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 route 7Friday 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 route 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.
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.
For more pictures from this trip see this photo album.Posted by Andrew on April 3, 2003