the guidebook suggested it so that was what mom wanted to do. Thankfully, there were some Park Rangers at the trailhead there to convince my mom that indeed we ought to hike UP the Falling Waters trail and come down the Bridle Path. NOT the other way around. Good.

For those following along at home, the Falling Waters Trail is by far the steeper of the two. If you’re going to tackle this loop as a day hike, I highly recommend ascending via the Falling Waters Trail. Old Bridle Path makes for a lovely descent.

Part 1: Falling Waters Trail

So it began. We headed up the three-mile Falling Waters Trail. The trail starts off as a meandering path through deciduous forests. Maple, beech, and oak trees grow thickly on the lower slopes of the mountain and the trail ascends slowly, following the path of a small brook.

After perhaps a mile of hiking, maybe a bit more, we reached the first waterfall. It featured large granite slabs with water gushing over the crest and a massive group of college kids clambering all over it. I don’t have a photo of that one.

Somewhere in between falls number one and two, we hit our first obstacle of the day. Remember how I had used “shoe goo” to glue my boots together? Remember how I said they seemed fine?

I was wrong.

As I climbed up a large granite boulder, I felt something catch underneath my foot. Looking down, I was dismayed to find that I was standing on the toe of my sole. In fact, the toe had detached itself and curled backward underneath my foot. The heel and mid-section were still in place.

Good thing I brought that duct tape… Oh, no, I left that duct tape at home. The only adhesive I had with me was the box of overlarge bandaids I’d brought to tape up the growing blister on the back of my right heel.

Sorry blister. I used the band-aids to secure the sole to the toe of my boot. And it worked. For a time.

From here, the trail began to get a bit steeper but nothing too crazy. A little bit of boulder scrambling, but that’s to be expected in New Hampshire. The second and third waterfalls followed in quick succession. Both were excellent specimens. Taller than the first, the water cascaded down ladders of granite with pine and maple trees growing out of the sides.

Somewhere in this section, the toe of my other boot decided that it didn’t want to live anymore. Taking out two more band-aids, I secured the offending article. But the boots were wet and the band-aids didn’t want to play. I needed another solution. Something that would force the sole of my boot to stay attached to my foot. I removed my hair elastic from my hair and used it to secure the toe.

It worked. But it also meant I would spend the rest of the day hiking with my long hair down, drenched in sweat, and clinging to my neck, cheeks, forehead, and eyes. What’s a girl to do?

Not too long after the third waterfall, the trail begins to ascend quickly through a series of switchbacks. If you’re imagining the type of smooth, graded switchbacks that characterize most hiking everywhere else on the planet, you’d be wrong. This is New Hampshire. Our switchbacks feature scrambling up boulders and jumping from one massive granite slab to the next.

Finally, just below the summit, as the pines were starting to thin and we hesitantly said out loud to each other, “I think we might be almost there” the trail took a sharp turn in the direction of outer space and climbed directly up the mountain all the way to the summit.

Out of breath, sweating, and shielding our eyes from the harsh sunlight above the treeline, we reached the top of Little Haystack Mountain. I turned around to take in the view and immediately my heart stopped in my chest.

The valley swept away far, far below me. The granite wall of Franconia Notch opened up to the north. Turning my eyes to follow the trail, I saw a dusty brown line cutting across the top of a dramatic ridge, leading up to the peak of Mt. Lincoln.

We had reached the Franconia Ridge Trail.

Best Hikes in New Hampshire Franconia Ridge Trail

Mom hiking towards Mt. Lafayette

Part 2: Hiking 1.7 miles of the Franconia Ridge Trail

The top of Little Haystack is comprised mainly of large flat slabs of granite scattered everywhere like so many marbles. We chose a likely looking spot to have a rest and a snack before tackling the ridge.

A word of caution: it was very windy up there. As long as we were hiking, I was perfectly comfortable in my t-shirt and leggings. But as soon as we sat down, I needed my jacket.

I guess the good thing about the wind was that it dried out my sweaty, disgusting hair.

From Little Haystack, the trail dropped down into the saddle before heading up to Mt. Lincoln. There is a small rise in the middle of the saddle, really quite tiny, and then the trail ascends steeply up to the summit of Lincoln at 5,089 feet. From here, the trail is visible all the way to Lafayette.

From Mt. Lincoln the trail drops somewhat steeply down to the saddle where there is another hump and then a small grove of low-lying pine trees. If you are ever unlucky enough to be caught up on the ridge in a storm, this is the best spot to take cover.

The final ascent, though not as steep as the ascent to Lincoln, is slightly longer, and by this point, my legs were pretty tired. The trail also gets a little difficult to follow. You’re not going to accidentally walk off the mountain or anything, but try to keep your eyes open for the white blaze of the Appalachian Trail marker. This is a sensitive environment and erosion is a big issue. Stepping off of the path has wider implications than meet the eye.

The top of Lafayette is glorious. Franconia Notch is below you to the west. Garfield Mountain rises to the north and seemingly all of the Appalachian Mountains stretch away in many different directions. At 5,260m, this is one of the tallest peaks in New Hampshire and the absolute tallest in the Franconia Notch area. For this reason alone, this is one of the best hikes in New Hampshire.

This was also the highest point of the hike. It was all downhill from here.

Franconia Ridge Trail from Mt Lafayette

View from Lafayette looking back towards Lincoln and Liberty in the distance.

Part 3: Greenleaf Trail to Greenleaf Hut or the Death of Megan’s Boots

It was beautiful on top of Lafayette but still very windy and I didn’t much fancy trying to make sure my sandwich didn’t fly away while I ate it. Mom and I decided to postpone our lunch until we reached the relative shelter of the Greenleaf Hut.

Going into the descent we both felt pretty optimistic. The hard part was over, the hut was only a mile away, and the trail didn’t look particularly challenging.

But it’s right when you start to feel comfortable that it all goes to shite, amirite?

Not even a quarter of a mile into the descent, I tripped, catching something under my right foot. I look down, and the sole of my shoe, freed from the confines of its band-aid restraints, had completely detached itself from my foot. Indeed, the sole of my boot was on its own. Follow its own manifest destiny. It was flying solo. It was rogue one.

And I’m out of band-aids. Well, shit.

IMG_20170924_161517

View from the Old Bridle Path

I grab my troublesome sole and shove it into my backpack.

For those of you who are curious, hiking down a steep mountain covered in slippery granite boulders in a shoe that has absolutely no traction is about as fun as you’d think it would be. It’s terrible.

Still, I’m a trooper and I’ve been through worse. I pushed on, hoping that if I got to the hut I could find something that would hold my boots together at least for the rest of the hike.

Boot issue aside, the hike down from Lafayette to the Greenleaf Hut was enjoyably scenic. It’s fairly exposed for the first half mile or so, then it begins to wind in and out of some low pine forests. Just before the hut, the trail dips down into a small valley by a pond.

It was about here that the sole politely removed itself from my second boot. I assume it didn’t want to be left out of this bid for freedom by sole number one.

I gazed up at the Hut above it. It was my only hope.

As soon as I reached the hut, I started chatting with an Irish couple we’d run into on the ridge. I showed them my boots. Full of concern, they reached into their bag and pulled out a roll of scotch tape. I wasn’t sure it would hold up but thought it was better than nothing. She very kindly told me to keep it, just in case. I thanked her profoundly and ducked inside.

The hut was packed. All the groups of college kids and campers were milling about, getting some snacks and replenishing their drinking water. For those who don’t know, these huts are kind of like rudimentary mountain hotels. They are run by an organization called AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club) and offer beds, hot meals, snacks, some supplies, and running water. Reservations are most definitely needed if you want a bed but if you just need somewhere to take a break, you’re very welcome. The huts are open usually from May to October.

I sat down at an open table and started taping up my boots.

“Having boot problems?” I heard from across the table. I looked up and a guy sitting further down had noticed my desperate attempts to reconnect my boot with its sole.

“I think I have some electrical tape if you’d rather use that?”

I accepted. If not duct tape, electrical tape was the next best thing. He handed me a brand new roll of tape and told me to keep it, just in case.

boots destroyed on franconia ridge trail

That, my friends, is trail magic.

Part 4: The Old Bridle Path Home

With my boots now fixed up, mom and I downed our wet, soggy, and unbelievably delicious sandwiches and headed out to finish the hike. A sign inside the hut warned that it would take another 2 hours and 40 minutes to reach the bottom. That seemed a bit rich to me, the trail was only 2.8 miles from here! But who was I to second guess the sign?

The Bridle Path

The Old Bridle Path

Going down from the hut, the trail follows a ridge, with some exposed sections of trail offering gorgeous lookouts back up at Franconia Ridge. Steep in places, it was nowhere near as steep as the Falling Waters Trail from this morning.

After just a little under two hours, mom and I had made it back down to the parking lot. We had sore feet but full hearts. We gratefully hopped back into the car and drove back to our condo where warm showers and clean clothes awaited us.

Best Hike in New Hampshire: Franconia Ridge Trail with Falling Waters and Bridle Path At-A-Glance

  • Total Distance: 8.9 miles
    • Falling Waters Trail: 3.2 miles
    • Franconia Ridge Trail: 1.7 miles
    • Greenleaf Trail: 1.1 miles
    • Old Bridle Path: 2.9 miles
  • Total Time: 6 – 8 Hours
  • Highest Point: Mt. Lafayette, 5,260ft (1,600m)
  • Lowest Point: Lafayette Place Trailhead: 1,900ft (580m)

How to get there: From Lincoln, New Hampshire, drive north on Interstate 93 for about 7 miles until the Lafayette Place Trailhead and Campground exit. Parking is on the right. If the lot is full, parking is available on the street or on the other side of the road. U-turns are not possible on the highway, next exit is 3 miles further north on I-93/Rt. 3.


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5 Reasons to Visit Kampot, Cambodia

Adventure Travel, Cambodia, Travel

Kampot, a small town near the coast in Cambodia, is slowly making a name for itself among backpackers and luxury tourists alike who want to slow down and appreciate the subtle pleasures of travel. If you love having mountains, hiking, water sports, nature, and relaxation all in one place, here are five reasons to visit Kampot during your next trip to Cambodia.

reasons to visit Kampot

Approaching Kampot on my Cambodia Bike Tour

1. Stay in a Guesthouse on the Kampot River

Kampot is spread out along a river, known in Khmer as “Preak Tuek Chhu”. In town, there is a small park and paths for walking, along with docks where the tourist boats wait for passengers on the evening river cruise. But the real highlight of Kampot takes place upriver, where plenty of guesthouses are tucked away in the lush jungle, offering bungalows on the Kampot river for as low as $6 a night.

During my last trip to Kampot, I stayed in the Kampot River Bungalows. This is the cheapest option and I have to say I loved it. The bungalows are very simple: small wooden huts perched on stilts in the river or set back in the jungle, furnished with little but some bamboo shelves, a thin mattress on a bed, a fan, and a mosquito net. The family that runs the guesthouse is really welcoming. The common area overlooking the river is one of the most peaceful places in all of Cambodia.

Further upriver, backpacker haunts like Arcadia, Greenhouse, or High Tide offer swimming, tubing, rope swings, and parties. If you’re looking for a social guesthouse or hostel that’s also an escape from reality, head up that way.

No matter which riverside guesthouse you choose, you’ll get to spend your days lazing in a hammock watching the fishing boats glide by. If you’re feeling more active, you can rent a kayak or even try stand-up paddle boarding on the river. The Kampot River is the perfect place to spend a day, a week, or even longer.

bokor mountain kampot

Entrance to Bokor National Park

2. Climb Bokor Mountain and Visit the Bokor Hill Station

Bokor Mountain is one of the top tourist activities in Kampot and for good reason. It rises above Kampot town, wreathed in clouds during the rainy season, usually still foggy even in the dry. Perched on top is a ruined French resort, built in the early 20th century for luxuriating colonials. Today, you can still visit the ruins of the old hotel and there is a modern (and ugly) resort and casino up there as well.

The normal way to visit Bokor Mountain is either through a tour or on a moto. You can easily rent a moto in town for $4 and drive yourself up the hill. I drove up in the rainy season and even with the wet and cold, it was still a great drive. Bring layers though because it gets cold up there!

Once you get to the top, you’ll get incredible views of the surrounding countryside, as well as the ocean, and even Vietnam’s Phu Quoc island in the distance. The old French resort still stands but as of May 2017, the building was closed off to visitors.

For a real challenge, rent a mountain bike in town and try to cycle up to Bokor Hill Station. It’s about 10km (6 miles) from town to the start of the ride, then 35km (21 miles) up to the top. It’s not a steep grade, but it is consistently uphill for the entire 21 miles, so get ready to climb. The downhill afterwards makes it all worth it.

Entrance to Bokor Mountain National Park on a motorbike is 2000riel ($0.50) and it’s free on a bicycle.

bokor hill station kampot

Bokor Hill Station

3. Cycle A Countryside Tour of Kampot Pepper Farms, Salt Flats, and Caves

The countryside around Kampot is a prime spot for exploring typical Cambodian rural life. Rice fields lined with red dirt roads spread out into the distance. Kampot pepper farms grow the coveted spice and offer tours. Drop by for a visit and pick up a bag of overpriced pepper to take home. The name brand “Kampot Pepper” costs $70 a kilo, a completely ridiculous price. How could the average Cambodian afford that? Or even want to?

Other than pepper farms, other highlights are the salt flats, a wide area of farm fields out near the sea that are used to cultivate, you guessed it, salt. You can get a stunning view of the salt flats with Bokor Hill rising up beyond them just a little ways outside of town.

Lastly, visit some of the caves that surround Kampot. Phnom Chhngok is a popular choice, a small cave that has an ancient Angkorian temple built inside of it. Entrance is $1 and there are usually some kids hanging around who will give you a tour.

Salt flats Kampot Cambodia

Kampot Salt Flats with Bokor in the distance

4. Engage in Responsible Tourism at Epic Arts Cafe

This cafe is genuinely one of my favorite spots in town but there are more reasons to visit beyond the scrumptious paninis and decadent carrot cake. Epic Arts Cafe supports Epic Arts, the organization. In their own words, Epic Arts believes that “every person counts”. They use the arts as a tool to empower disabled people in Cambodia, helping them gain confidence and find their own space in society.

Not only does the money you spend at the cafe go back to the organization but you can get a sense of their work while you eat. They have a gallery upstairs to showcase student work, you can buy souvenirs made by their beneficiaries, and most of the staff at the cafe are deaf or disabled in some way. You can even learn some Khmer sign language from the signs and books sitting on the tables.

I totally recommend checking out this cafe. It’s honestly one of the reasons I came to Kampot to begin with. The cheese and tomato panini is delicious. And you can get french press coffee! Yum.

Epic Arts Cafe Kampot Panini

Cheese and Tomato Panini at Epic Arts Cafe

5. Take a Day Trip to Kep

If you follow my blog, you’ll know how much I love Kep. During my bike tour around Cambodia, I spent three days there hiking in the national park, exploring old ruins, eating great food, and trying to explore everything there is to do in Kep.

But if you’re based out of Kampot, you might only have time to take a day trip to Kep. The good news is, it’s only 26km (16 miles) away, so you can easily rent a moto and head out to Kep for a quick day trip.

If you’ve only got one day in Kep, I recommend taking your moto and driving around the Kep National Park trail. It’s a dirt road but very easy to drive. You’ll get amazing views of all the different parts of Kep. If you have extra time, I recommend hiking up to Sunset Rock. The whole hike is pretty short, should take only 1 to 2 hours.

After you explore the park, head down to the fish markets to eat some of Kep’s famous blue crab. You can buy it fresh at the market or have one of the restaurants prepare it for you. If you choose to go to the market, there are people there who can steam or sauté your crab on site (5000 riel or $1.25), and you can buy a plate of rice for 1000riel ($0.25). At the restaurants, the dishes are more expensive but you’re paying for presentation and atmosphere as well as the crab.

In the markets, a kilo of crab is $6 and feeds two people. So for two people, a kilo of crab sautéed with fresh peppercorns and a plate of rice will cost you $7.50.

If you still have more time in Kep, I recommend driving over to the beach to see how Khmer people do beach days. Or take some time to explore the town and find all the ruined mansions. There is also a butterfly farm and a few other tourist attractions that can help you pass the time.

Kep is a beautiful little seaside town perfect for a slightly adventurous morning. But don’t be surprised if you fall in love and end up spending few days there.

views kep national park

Kep National Park Views

Kampot: Cambodia’s Relaxing Getaway

I love Kampot. It’s the perfect place to escape from the rigors of long-term travel. Get yourself a bungalow on the river, rent a moto, and idle away a week lazing by the river or driving around the countryside. I promise you won’t regret it.


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5 Reasons to Visit Kampot Cambodia This Year: Where to Stay in Kampot, What to do in Kampot, the best adventure travel and relaxation5 Reasons to Visit Kampot Cambodia This Year: Where to Stay in Kampot, What to do in Kampot, the best adventure travel and relaxation5 Reasons to Visit Kampot Cambodia This Year: Where to Stay in Kampot, What to do in Kampot, the best adventure travel and relaxation

5 Lessons Learned from 5 Years Abroad

Adventure Travel, Travel

As of July 28, 2017, I’ve been living abroad; working and traveling; for five years. It’s been five years of struggles, triumphs, tribulations, and ultimately, strength. I’ve lived and worked in three countries, I’ve traveled through 15, I’ve hiked in the Himalayas and the Andes. I’ve cycled around Cambodia. And I’ve come through it all a more complete version of myself.

To mark this milestone in my life, I decided to compile a list of five hard-earned lessons I’ve learned in five years of living abroad.

Chinatown Incheon

Visiting Incheon’s Chinatown in South Korea 2012

1. Live Your Life By Your Own Rules

Don’t live your life according to other people’s rules. Don’t listen to the guilty voice in your head telling you what you “should” be doing. Don’t worry about what other people are thinking. Instead, do the things that give you purpose.

When I first moved to Korea I had all these ideas about what it meant to be an expat. I wanted to be a “real expat” and not a “fake expat”, whatever that meant. I ate only Korean food, I didn’t own a fork, I slept on a pallet bed, I tried (poorly) to learn the language. I rarely ate western food and tried to only go out places where Koreans were going out.

I looked down on people who spent all their time in the foreigner neighborhoods and scorned those who felt the need to eat bread instead of rice. And what did I get for all this superiority? Crushing culture shock and mental stress. It took me a little over six months to realize how much happier I was overall if I let myself enjoy some time in the foreigner neighborhood.

So, if I want to go spend money on a fancy American style meal, I’ll do it. If I want to go to the expat bar on Friday nights and hang out with other foreigners who speak English fluently, I’ll do it. Then I’ll go back to living my life abroad, immersed in a foreign land.

The same thing applies to travel. I used to feel guilty if I spent a whole day doing nothing, lying about in hammocks. Or guilty that I went to Indonesia and spent the whole time climbing volcanoes instead of surfing or diving.

But this is my life and my trip. I get to do what I want to do with my time. I’m not beholden to other people’s bucket lists or preconceived notions about what “Travel” involves.

This lesson applies to so many things in life, how your spend your free time, what career you pursue, whether or not you attend university, who you spend your time with. In the end, we only live once, so it’s best to remember:

Your life is yours and yours alone, you don’t have to follow anyone else’s rules.

Buying a Donkey in Peru

Meeting my donkey, Chana, for the first time, 2015

2. There is Happiness in Solitude

I’ve always been an introvert. But when I was younger I didn’t appreciate that side of myself. Not valuing my desire to spend time alone in bed with a good book, I thought this inclination toward nights in made me anti-social.

Life abroad has shown me the strength that comes from introversion. Because of this side of my personality, I’m comfortable doing things on my own. I’ll go to restaurants by myself, go to bars by myself, even go on 7-week long bike rides by myself.

Sometimes I wish I made more of an effort to find a partner in crime for all my adventuring. But that person will come along eventually. Or maybe they won’t. For now, I’m perfectly happy exploring the world solo.

If you are unafraid to experience life as a solo traveler, you’ll find so many more adventures are waiting for you.

Annapurna Circuit Manaslau Pass

Crossing the Highest Point of the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal, 2014

3. When Facing Disaster: Stay Calm

I have a confession to make: I’m a panicker. Sometimes that panic comes in the form of sleepless nights spent agonizing over something left undone. Other times, it’s the kind of frenzied panic that takes over in the face of a disaster.

Travel, especially solo travel, has taught me the futility of panic. It seems like life is teaching me this lesson over and over again. Like on my first night in Korea, when I accidentally took a bus to the end of the line and had no idea where I was.

Or when I was walking across Peru with a donkey and I walked myself all the way to exhaustion. Facing a full day of climbing, I collapsed on the hillside in tears.

Or when I was cycling around Cambodia and got lost for the 3rd time that day, I burst into tears and shouted “I can’t do this!” at the sky.

But over the years, these stressful experiences have taught me something: crying doesn’t get you anywhere. Panic is pretty useless. And 9 times out of 10, everything works out in the end. Take a few deep breaths, sit down, and look at the situation calmly. You’ll find a solution soon enough.

Touring in Kyoto Japan

First visit to Japan, 2013

4. Be Patient – Things Worth Having Take Time

This was probably the most difficult one for me to learn. I am not a patient person by nature. I like instant gratification and getting free stuff. But life doesn’t work like that and we don’t all get to live in fairy tales.

This lesson came to me recently, during my seven-week bike ride around Cambodia. I bought a bicycle in March 2017 and intended to get in shape then begin my epic bike tour in April. That plan was dashed when I ripped a tendon in my foot at the end of March. No more cycling. No activity at all. I spent all of April resting in my apartment.

Then May 1st came and I couldn’t wait anymore. I hopped on my bike and started pedaling. I was completely out of shape. I hadn’t ridden a single kilometer in over a month! On my first day, a 77km ride over some hills almost killed me.

But over the next 7 weeks of cycling, my body slowly started to change. 70km went from nearly impossible to easy. I was shocked, two weeks in, to find that a 93km passed by in a flash. By the end of the ride, I was tackling 140km days.

This strength didn’t happen overnight. It happened because I worked at it slowly and consistently.

This applies to just about everything in life. You want to travel for 6 months? Start saving now, little by little.

You want to work for the UN? Start working with smaller NGOs now. Build up your experiences and resume little by little.

Whatever your goals are, break them down into little bits to get there. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work out. There were days I thought I’d never be able to cycle around Cambodia. And yet by the end, I felt I could’ve done the whole thing again.

You’d be surprised what you can achieve with a little persistence.

Hiking the Alpamayo Circuit Solo

Hiking in the Alpamayo Circuit, Peru, 2015

5. If You Have A Passion: Chase It

Whatever makes your heart beat faster and your imagination soar, chase it. Not everyone is lucky enough to know what their passion is. Most of us have no idea. But if you do figure it out, get after it. Start now. Today.

Start small, what first baby step can you take to get there? Make a plan for yourself, and be willing to let that plan change.

For me, the dream has always been writing. I’ve known since the first time I read C.S. Lewis’ masterpiece The Narnia Chronicles that I wanted to be a writer. There were months, even years when I thought this would never be possible. I was a talentless fraud. Writing wasn’t really what I wanted. Writing is not a real career choice.

It took me a few years to get over all that negative self-talk and begin actively pursuing that dream. I’m not publishing novels yet, but I am working full time as a freelance writer and content creator. I’m on my way, and it feels right.

Five years ago, as I set off to teach English in South Korea, I thought I had no dreams. Being a writer seemed like a childish passion. But here I am, five years later, a professional content creator. People are paying me to write.

Three months ago I launched this blog, Into Foreign Lands. It’s not one of the top travel blogs on the web by any means but it’s mine, I’m dedicated to it, and I love every second that I get to work on it.

I’ve got further to go and more baby steps to take but this process of living abroad has shown me that I have the strength to get there.

My point is this: whatever your dream is, chase it. Even if it feels so far away you may never get there, start now. Start today. One year ago I was working a 40 hour/week job in Cambodia and coming home each night to work on writing and freelance assignments. It sucked and I was always tired but it means that now I can work freelance and make my own schedule. I have time for my creative pursuits.

If you feel that you have no dream, have no passions, if you’re feeling lost and listless, don’t worry. You’re not alone. I felt that way before I left for Korea. I’ve felt it since then in moments of self-doubt.

But think of it like this: because you don’t know where you want to go, you can go anywhere! Start trying different things, anything that you get the opportunity to try. Start running, take boxing classes, sign up for a book club, apply for a job that sounds interesting but you’re not qualified for. (Worst thing they can do is say no!). Start traveling. You never know what will trigger your imagination and set your heart soaring.


Before I sign off sounding like I’ve got everything figured out, let me just add as a caveat: I’m often re-learning each of these lessons. As soon as I think I’ve learned “don’t panic” for the final time, I end up in some bad situation, bursting into tears and trying not to panic.

BIke Tour Through the Cambodian rice fields

Cycling through the rice fields outside Battambang, Cambodia, 2017

Travel isn’t necessary to experience this kind of self-growth. It just happened to be what triggered it for me. This is what travel has taught me and I’m so thankful to be on the path that I’m walking. If you’re not on the right path for your life, I can’t encourage you enough to start making small changes today. Even if that means adding a second job. Even if it means taking a massive risk.

Your life is your own, and you only get one.

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5 Lessons Learned from a Life spent living abroad, working abroad, and traveling across 15 countries

Bike Tour Cambodia: The Final Days

Adventure Travel, Bike Touring, Cambodia, Travel

After almost seven weeks of spending every day inside my own head, struggling over mountains, riding across rice fields, and facing down creepy men… would I even be able to readapt to society?

Preoccupied with thoughts of my uncertain future, I headed into the final days and the road back to Battambang. But before my glorious return, I still had one more exciting secret Cambodian tourist spot to visit, and just a few more rural towns to navigate.

Really, anything could happen.

Samroang: Capital of Oddar Meanchey

Leaving Preah Vihear, stoked after my visit to that incredible temple, I cycled out towards Samroang. It was a mere 80km from Sra’em to Samroang, the capital of Oddar Meanchey, one of the least visited and least populous provinces in Cambodia.

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Honestly, by this point in the ride I was getting downright arrogant. 80km was nothing, I’d bang it out in a few hours with plenty of time to spare for exploring Samroang.

But just when you think your bike tour has nothing left to teach you, the bike schools you once again. I found myself cycling into a steady headwind for 80km, a totally challenge to my mindset that forced me to reevaluate my presumed strength. Determined to enjoy the final days of my ride, I had to mindfully try not to feel negative. Yes, the headwind was frustrating but really, how lucky was I?

The road from Sra’em to Samroang is technically a highway, but it is little used. Aside from a few trucks, cars, and entire families on motos, I pretty much had the road to myself.

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Even with the headwind, I made it to Samroang around lunchtime and found an overpriced room in a underwhelming guesthouse. Samroang itself was a very strange town. The provincial capital, it has the grid of roads laid out for a town, with plenty of government buildings… but no town. The streets are there, but the people are not. They all live in villages nearby, but not in the town itself. Its as if the government wanted to build a town there, but the people didn’t feeling like settling.

If you build it… they’ll tell you to get lost.

It was pretty weird.

Cycling from Samroang to Banteay Chhmar

From Samroang, it was a simple 50km out to Banteay Chhmar. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t the most inspiring or beautiful section of the trip.

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The road was mostly flat, I think, not super memorable, except for one section that wound through some lotus flower fields. Those are always a treat.

Arrived at Banteay Chhmar, site of an ancient Angkor Era temple in a state of disarray. This temple is equal in size and beauty to many of the temples outside of Siem Reap, but far less visited by tourists.

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The village surrounding the temple runs a CBT, or “community based tourism” initiative. What this basically means is that the money from the temples, one restaurant, and the homestays in the village are all pooled and go directly back to the locals. The result is that the tourism around Banteay Chhmar actually benefits the people who live there. Weird, right?

I arrived in town with the idea of spending a night in one of the homestays in the village. However, I failed to call ahead and when I popped into the CBT office, it was empty. It was 11am though, so I went to visit the temples, have lunch, and then made up my mind to continue riding all the way to Sereysophorn, another 60km. No homestay for me.

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Can I tell you a secret?

I hate homestays. I’m not opposed to them from an ethical standpoint, I’m sure they can be great for responsible tourism. But just from a personal standpoint, I hate them. I feel so awkward and intrusive. Skipping the homestay in Banteay Chhmar was an easy call. I much prefer a simple guesthouse.

The ride from Banteay Chhmar to Sereysophorn absolutely flew by. I had just a hint of a tail wind, my legs felt strong, and I was in a euphoric state of mind. This was my last section of never-before-seen road on my bike ride around Cambodia. It was characterized by wide open rice fields. The storm clouds looming overhead only encouraged me to ride harder.

It was one of the best afternoons of riding in my trip. Just plain fun.

I arrived in Sereysophorn in the late afternoon, got some deep fried bananas, and took a room in a guesthouse. Tomorrow would be the final day of my trip. Just a quick 70km down Road 5. A route I’d ridden before, two months ago when I was training for this ride.

It was certainly a bittersweet feeling.

Cycling from Sereysophorn, Banteay Meanchey to Battambang

This was it. The final day. A day which, if I’m being totally honest, I’d been imagining since before I even began the ride. Is that strange? I don’t think so. Sometimes I imagined myself rolling into Battambang completely exhausted, worn out, and just falling off my bike in the street.

Other times, I imagined cheering crowds. Women fainting. People running up to congratulate me.

Okay, those are my Tour de France fantasies. Whatever.

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The final day of the ride was great. I mean, road 5 is a crowded highway, so that wasn’t exactly enjoyable. I was really struck by the extreme contrast between Oddar Meanchey, Banteay Meanchey, and now Battambang Province. Just yesterday I’d been riding through underdeveloped land and open rice fields, hardly a town to be seen. Now the road was crowded with trucks, buses, vans, and cars, and the sides of the road were lined with houses, shops, and larger businesses. Night and day.

But it was familiar, it really felt like “this is the end”. But in a good way. It was nice to return to Battambang and have it feel like home.

I even passed another bike tourist. We waved at each other, no words were exchanged.

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I rolled into town before 11am. The cheering crowds didn’t materialize. It was no different than the end of any other day. No one batted an eye, except for the one or two creepy guys who chose to leer at me.

Final Thoughts from a Bicycle Tour Around Cambodia

In the moment of my arrival in Battambang, I realized that the deeply personal life journey I had just been on would remain just that: deeply personal. In truth, even as I write this blog post, two weeks after the end of the ride, I’m still digesting everything that the ride meant to me. It was such an incredible and life changing experience. I feel something has shifted, down at the very core of my being.

It was a realigning. A readjustment. A reset.

Even as I arrived back in Battambang on that last day, I felt it. I was a happier, more lighthearted person now than when I had left.

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When my friend who runs the “Cafe Eden” in town came out onto the street and said “You’re Back!” and I laughingly replied “Yes, literally just right now.” I felt that I was a changed person. Even if no one else could see it, I knew at the core of my being that something had been deeply altered.

The Megan who had ridden out of Battambang on May 1 was weighed down by expectations, self loathing, and hateful criticism.

The Megan who returned was different. Happier, lighter, more forgiving of herself, content with herself, confident. Overjoyed.

I had just ridden 2,145km around Cambodia. And I felt fucking amazing.


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The final days of a bike tour around Cambodia, through Oddar Meanchey, Banteay Chhmar, and back to Battambang

Bike Tour Cambodia: Crossing the Northern Hinterland

Adventure Travel, Bike Touring, Cambodia, Travel

After my wild ride along the death road, my bike ride across Cambodia stretched across the far northern reaches of the country, from Banlung in Ratanakiri province in the east, through Stung Treng, Preah Vihear, Anglong Veng, Banteay Chhmar, and back down to Battambang, the town where it all began.

If you’ve never heard of any of those towns before, don’t worry. Neither had I. The north of Cambodia is hard to get to, under developed, and hardly ever visited by foreign tourists.

It was some of my favorite riding of the trip, and including one of the best, most amusing, and most disastrous days of my trip. But I’ll get to that in a bit…

Day 1: Banlung to Stung Treng: 140km (Or, that was the goal)

After spending a few days in Banlung, a gorgeous town up in the hills, I was as mentally prepared as I could be for my first 140km day. As with my other big days during the bike ride around Cambodia, I was nervous before heading out.

The rode passed through hills, more down than up, through forest, rubber plantations, and pepper farms. I was on the lookout for a dirt road to Stung Treng that somehow wouldn’t add any extra distance to my day. The turning point for the road came about 45km into my day. I stopped for a quick second breakfast then headed out.

Dirt road through the jungle near Stung Treng, Cambodia, Into Foreign Lands

Similar to other backroads I’d pursued on my trip, it was an altogether pleasant experience. Quiet, rural, the road passed through some dense jungle at one point then returned to farmland. It was shaping up to be another perfect day.

I rode hard along this dirt path, enjoying the undulating hills and hoping for a tailwind that never came. I did get a pretty strong headwind for about 45 minutes as some rainclouds rolled in, but the promised rain never materialized and after awhile the wind let up as well.

Rickety Bridge near Stung Treng, Cambodia, Into Foreign Lands

Near the end of this dirt road, I came to a long and rickety bridge across a river. While I was making my way across it, a pickup truck came up behind me and followed me across. Once I reached the safety of the far bank of the river, I moved over to let them pass. Instead of passing, they stopped and rolled down their window. After the weeks and weeks of harassment from men, my guard was immediately up. But a woman who spoke English poked her head out and asked if I wanted to throw my bike in the back of their truck.

“We can drive you to Stung Treng.”

No thanks, I told them, I’m happy to ride.

And off they drove.

The rest of the dirt road was scenic and gorgeous but my legs were starting to feel all the hills. I’d ridden 60km without stopping at this point and I was looking forward to eating lunch.

Joining back up with the main road, I knew I had only 40 more kilometers to go before Stung Treng. I pulled into a restaurant.

A group of people were sitting at the table and invited me to sit with them. They were all smiles and then I realized… these are the people from the pick up truck! The same ones who offered me a ride on the bridge.

We got to talking again and they explained that they were from the Ministry of Health in Phnom Penh. They were up in the north to visit rural health centers. They invited me to come with them to visit some rural villages up on the border with Laos.

A Lotus Filled Lake in Preah Vihear Cambodia

I was torn. I wanted to finish my 140km day but I also wanted to have this adventure. After a bit of internal debate, I swallowed my pride and accepted their invitation.

Sitting in a car and being driven down the road, I felt a bit odd. It was so easy, so effortless. The scenery flew by the window so fast I could barely take it in.

I didn’t like it.

But I was excited to see where we would go.

We stopped not far outside of Stung Treng to visit one local health center, then headed up the road towards the border with Laos. Optimistically, I thought we were off to visit Siem Pang, a rural village I had originally intended to include in my bike trip but had to forego because of heavy rains.

But no. Instead we did something so uniquely Khmer, so ludicrous, I would’ve been disappointed if I wasn’t so amused.

We drove up to the border crossing. Told the guard to open the gate, drove right up to the gate where you pass from Cambodia to Laos, and then parked the car, and took pictures.

Yeah, we just went and literally looked at a border crossing. Didn’t cross the border. Didn’t stop to visit any villages. Just looked at the border crossing.

Then drove back to Stung Treng.

It was totally weird and totally Khmer. Plus the people were super nice. They got me a hotel room for $5 a night in Stung Treng and took me out for an incredible 4 course dinner that night. I got to learn about their lives, their children, and was even invited to stay with them in Phnom Penh (I did not, however, get any contact information from them, so it will never happen).

With my Khmer Friends in Stung Treng, Into Foreign Lands

I’m not at all disappointed that I didn’t ride those 40km. The experience of hanging out with my Ministry of Health friends was totally worth it.

Days 2 – 6: Cycling to Preah Vihear and Sra’aem with a Massive Disaster in Between

After my adventure with the Ministry of Health, it was time to tackle another 140km day. This time, I knew, there would be no rescue from well meaning Khmers.

Leaving Stung Treng, I followed the road for Preah Vihear. Expecting it to be a highway, I was surprised to find myself on a nearly deserted paved road through remote countryside and sparse jungle. Rocky outcroppings and cliffs jutted up out of the landscape to the north and south of the road.

The road itself passed up and over rolling hills. This surprised me. I had expected to find myself riding through the flat floodplains of Cambodia.

Before riding a bike around Cambodia, I was under the impression that most of the country is pancake flat. And it is. In the middle. But my route followed the edges of Cambodia. And the edges of Cambodia are made up of hills.

140km of hills later, I had reached Preah Vihear town. Tired, exhausted, but very proud of myself, I rolled into a guesthouse and passed out.

My mountain bike outside Preah Vihear on the Ride Across Cambodia

The next day I spent exploring Preah Vihear town by bike. The town sits at the base of a large ridge of mountains. No roads that I could find climb the hill, but I cycled around the base of it, found a nice lotus filled lake, and spent the rest of the day admiring the countryside.

Really though, I was resting up for the next day, a 80km ride up to Sra’em, the town at the base of Preah Vihear Temple. Confusing, I know. Preah Vihear Town is actually about 110km away from Preah Vihear Temple. Don’t ask me why.

For the ride to Sra’em, there is a paved road that runs direct from Preah Vihear Town. It couldn’t be easier to follow.

So of course, I had to look for an alternate route.

And on google maps, I found one.

Pro Tip: if you’re trying to plan a bike tour around Cambodia, don’t trust google maps. For the love of god, don’t trust them.

Always double check with the satellite imagery. If it is a wide, flat line of a road, you’re good to go. If it looks like a whisper of a trail through the jungle, don’t. Save yourself the energy. Take the main road.

But I didn’t check the satellite imagery. I just found this alternate route on google maps and decided to see what would happen.

And of course what happened was an adventure and disaster all rolled up into one.

My Disastrously Fun Bike Ride from Preah Vihear to ?????

I set off from Preah Vihear quite early in the day, my bike loaded up with all 15kg of my stuff, and quickly found myself riding up a wide dirt road. I imagined it would continue like this for the next 80km of the day.

Sometimes, I’m naive.

That wide dirt road lasted for about 20km, then ran into a collection of houses, something less than a village. After that, things began to get… interesting.

It became clear that this road was under construction. Large vehicles and random cliffs disturbed the otherwise smooth surface of the road. Sudden drop offs had smaller detour trails running along the sides. Eventually, I came to one such dip in the road and found myself facing a large puddle. Or a small river, depending on your perspective.

I looked for a detour trail but couldn’t find one. There was a large slab of wood sitting on top of the water. A few cautious footsteps proved that the wood was floating free, not attached to anything. The mud underneath was disturbingly slippery. The water came up to my mid thigh.

Not wanting to get my computer and camera equipment wet, I removed all my bags from my bike then carried them across the puddle, using the plank of wood for support and inching across it sideways at a speed slightly faster than a snail. The water was the temperature of used bath water festering in the sun.

At the last moment, the final step from the plank of wood to the safety of the dry bank, my foot hid some mud, I slipped, and went down, splashing into the surely malarial waters, desperately trying to hold my bag up over my head as I did so.

I had to laugh, because of course I fell in at the last possible moment.

Wet with water the temperature of recently released urine, I set my bags down on the dry road and looked back, contemplating how I was going to get my bike across. I could carry it, yes, but my balance on that plank of wood had been precarious at best.

This was a puzzle for sure.

As I was pondering this conundrum, I heard the rumble of a tractor not far off. Looking up, I saw that in fact there WAS a detour around this puddle, and I hadn’t needed to take all my stuff of my bike after all. At least I knew how I would get my bike across. I headed off at a jog down the detour, intending to ride my bike back to my stuff, skipping the puddle.

Two Cambodians ride on a tractor outside of Preah Vihear from Into Foreign Lands

Instead, the tractor emerged from the jungle with a Khmer couple sitting on top. They took in my situation in an instant and started giggling. Stopping their tractor, the young man got up, walked through the puddle like it was nothing, picked up my bike, and carried it back across.

I sheepishly followed him back across, laughing along with them at my clumsy attempts to walk through the Cambodian mud.

Putting my bags back on my bike, now safely across what I foolishly assumed would be the biggest roadblock of the day, I headed off up the road, quickly passing the slow moving tractor and friendly Khmer couple. We waved at each other as I passed.

A few more detours, easier to spot than the last, and I was feeling positive. I understood the situation now. All I needed to do was find the sneaky detours and I’d finish these 80km in no time.

Not so fast Megan.

I came up a hill and found myself in the middle of a construction zone, where some large equipment was building the road I was riding on. I had come to the literal end of the road. It ended in some rough dirt, gravel, and a cliff.

Thanks a lot, google maps.

After a little scouting, I found a smaller tractor road heading in the right direction. Skirting the construction equipment, I pedaled up a small hill and down the trail, congratulating myself on successfully navigating the wilds of Cambodia. I was so smart. I was practically a native Cambodian myself at this point.

House I found on my Bike Ride Across Cambodia Into Foreign Lands

And then I hit a lake. Not just a puddle this time, but a massive body of water. The road, the fields, the whole world was flooded. I couldn’t see the other side.

Well, thanks a bundle Cambodia. This really was the end of the road. No more sneaky shortcuts or tractor trails. I had to go back.

Turning around to head back to town, I was stopped by my two friends on the tractor. They smiled at me and told me to wait a moment. Then they started hollering across the lake. Shouting and generally causing a racket.

Five minutes later, I heard the soft put-put-put of a small boat engine, and a little wooden canoe emerged from the bamboo, captained by a Khmer man and stuffed to the brim with various packages.

When he reached us, my tractor friends set in motion unloading the small boat and transferring the packages to their tractor. They also spoke with the man about me. I told them I was trying to get to “Choam Ksant” the name of a village about 50km north of us.

The boat man looked at me, considered my bike for a moment, then told me that yes, there is a road, but no, you can’t take it. Too much water, too many bumps, basically.. it’s not possible.

But, he added, you can come to my village for a few hours to explore, then I will bring you back here.

That sounded pretty fun to me.

So we piled my bike onto the canoe and set off across the water and through the bamboo. A few short minutes later and we were pulling up to the cutest little Cambodian village. Traditional wooden houses sat atop stilts, surrounded by rice fields and grazing cattle. The village was empty of the store fronts and colorful signs that I had grown used to on the main roads of Cambodia. This was truly rural Cambodia, miles and miles from any paved road, tucked away behind forests of bamboo and lost amid winding cow paths.

The people were admittedly surprised to see me, but otherwise quite welcoming. Most people stopped me to take selfies or just to ask me where I was going. I spent about an hour mucking around on my bike on the cow paths that made a web north of the village. I tried to find the road to Choam Ksant but there were too many tractor paths going in every direction. I would’ve needed a guide.

After an hour or so of riding around, I headed back to get the canoe back to the road. I was joined there by a woman, her daughter, and the village drunk, who appeared to be inviting me back to his house. I pretended not to understand.

My mountain bike sits near a rice field outside of Preah Vihear Cambodia on into Foreign Lands

The canoe captain returned and drove us all, minus the drunk, back across the water to the road. The woman and her daughter quickly walked away, leaving me to sort out my bike while the canoe man watched over me.

He started trying to ask me for my phone number, even going so far as to wrap his arm around my waist and kiss all over my face. I pushed him off and got away from there pretty much as fast as I could. I talk more about that on my most recent vlog, so I won’t waste words on him here.
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0N7HtG-iHI&w=560&h=315]

The ride back to Preah Vihear town was uneventful and I made it back around lunchtime. Took my room at the old guesthouse again and resigned myself to taking the paved road up to Sra’em the next day.

And indeed, the paved road to Sra’em was one of the smoothest 80km rides of the entire trip. It cut through sparse jungle and some military land, a bit spooky but nonetheless an easy ride. I made it to Sra’em with plenty of time to spare. Spent a day in the village, took an incredible trip up to the nearby Preah Vihear Temple on top of a mountain, and prepared for the final few days of my ride across Cambodia.


I thought I would cover the remaining days of the ride around Cambodia during this post, but I think this is enough excitement for one blog post. Stay tuned to hear of my exploits in Northern Cambodia, my breathtaking visit to Banteay Chhmar, and my victorious return to my Cambodian hometown: Battambang.

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Cycling Cambodia: A Bike Ride through Northern Cambodia with a few hilarious travel stories thrown into the mix from Into Foreign Lands