April 8, 2003

Road Trip, Cambodian style

Downhill Moto Driving
Greetings from Cambodia!

I know it hasn't been very long since I last wrote, but I've been busy traveling this last week so I'm writing again already.

Tuesday morning after I last wrote I got up very early and was on the road to Mondulkiri with Hernan, Braden and Johanna shortly after 5 am. Braden and Johanna are living and working in the province of Mondulkiri with Adventist Frontier Missions. They are currently learning the language and culture of the ethnic Phnong hill tribe people. Hernan is a civil engineer who is working at the Adventist mission office in Phnom Penh while his wife Carina is working at the Adventist school here. Originally Carina was also planning to travel with us, but they just found out that she is pregnant and they decided this trip would be a bit too rough, especially since she has been feeling extra tired lately. Anyway, Hernan and I caught a ride with Braden and Johanna as they were returning home from a visit to Phnom Penh. Thanks to the early start and some recent improvements to the bridges and road, we arrived in Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri Province, early in the afternoon. The drive up was uneventful, although we enjoyed some nice scenery along the way. We saw lots of birds and even spotted a wild monkey as well. It actually rained during the night before we traveled and a little bit more during the day, so we enjoyed the lack of dust on the roads. It is pretty unusual to get rain here at this time of year, in fact last year we didn't get any at all until several months after I arrived.

After getting settled in at Braden and Johanna's house we took a walk to the local market. Since Sen Monorom is situated at a higher elevation they have a few things that are not found in other parts of Cambodia, including avocados. Luckily for us, the avocados were just coming into season when we arrive so we picked up several kilos. They say that the price is still high because the season is just starting, but we were pretty happy to pay 50 cents US per kilo (around 25 cents per pound). After playing a couple of games and eating a kilo or two of avocados we all went to bed early since we were tired from the trip. The higher elevation in Mondulkiri also keeps the temperatures a bit lower than in Phnom Penh, so it was a pleasant change to sleep comfortably without a fan.

Jungle Stream Crossing
On Wednesday Braden and Johanna were busy with their work, but Hernan and I decided to explore the surrounding hills on a small (100cc) motorbike. We started out with a general idea of where a waterfall might be located (the one I visited several months ago by elephant) and somehow managed to drive right to it after taking several nearly random turns. We drove for nearly an hour and didn't see any other vehicles the whole time, either on the main road or on the smaller tracks we followed across the rolling green hills. We arrived at the waterfall just in time to chat with a couple of tourists from Canada before watching them climb aboard their elephant for the trek back to the Phnong village they had ridden from. The village is actually one that Braden and Johanna have become quite familiar with in the last few months as they have spent time getting to know the villagers and studying their language. The road we used to reach the waterfall was little more than a seldom used track, but we managed to find an even less used single track foot path for the trip back to the main road. The narrow trail got pretty steep at times and when I had trouble pushing the foot break (it kept hitting the ground due to the steepness of the slope) Hernan decided to get off and walk for the steepest part. At the bottom of the hill we came to a small river and eventually found a good place to cross with the motorbike. However, we could hear a slight roar like rapids so decided to explore downstream a little bit before crossing. The jungle growth was pretty thick but we managed to squeeze under and through the grass, trees and vines to finally emerge at the base of an absolutely amazing waterfall.
Hidden Waterfall
Judging from the complete lack of trash and nearly undetectable path through the undergrowth I don't think many people had been to this waterfall before. It was situated in a sort of semicircular cove with steep cliffs, banks and trees forming the semi circle. At the bottom was a perfect swimming hole with several separate streams of water cascading down from the cliff above. This time of year is dry season, so I'm sure the water volume is much higher when the rains come, but the water flow was just right for sitting in the natural pneumatic massage chair for a little hydrotherapy. After spending some time playing in the waterfall we hiked back to our motorbike, crossed the stream and rejoined the main road to town (which also is dirt, there aren't any paved roads in Mondulkiri). By this time it was early afternoon so since we still had time for more exploring we took another small path and eventually wound our way back to town the long way, which included a brief stop in a Phnong village and another stream crossing.
Another Crossing
After a quick stop to refill our water bottles we drove to another nearby waterfall before taking another scenic route back to town where Johanna had prepared an excellent supper for us featuring a huge bowl of guacamole. After supper we played some games before heading to bed.

Thursday morning we got up early and walked over to the taxi area near the market to find out if any trucks were headed out towards Ratanakiri Province. We had read a couple of reports from other travelers and talked to numerous people around town but kept getting conflicting reports about whether or not we could travel by anything other than a motorbike taxi on this route. The moto drivers started at $50 per bike for the entire 8-10 hour run to Banlung (the capital of Ratanakiri Province) and lowered the price to $40 the next day without us even asking about it. However, we were hoping to try something different and possibly cheaper. Options we had heard mentioned included truck, elephant, ox cart, motorbike and of course foot. On Wednesday we were told a pickup truck was going but that another one wouldn't be going for 4-5 days at least. Thursday morning however, we arranged to ride on the back of a very large military style truck designed for hauling heavy loads on bad or non existent roads. Luckily for us the main thing they were hauling this day was palm roof thatching so we had a nice soft seating area which we shared with several other passengers. We were told the truck would take us half way to Ratanakiri, to the town of Koh Nhaek. They said that it would take around 6-7 hours, long enough that we would probably need to spend the night in Koh Nhaek. The price was right though at $2.50 per person for what turned out to be a trip of around 9 hours.

Our "Taxi"
The road lived up to it's reputation with plenty of rocks, broken bridges (we drove through the nearly dry riverbeds) and very limited roadside population. There were several stretches where we didn't see any houses or signs of people for a couple of hours at a time. We could always tell when we were nearing a settlement though because the trees would be clear cut along the road and there would be signs of burning as well. We met one or two other large trucks along the way and saw several motorbikes traveling in each direction as well, but traffic was pretty scarce. We had a couple of stops in very small villages where you could get a little rice and something to drink if you wanted. One of the villages about 2 hours from Sen Monorom was called Putrea and had a Muslim population with residents originally from Kompong Cham (a town a couple of hours from Phnom Penh). Along the way it didn't seem like the village kids had seen many foreigners since not many yelled out hello, some seemed scared of us and when I took out my camera they didn't run away like they often do in other areas.

The first part of the trip was hilly as we descended from the higher elevation of Mondulkiri and then we drove through long stretches of forest before coming out into rice paddy lands about an hour or so before reaching Koh Nhaek. I'm hesitant to really call Koh Nhaek a town, since it basically consists of one intersection with a few houses. They do have a generator hooked up to most of the houses though so they have electricity at night. There are no actual guesthouses, but we were pointed to a house behind one of the restaurants where we were provided with sleeping mats, pillows and new looking blankets on the balcony area. We brought our own mosquito net and mat, but only ended up using the net since mats were provided. There was some food available, although we brought our own so didn't try the restaurant this time. The weather was pretty warm but we eventually cooled down after a pour shower using the hand pump well located 5 minutes or so by foot down the road from our sleeping accommodations. The floor and thin mat were pretty hard, but I still slept fairly well, only waking up to shift positions a few times once I cooled off enough to sleep.

When we first arrived we started asking around about transportation onwards for the next day. Earlier we had heard rumors that the next leg of the trip could be done by boat, but there were no signs of a river anywhere near town. It seams that the boat option may in fact be possible in the rainy season, but things were quite dry and dusty this time of year and there wasn't enough water in any of the streams to make them even close to navigable. After double checking that nobody knew of any elephants, vehicles or boats that could make the trip we began negotiating with a couple of moto drivers who were willing to do it. After some discussion amongst the gathered villagers, they offered to do the 3 hour trip for $20 per motor bike. We didn't agree right away and after supper the moto drivers came to see us at our "guesthouse" and agreed to take us to the Sre Pok river ferry crossing for $35 for the two bikes. They said the trip would take 3-4 hours and we agreed to leave early the next morning.

National Road 7
Friday morning we gave our hosts the expected amount of $1.25 per person for the lodging and were off bright and early on what we had heard would be the worst stretch of road on the trip. The rumors proved to be true, although I must say that my moto driver (Pheng, in case you ever want to travel this route) was obviously very experienced and did a superb job. There were many steep stretches and stream crossings that most drivers wouldn't have been able to tackle with two people on a 90cc "Super Cub". I only had to get off and walk one time on the entire trip, and that was for an extra steep and rocky hill without a smooth approach. Pheng also did a good job of riding through sand (of which there was plenty) without slowing to a crawl or losing his balance. Hernan's moto driver didn't do quite as well, although he managed to avoid any actual falls. Hernan did get off and walk at most of the riverbeds and even jumped off in the sand a time or two I think.

The road itself shouldn't really be referred to as a road since in some places we were literally just driving along a foot path in rice paddies with the little dykes between fields serving as speed bumps. There were also lots of different paths and tracks that one could take so I was glad that our moto drivers knew where we were going. I can see how this "road" would be nearly impossible in the rainy season since much of it would in fact be underwater. Traffic along the way consisted of about 2 other motorbikes (spotted in settlement areas) and a couple of ox carts. Right at the end of the trip we also met an old jeep, but I doubt it was headed for Koh Nhaek. Although the road was pretty terrible, I wouldn't rule out the possibility that a vehicle could make it through, especially if you don't mind working on the road a little along the way. In fact, there was a large army style truck (like we had ridden on the day before) parked near the ferry crossing when we arrived and we were told that it was going to try the road to Koh Nhaek the next day. I didn't see any fresh vehicle tracks along the way though so I don't think anyone is making this run frequently.

National Road 7 continues...
The amount of birdlife we saw along the way was phenomenal and I'm sure I would appreciate it even more if I was a bird watcher. I only knew enough to identify 3 woodpeckers (all on one tree) and several storks at a watering hole. We saw many, many other birds as well including one very large eagle or hawk of some sort.

Surprisingly the trip from Koh Nhaek to the Sre Pok River really did take only 3 hours (one comes to expect longer travel times than people tell you in Cambodia). At the river a small ferry capable of taking motorbikes and passengers was waiting for us and we agreed to the price of $1.25 for the two of us to cross, although we didn't try to barter very hard. The Sre Pok river flows into Cambodia from Vietnam and I'm pretty sure it is the one referred to in the movie Apocalypse Now. Even though it was the middle of the dry season when we crossed, the river still had a good amount of water in it although some rocks downstream made it look like longer distance boat travel might be a bit difficult this time of year.

On the other side of the river there were only a couple of houses, but we found one of them with a motorbike and driver willing to take us the few kilometers to the town of Lumphat for $1 (the two of us joined the driver on the one motorbike for this short trip). We were hoping to find a taxi and market area in what we thought was the bigger town of Lumphat, but it turned out that when we arrived at around 10 am there were no vehicles going onwards to Banlung. The "big" town of Lumphat turned out to be pretty small with several shops and a restaurant making up the central market. We decided to upgrade to the relative luxury of two motorbikes for the trip onwards to Banlung and eventually the two drivers agreed to do the 3 hour trip for $4.50 per motorbike. We had some mechanical trouble on one of the bikes, but after a break to work on it we were off and made pretty good time on the nice smooth, graded road which looked like a superhighway compared to the other roads we had been on that day.

Ratanakiri: Crater Lake in the Evening
We got in to Banlung early enough to spend several hours relaxing in the crystal clear waters of the crater lake a couple of kilometers out of town after finding a good guesthouse and some lunch. For supper we enjoyed some more avocados before going to sleep on soft beds with a much appreciated fan blowing all night long.

Saturday morning we tried to get in touch with some church people, but didn't get through so we decided to explore the area on a motorbike that we borrowed from our guesthouse. We drove to three different waterfalls, all of which were very nice. We didn't see many other people and had all three waterfalls to ourselves. We also drove several kilometers on a road through the hills and rubber plantations before eventually coming back to town to pick up some food (including more avocados). We took our food out to the crater lake where we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing in the clear cool water. The lake was definitely the highlight of Ratanakiri Province for us. It is deep enough that the water stays clear and cool, both of which are uncommon for bodies of water in Cambodia. The lake is a protected area and efforts have been made to minimize the litter and keep things looking nice. They have a couple of wooden docks which made excellent spaning platforms and provided easy access to the water. By the time we left the lake in the evening we had it completely to ourselves with nothing but jungle sounds to break the silence.

While at the lake we also met up with our friends from the mission who traveled on the same road we took between Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri on Friday using their own 250cc bikes. They took around 10-11 hours for the whole trip, but it sounded like the worst stretch took them about the same amount of time as it took us with our moto taxis. We met up with them just in time to watch a couple of baptisms of people who have been studying for a couple of years with the global mission pioneers. Most of the 15 or so baptismal candidates in this group were from the same hill tribe group and were related to one of the pioneers who was converted himself a few years ago. It was nice to join one of the church groups for at least a little while on Sabbath.

Saturday night we ate at the "American Restaurant" that didn't have much in the way of American food. I ordered something labeled as a pizza calzone with no cheese which reminded me more of Indian food than anything else. It rained again in the evening as well, which was very nice because it reduced the dust and lowered the temperature enough to make the evening considerably more pleasant.

We decided that we had seen enough of Ratanakiri Province on Friday and Saturday so Sunday morning we headed to the taxi station to look for a ride back towards Phnom Penh. I think the fact that any additional touring would require more time on a motorbike affected the decision a bit too. By this time we had a few sore spots from too many hours on motorbikes and didn't really feel like sitting one anymore. Hernan certainly didn't mind the idea of getting back to his wife a bit earlier than expected either. Anyway, after asking around a little we were told that no taxis go directly to Phnom Penh so we figured we would overnight in the town of Kratie and maybe see the freshwater dolphins that live in the Mekong River near there. I had been to Kratie before so could take it or leave it on this trip, so when a taxi appeared that was going all the way to Phnom Penh in "10-12 hours" we decided to take it. I guess the one good thing about the taxi was that it had good suspension. On the other hand it was having engine trouble and Hernan (who is taller than me) and I ended up sharing the backseat of the Camry with a family of 4. Cambodian taxis usually have 4 passengers in the back and 3 in the front plus the driver, but kids ride free and sit more or less on their parents laps. These kids weren't all that small either though (the boy was probably 9-10, the girl maybe 5-6 years old) so things were pretty tight. The road was good for the first few hours, then turned into a horrible mess of former pavement with too many holes and craters to be considered pavement any longer. This lasted for the next 6 hours.
Dying Taxi
Along the way we had a few rest stops, some longer than others as our driver kept tweaking things with the car. He cleaned the spark plugs at one stop and we had another sudden stop to repair a broken fuel line. The car finally died and refused to start a few kilometers outside the town of Kratie so a passing vehicle gave us a tow to a mechanics shop in town. After trying a couple of quick fix ideas, our driver finally gave up and arranged for another car (and driver) to take all of us passengers onwards to Phnom Penh for the remaining 5-6 hour segment of the trip. By the time we got back on the road it was nearly 7 pm and after a couple stops to change tires (one was rubbing the wheel well, then another one went flat later on) we finally arrived in Phnom Penh well after midnight and I took a much needed shower before falling asleep in my own bed. The trip ended up taking about 16.5 hours and each of the 7 passengers paid $20. We covered a distance of about 630 km (just under 400 miles) from Banlung to Phnom Penh and had the option of taking a plane instead ($55 one way, around an hour). The trip certainly wouldn't have been nearly as interesting by plane though!

Since I got back to Phnom Penh early I've been getting some things done in the office. I've also been getting the last details of our upcoming Vietnam trip worked out and also found some time to write this update. Tonight we're planning to make up a big batch of guacamole using several kilos of avocados that somehow survived the taxi ride down here from Ratanakiri. For those of you who have asked, yes we know about SARS and have been keeping an eye on the situation. At the moment WHO is only advising against unnecessary travel to Hong Kong and China and the situation in Vietnam looks pretty good. I'll certainly be checking the latest reports over the next few days. My next update email will probably be from somewhere in Vietnam since I'm planning to head that direction on Friday. A few of the "maybes" on the Vietnam trip have decided not to go so it looks like we'll just have a group of 4 volunteers traveling together with 1 person coming back early since he has to get back to work sooner than the rest of us. It should be pretty fun and I'm definitely looking forward to visiting a couple of new countries!

Right now everyone in Cambodia is gearing up for the Khmer New Year holidays which officially start next week. In the evenings people are playing different types of group games in the streets and our office staff even played one this morning before work. I'm sure the water and powder throwing will start up soon as well. The water part actually sounds pretty nice right now since we definitely have been "enjoying" the hot season again with rising temperatures over the last few days. The nights have been noticeably warmer too lately with lows in the upper 80s.

Well, that's about it from here for now so I'll close and send this.

Until next time,


For more pictures from this trip see my Sen Monorom to Banlung photo album.

Posted by andrew on April 8, 2003

My name is Braden, AND MY NAME IS JOHANNA. We noticed that we have the same names as you AND SIMILAR INTERESTS! Write us back if you have a moment!

Johanna and Braden

Posted by: Braden on November 18, 2004
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