So for Christmas, in addition to my epic Vietnamese motorcycle lego, Athena found and planned a 4-day dirt bike trip through the jungles of Cambodia outside Siem Reap. So naturally it was a countdown until I got to get out and ride some motorbikes! When the day finally came it was weird saying goodbye to Athena for 4 whole days since this would be the first time we’d been apart, pretty much at all for the last 3 months! We got breakfast and I was sent on my way in a Tuk Tuk to find the office for Kickstart Cambodia. When I got there I saw the bikes prepped out front. Two Wr250fs ready to play in the jungle. I met the co-owners, Dave and La. Dave is from the U.K., but has lived the last 15 years in Cambodia riding dirt bikes. Unfortunately he broke his wrist a few weeks ago and was on desk duty. This meant La would be my guide on our two-man trip through Cambodia. Originally from Kampong Cham he’s also been riding dirt bikes around Cambodia for more than 15 years and any kind of smaller motorbike he could get his hands on since he was a kid. After paying the difference still owed and suiting up in the most stylish of dirt bike gear, we were off through the streets of Siem Reap, and before you knew it out in red dirt roads leading into the countryside.
So I think this is a good time to mention my dirtbiking experience. While I would consider myself a more than proficient motorcyclist on the street, my cumulative dirt experience sums up to a total of about 3 days. Sure I’ve been on some fire roads and am familiar with what it feels like when you loose the back end, but this would be my first real attempt at single track riding. So needless to say I was a little bit nervous. But it really wasn’t all too bad. While being on a tour by myself is less fun in the evenings, it means the speed and terrain can be tailored to what I’m comfortable with. While there were only a few last minute saves for the most part I kept up well and by remembering to stay light on the bars and let the bike do what it wanted I was fine. Until the DEEP sand. Leaning back and riding it out worked pretty ok, except if I was too close behind La when there was a patch of sand I wouldn’t be able to see anything and twice my wheel got stuck in a sand rut and I went over. Luckily I fell into deep sand, so nothing hurt. I picked up the bike and she fired right back up.
All day we went back and forth through sections of red dirt roads then double track through the jungle. One of the coolest stops was after a nice tight and sandy section of trail we turned off and La stopped and there was an Angkor era temple in the middle of the jungle. After all the temples of Angkor park it wasn’t particularly fancy but being alone in the middle of the jungle made it extra special. I felt very Indiana Jones exploring the ruins in my dirt bike gear.
Technical in their sandy and twisty aspect the trails in Cambodia are like the rests of Cambodia…FLAT!! Even in the dry season we came across a couple of puddles, which were fun to rooster tail through. La told me how a lot of the trails become practically impassible during the wet season when EVERYTHING turns to mud. While a little mud sounds fun, a lot sounds a bit overwhelming.
One section we were riding along through old fields and being the dry season everything is very brown. Riding through the flat brush with small bushes here and there it looked like it could have been somewhere in Africa. Or at least what I imagine African plains to look like. If only a tiger had jumped out….but I’m really glad it didn’t.
Oh before we left from Kickstart headquarters David mentioned the primary road hazards were chickens, pigs, dogs, and especially cows that like to dart across the road. (I had flashback thoughts for Athena) But the cows are particularly dangerous because farmers like to tie them down to something so they don’t run away, so not only is there a cow to avoid that stupidly ran across the road, but it can be followed by a clothes line of doom with a stake on one end and a steak on the other. Sure enough almost the first trail we came across out of Siem Reap we got a darter. La was up front and luckily swerved around but this gave me enough time to stop and avoid a clothesline of doom. I just chuckled that it happened so immediately after leaving.
By the time we got to “The African planes” it was about 12 and even after drinking the majority of my 3L bladder I was feeling dehydrated and hungry…leading into a headache. My worst nightmare. Luckily we were only about 20 minutes away from our lunch stop. Confidently across from Bean Mealan Temple we stopped at a little roadside restaurant and got some food. Taking my upper layers off and feeding helped tremendously. Since there wasn’t too much technical stuff after lunch, we spent some time just hanging in the hammocks and I went and explored the temple across the road.
Walking around the temple by myself was a really interesting experience. While it was only about 30 minutes of time to myself it was the first real solo experience of the whole trip. Like I said, Athena and I have been in 24/7 constant contact for the last 3 months (with a 2hr break for Christmas shopping) so it was interesting to see what it would be like being alone. And while yeah we separated this morning riding I was A. occupied and B. still with someone, but walking around the temple in silence with my own thoughts was weird. While there are times traveling together the other person can be annoying and you wish you were on your own, this showed me how alone alone can feel. While you’re freer to wander where you want, there’s no one to share your experience with. No one to randomly talk about nothing with, and thus much more time in your own head. In that short 30 minutes, after less than 12 hours away, I realized how much I love having a travel partner. The introspective aspect could be nice but simultaneously so isolating and I’d much rather share my joys and sorrows of the day with my best friend. Plus hey if we can do 3 months of constant travel together marriage will be a breeze right?
After lunch/temple/hammock break I was feeling much better and La asked if I wanted more jungle or just the easy way up so I opted for………more jungle. No surprise. It was fun, but at one point the trail turned to nothing and we were over landing across burnt fields that gave new meaning to the word bumpy. I though my arms might rattle out of their sockets! We found the trail and made our way back to the main road where we rode over to the base of Kulen Mountain. So Cambodia’s not entirely flat. We took the red dirt road that winded up the side of the mountain with a quick break for some photos. It was fun to finally go up something, and fling the back end out every time we came to a turn :).
Our lodging for the night was up on top of the mountain and once it flattened out it is wild how quickly the red dirt road turned into about a foot deep of fine sand. And I think I did pretty well after only a days experience in the sand. Well up until there was a patch I didn’t see up ahead and was too close to La, completely blinding myself in his dust storm and dumping it again. But no shame here. I bushed myself off and was back at it. But even more remarkable than my mediocre sand skills were the people on regular scooters who were also attempting to traverse this road. I was struggling with knobbies and gobs of power so I have no idea how they were making it through other than surfing.
We eventually made it the last 2km to our homestay for the evening and what a cool little place. However much our tiny trip through the villages surrounding Kampong Chhnang felt like “exploring Cambodia” this was a whole n’other experience. The rooms are little bungalows across from the people’s house and the bathroom and shower are just their bathroom and shower. There’s no “government electricity” up here so everything is run off solar. Dinner was served in their outdoor living area, from which you can see the kitchen where everything is made. La and I split a chicken, seasoned to perfection, which was likely one of the ones I had seen running around their property earlier in the day. Sitting down for dinner I learned that La is 35 and has 3 kids. And almost 60% of his take home wages go towards his kids going to an English speaking school so they’ll be better off when they grow up. He’s a cool guy who’s been riding dirt bikes in Cambodia since he could afford one and is living the dream making money doing what he loves. But then again he said in the past 3 weeks he’s only spent one night at home with his family. Definitely not the conventional Cambodian career choice.
After dinner La hit the hay and I stayed up and talked to the owner of the property. His name was pek and the conversation we had will be getting post all of its own. Being on solar, there’s no wifi here so “hey family I hope you’re feeling my good thoughts and safe vibes”. Tomorrow sounds like it’s going to be the most technical and intense day riding real genuine single track back down the mountain! So wish me luck and safe riding!
So day two. We got up and shared a classic Cambodian breakfast of fried noodles. I wasn’t all to hungry but put some down anyways. After saying goodbye to Pek and his family we hit the road. Maybe 100ft down the road we turned off and were immediately on single track that twisted and wound its way through the jungle. The first part was through an orchard that La had warned me had some low branches and he wasn’t kidding!! Luckily the previous night, after almost getting my head ripped off when the antenna style GoPro on top of my helmet caught on a branch, I decided to relocate the GoPro from on top to a chin mount. Now I A. wouldn’t get my head ripped off and B can actually see when I was or wasn’t recording meaning much fewer “is this on?” stops. After the low trees the trail got tighter as it wound its way down the mountain. We pulled off to see “the giant stone elephant”. A feature Pek had told me about discovering the previous night. It as well as the two lions adjacent to it are dated back to 800AD!
After the elephant we were back on more single track which for the first time really felt like exploring the jungle. I felt like a less hot, less cool version of Laura Croft out to find some hidden treasure. Thus tight jungle trail lead us to our best stop, “the bat cave”. This stop, while yes having a cave, which yes did contain bats, was far more interesting due to the commune of Hindu/Buddhist… followers? who maintained it. They all looked like Asian Jesus, with long hair, tendrilly goatees, and all white robes to cover they’re skinny almost emaciated bodies. They were an interesting group for sure living in this small outpost only accessible by single track trail. La had a mean knot in his back from the day before so while I was exploring the cave he got an Asian Jesus to rub it out for him.
After “the bat cave” the trail opened up slightly and turned to slick rock and sand. I was having a blast, popping little jumps over the rocks. And as I’m reving along over these rocks and through some deep sand we came across 3 locals headed the other way on scooters. They were about to go up the single track trail I though I was so cool for doing on my fancy wr250, on a bunch of loaded down scooters with street tires. That was a nice little reality check.
Down at the base of the mountain we stopped at Phnom Kulen Waterfall. I left La up top and climbed down to the bottom. While I probably should have gone for a swim, the though of having to take off all my gear and then put it on again over a wet body didn’t sound awesome. That and I’ve had the privilege to see and swim in many an amazing waterfall so far on my trip.
After taking in the scenery I went back up and La and I got some coconuts to rehydrate. From here it was red dirt roads that switch backed their way down the last bit of mountain to where we stopped for lunch. I realize this sounds like there were a lot of stops and not much riding but there was sure as hell a lot of riding today. At lunch we ate and chilled in hammocks while the woman in the stall adjacent to our eatery aggressively tried to sell me t-shirts. After my first 15 “no thank you”s and a promise that if I was going to buy a shirt I go to her shop, she switched tactics and told me I had to buy something because she hadn’t had any sales all day. To which, I understand the issues associated with being poor in the developing world and trying to make ends meet, but that’s just not how consumer economies work. After our lunch when we got up to leave and I said no one last time I heard her yell something in Khmer, to which La chuckled, shook his head, and put on his helmet.
From lunch it was a bit of a slog. The next hour and a bit were just paved road and dead straight red dirt. But then we turned off into a rubber plantation and at the end of the trees the red dirt road became a red sand road. Having gotten my little bit of practice the day before, and now knowing to leave ample room behind La so I can see, I had a blast in all that sand. It went from intimidating to being like floating on fresh powder. Once you accept all reality that the front end will fly back and forth as it will and you can still maintain a straight course, you enter a world where neither tire has traction and unnerving becomes amazing. Intermixed with little bunny hops here and there it was so much fun to drop a gear and rev the peppy little Yamaha thumper and swing the back end back and forth. Plus hey, after yesterday I knew if you eat it in the sand at least it’s soft. After 30 + minutes in this we stopped for a cold bottle of water and took off my helmet beaming as I could feel the dirt in my teeth from La’s left over dust cloud.
From here it was another straight bit of red dirt road to Along Veng and we were cruising along in 5th gear hauling ass down this road. When we finally got to the hotel I got into my room and straight up collapsed. I was soooooo tired. It had been a long day, in the hot sun, fighting sand, trails, and aggressive saleswomen and I was beat. Setting a time to meet up for dinner I stripped down to my slicks and collapsed into bed.
I ended up being so tired I couldn’t be bothered to write a full description of the next days but here are the highlights.
-saw pol pots gave. Great way to start your day
-mountain climb up to Pol Pots house and grave
-lunch with a mountain view
-lots of miles on pavement and red dirt
-finally get to trails…it’s worth it
-whoops and dust, oh so much dust
-made some kids smile with the classic, twist the throttle
-stopped at a temple with quite a view
-saw a flipped over truck right after it happened
-hotel with “a pool”
-woke up slowly and listened to my book.
-LA’s got a fever but he’s still continuing on!
-stopped for gas and water then about 20 minutes of tarmac
-riding through the jungle for about 1-2hrs hitting sand and twisty roads.
-I feel much more confident and want to go fast but don’t want to push La too much
-after much trail, we hit the red dirt again and made our way about 30 minutes back to where we had lunch the first day
-FAST trails after lunch as my speed and confidence was building
-trails, ruts and red dirt roads all the way to the green fields
-super green fields that were only able to be planted in the dry season
-back to kickstart for a couple of beers and hanging with David and La
It was a truly incredible experience, and one that I know I will never forget. I felt like I got to see much more of the real Cambodia. And having a Cambodian guide meant I ate at all the best locals restaurants and just ate what he did. No fried rice for a whole 4 days! David and La both started early in the dirt bike tour game out of Siem Reap and now there are over 15 different companies offering tours, all at differing prices and more importantly competency of their guides. If you ever head to Cambodia and happen to ride motorbikes, or happen to ride motorbikes and want to travel somewhere cool I highly recommend Kickstart Cambodia! https://www.kickstartcambodia.com/