In early 2015 Neil Petersen and his friend Neil Whitehead travelled to Southeast Asia where they had the opportunity to leave their ‘real world’ for a few weeks and enjoy their true passions in life - taking photographs and riding motorcycles. Their trip started with a flight to Bangkok and then a short flight to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. From Chiang Mai they travelled into and through Laos and then into Cambodia.
We were delighted that they chose to join us on our Cambodia Dirt Bike Adventure where we explored the jungles and ancient temples of this fascinating country.
Here is Neil Petersen’s fantastic blog about their big Cambodian adventure and you can read more about their southeast Asia trip on his website – www.dotpix.co.uk
When we left the UK we had decided that we would include Cambodia in our trip. We had been doing some research into renting bikes, insurance and trails and quickly came to the conclusion that it wasn't going to be as easy as Thailand.
We found a company called The Big Adventure Company that run tours across the country for two weeks so we decided to get in touch. They had two places left on their upcoming tour, starting on the 31st of Jan which was perfect for us so we signed up. We found out there were already 6 people booked on the trip. Apprehensive about the levels of the riders, we expressed our concerns (fears) and found that there would be all abilities on the tour ranging from someone who had never ridden off road before to a former British Superbike Champion.
On arrival in Cambodia we were collected from the airport at Phnom Penh and jumped into a minivan heading for the hotel. Pulling out from the airport car park onto the main road I remembered they drive on the right in Cambodia compared to Thailand who drive on the left (the right side). The roads were busy, congested and there were a lot more cars than I remember from when I was last here.
Since 2008 it appears the country or at least Phnom Penh had moved on dramatically. There were lots of cars and pickups which were previously unseen, businesses seemed to fill the streets and there seems to be a real sense of opportunity. I don't know what has happened but this isn't the place I remembered.
We arrived at the hotel and met with the guys who we would be spending the next two weeks with. We jumped into a Tuk Tuk and headed out to the FCC Hotel for dinner and a few beers.
The next day some people had a rest in the sunshine around the pool and others decided to head out to the Killing fields and S21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. These are still the main tourist attractions in Phnom Penh and left as a constant reminder of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge Killings in the 1970's where it is estimated up to 3 million people lost their lives. Later that day when people returned we had a few more beers discussing the harrowing attractions and we were briefed on the days ahead. The bikes were delivered and we were asked to check over them for any damage.
We were introduced to the support team - Leng who would be heading up the riding along with Tony the mechanic, Chea a support rider and Tim who would be driving the support truck with our luggage, spare parts, drinks and a spare bike.
The next morning people started to get their gear together, it was 7:15am and the temperature was beginning to rise. With the bikes all lined up outside the hotel we had a quick reminder of the marking system we would be using. This is to allow the group to flow and so we wouldn't have to stop at every corner to make sure everyone was still with us. Simply a marker is told to wait on a corner and send everyone in the correct direction. Once the last man is through they head off, so you end up leap frogging everyone and it allows a continuous ride. With all the excitement I managed to forget to start my GoPro which is a shame as you couldn't appreciate the organised chaos of the Phnom Penh traffic without seeing it firsthand.
We had about 250km to ride that day and our first stop was at a local temple to receive a blessing from a local monk to wish us good luck and safety on our trip. The blessing was chanted at us while being covered in water, we then each received a red cotton bracelet. It turns out that there aren't many religious people amongst us and some would say atheist but so far only one person has been brave enough to take it off.
We continued on our way, at first we were told that the day would mostly be covered on tarmac and road riding. After about 80km of dirt/dusty tracks clearly their ideas of roads were different to mine. We stopped and got some drinks in a village and it became clear that every time we stop we turn into an attraction for the locals, especially the kids. They love the bikes and having a laugh at us in all our gear.
We stopped when we hit the Mekong River to take in some views and ride on the sand alongside the river. This was my first time of riding on real sand, and let’s just say it didn't go too well. It appears the trick is to go for it, being cautious I didn't. The result was me with the rear end of the bike dug into the sand and stuck. Luckily Tony was around to give me a hand dragging the thing out otherwise I could have been there a while.
Continuing through some trees and farm land we took a break. The heat, oh God I wasn't used to anything like this. Sweat was running in my eyes and dripping off the end of my nose. I think I consumed 4 or 5 litres of water that day along with rehydration salts to try and keep myself going.
Carrying on, we came to a river that we need to cross. We were paddled across by a lady and a boy who could have only been about 7 or 8. It was the real sense of adventure that we had been hoping for. We arrived in Snuol where we would be spending our first night. Around 11 hours on the road including stops, we had covered 259km. It felt like quite an achievement.
The following morning we had breakfast and left Snuol at 7:30am, heading along the road for about 15 minutes we filled the bikes with petrol before heading off road towards Chumni stopping at a local village along the way. Village life seems so simple for the rural Cambodians – there are buffalo, pigs, chickens and lots of dogs wondering around. We left the village and headed off, I went first to grab a few shots of the guys on their way.
As I was now behind, I decided to try and pick up the pace, I caught the group and passed a couple of riders at the back. Brimming with confidence, happily riding along I hit a bit of soft ground and lost control. You could say a tumble in the jungle!
The bike and I were fine, the peg was bent along with the gear selector but Chea kindly fixed this with the use of one of the rocks that had just been introduced to my leg. Once we hit the road again we stopped for a drink and came across two German cyclists that have been on the road for 11 months travelling all the way through Iran and China. We offered them a drink and had a quick chat. How anyone can be on the road for that long I don't know let alone on a push bike.
On route back we headed to Bousra waterfall. Travelling through Asia you see quite a few of these and only a few are worth the visit, but I'm pleased to say this was one of them. It had three levels to it. We rode through the top level, some more successful than others. Tony the mechanic took a tumble and ended up in the water with Leng around to finish him off. After we went down to the middle level of the waterfall we got out of our bike gear and headed for the water to cool off after a day’s riding. We left the waterfall and headed to the local runway. The guys decided to have a drag race, I saved the probable embarrassment of running at the back by taking some photos.
There was a view point about 2km down the road so we headed there for the sunset. It was then time to head to the hotel in Sen Monorom, we had some dinner in a local restaurant and went back to the hotel where we sat around a fire and had a few beers.
We covered 240km in around 9 hours including the stops.
The next morning we woke up at Sen Monorom and spent the day travelling to Banlng. We left the hotel and hit the road. It had become a tradition for me now that every time we rode out of a hotel or set off for the day I would give Scouse a rendition of Canned Heat's on the road again over the scala, I think he secretly liked it and by this time we was beginning to join in.
We rode for about 15km and filled up the bikes before setting off road. After having the fall the previous day my confidence was a bit shot and it took me a while to get into things. We road some quite challenging single track roads and already I was dripping with sweat. I had managed to get back into the old habit of holding on for dear life and becoming tense on the bike, this isn't good. It drains you of energy so quickly and doesn't really make riding enjoyable.
We stopped after a while, parked up the bikes and filled up our camel packs with water and some (myself included) took Royal D (an electrolyte drink) to try and get some energy back. We again left the road and headed onto dirt trails. The first section was very heavily rutted and due to the changing routes there was a slight confusion if we were actually on the right path so we doubled back and confirmed this before heading off again. The ruts quickly disappeared and we rode a long section of forest/jungle. These parts are used by loggers, some legal and some not. As we were riding though we found there was a lot of controlled burning which seems to be the case in the whole country at the moment.
Tony had to quickly make a repair to a broken side stand spring, this involved the use of the trusty cable/zip tie until it was replaced. The XR250 doesn't have a cut out switch on the stand so it's more of a safety issue as it would be very easy to catch a broken one on a tree root or rocks.
We set off again for about 10km, but this time the ground was different. This was my first introduction to long stretches of sand, some of which was deep. At first it was terrifying as the front of the bike seemed to have a mind of it’s own and leaving me feeling like I had no control over the bike. With the recent memory of my fall from the previous day I was hesitant and tense. After a while I seemed to get into the swing of things and managed to get through it, accelerating over small ditches and ruts seemed to be the way to go rather than going around them.
We stopped for lunch and to be totally honest I was done for the day. Shattered and there was about another 40/50km of off road to cover in the itinerary. We had a chat with Nick and Leng (the guides) and as I had my GPS on me we decided that there was an option of taking the red dirt road back to Banlung with the support truck following us just in case of any problems with the bikes (he was going that way). We put the option out there and 3 of us decided to take it and try and get to the hotel early for a well deserved beer while the others continued.
We arrived in Banlung at Terres Rouges and immediately got out of my boots. I had a problem with my feet as my boots had got wet at the waterfall the previous evening and didn't have a chance to dry. So I had spent 8 hours in wet boots and it looked like I had trench foot and felt like I was stepping on hot coals with every step I took. I washed them and used some athletes foot powder to help dry them out while I sat in the bar uploading a few of the previous days photos to Facebook.
We had been promised that Terres Rouges cooked an amazing steak (best news ever at this point as I haven't had a decent steak since leaving England). With the very welcomed news of a rest day the following day a good few beers were consumed that evening sitting around talking about the day’s events.
Waking up at Terres Rouges in Banlung we had a very welcomed rest day ahead. I spent the morning writing a blog post just chilling out while others went for a walk or simply chilled by the pool. In the afternoon we had been told about Yeak Loam Lake, a volcanic lake that we could take a ride to for a swim so we headed out about 2pm. It took a whole minute before Phil was in there quickly followed by others (myself included). Brendan even had his snorkel with him to go exploring. Next to the jetty on the lake was this stupidly tall tree. Someone had noticed that there was bamboo nailed to the side of the tree to fashion a ladder of some description and to say it didn't look very safe was an understatement. There's an old saying that goes "Give a man a beer and he'll make empty threats about jumping out of a tree. Give two Cambodian boys $10 and they'll actually do it."
A rat up a drain pipe comes to mind but these boys would have left any rat behind in a race. They were up the top of the tree within seconds and the next thing you know they are walking along the branches to reach a "safe" spot to jump from. After the excitement of the boys jumping from the tree we sat about for a bit taking in the view.
On this day we covered about 5km in about 16 hours.
When we woke up the following morning I wasn't feeling well, I won't go into details but I asked Nick our host about the day ahead and the photo opportunities that we might come across. His response was "There's nothing to take pictures of". This was a terrible lie and unfortunately I didn't take my camera with me that day and the phrase became a running joke for the rest of the trip.
We visited an ancient burial ground, rode through numerous villages, went over an epic river crossing, farm lands, passed fisherman, wildlife and one of the best sunsets we've seen so not much to take photos of really.
Later that night after dinner we could hear music being played. It turns out there was a pop concert going on with hundreds of teenagers/adults enjoying the music. We paid £2.50 each to get in. Along with the music there was rigged carnival games such as shooting teddies off a shelf with a pop gun but the bears had clearly been nailed down after 3 direct hits from Nick the thing still didn't budge. Popping balloons with darts was a favourite only to see the darts come bouncing back towards you.
We covered 200km in around 9 hours 40 minutes travelling from Banlung to Stung Treng, this included stops.
The following day we woke up and went for breakfast at around 7:30am. Well if you can call it breakfast, cold omelette and a dry baguette with no butter or jam really sets you up for a hard days riding. Stung Treng is situated next to the Mekong so I had 'breakfast' and headed over to take a quick look. The town is busy and the locals took a keen interested in us gathered while the bikes were filled with petrol.
We then headed to our first stop of the day to go river dolphin watching. We arrived at Preah Rumkel and had made a joke with Nick that we'd get our money back if we didn't see a dolphin but that deal was quickly off after spotting a couple just swimming in front of us.
The local children seemed to be having a great time out on the boats collecting fish that had been caught. Some fish all by themselves. This little girl was very pleased with her catch, while what could have been her brother seemed more interested with rolling an old tyre up a hill, his xbox must have been broken. All the children seemed to have a role, fisherman/woman, chef, dish washer or just general tyre kicker.
We headed out on two boats to try and get closer to the dolphins and a couple of the guys took a swim. Brendan again bringing the snorkel along for a quick look around.
We stopped off at a village in Preah Vihear for lunch. The trails were quickly becoming unexplored as Nick and Leng had swapped the route about a bit to try and get us in early that night.
As the guys stopped for a break in the shade I went ahead to take some pictures of the guys riding past when I came across a fisherman and his wife. I must have looked like something out of ‘Back To The Future’ with my body armour, helmet and boots etc. We had a very brief conversation through the use of hand gestures where he asked if I had a lighter, but unfortunately I couldn't provide one. I had a look at his catch and he had around 50-100 what we know as Roach which is a small silver coarse fish we get in the UK.
After the photos I continued with Chea to catch up with everyone and found Scouse on the side of the trail with a broken clutch lever. Tony and Chea quickly replaced this and we were all back together within no time.
The trail was amazing, over fields, forests, fast sections, light sand, dirt, ruts. It had everything and I was totally pumped from the riding, screaming "That is awesome!!!" as I met up with a few of the guys.
We were now at a decision point in the day where we could take the easy option of red dirt and tarmac back to the hotel or continue off road. I enquired about the trail ahead and was told by Leng that it was the same as what we had just rode. As everything had gone so well in the morning I chose the off road route as did everyone else "cough" "cough".
"Leng in the nicest possible way..... " and the rest of that quote is censored. But let’s just say we might as well brought a bucket and spade with us for the afternoon. Sand after sand after sand and yet more deep sand. The more experienced guys were coping well and quickly moved on. For the less experienced of us I think I can safely say the pace was slow. I dropped the bike 3 times and on one of them losing my starter button so had to improvise with a starter stick which I managed to keep for the remainder of the trip. This was my lowest point out of the whole trip. If someone could had offered me a lift out to the hotel I would have seriously considered it, but we all carried on and got to the next village where we sat done and had a well deserved rest for 10 minutes.
There was pigs freely roaming the village and for some reason there were a lot of bikes parts littering the floor. Playing guess the part (C90 gear level, some form of chain, chain tensioner, etc, etc) and talking about opening up a scrap yard with the parts we were told we needed to move on as it was getting late in the day.
I'm not going to go into too much detail about the remainder of the day. I think it can be summed up by three things.
116km of road.
60km in the dark.
Not a happy bunch.
After the previous days endurance event some of us decided to take the easier option and ride on the road while 3 of the guys took the off road route. We had an hour or so in the morning of taking in the sites at the Koh Kehr temple complex. Chea was an excellent tour guide proving us with information as we went around. The temple took over 20 years to build and was somewhere round 9,000 years old.
There was a bee's nest on the ceiling of one of the buildings which was quite a fright for Phil as he is allergic to stings and carries an Epi Pen with him in case of emergencies. We had previously agreed that I would be the one to use this on him should anything happen and became a running joke of me trying to use this at any available opportunity. I did promise to switch my GoPro on as it would have made excellent footage but fortunately (unfortunately) we never needed to.
After we had taken the road and stopped for lunch we headed to Prasat Preah Vihear and the temples.
On this day we travelled 178km in 9 hours and spent the night in Sra Aem.
The next day I decided again not to take my camera with me that day. As the weight of the pack was having an impact on my riding, I was tired and just wanted to enjoy the riding. In the morning we awoke in Sae Aem, had a day of riding ahead of us so after breakfast hit the road. We had an excellent mornings riding, some of the best I've personally done. I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed it and it really made my trip.
Everything was going so well (BC - Before Crash). But this was before we lost a man. Phil unfortunately took a tumble and injured his shoulder and could no longer ride (this point forward would be known as AC - After Crash). He had to leave his bike where it was and ride pillion until the next village. There was talk amongst the group as to what injuries he could have sustained and debated if it was beneficial to take his shoulder out of joint and put it back in as he had little movement in it but it was not obviously broken. The theory was it may have popped out and caught a tendon on the way back in during the crash. To Phil's relief this was decided against and that it would be better to get him out of there and to a hospital. Daniel took his bike with Tony also to the next village where Leng had arranged for a local to ride this the next 10km to the nearest town where we could arrange to have this transported out of there.
While we waited for the logistics of getting Phil to hospital we sat around in this village. There were lots of children and adults gathered around us just staring at us. For some reason I decided the best way to break the silence was to burst out into the song. The song of choice was Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On, this was a favourite at a karaoke bar visit during the tour and just seemed to work. The next thing you know there are 8 blokes singing full voice to these villagers. They must have thought we was complete loons but found it hilarious and it really was a highlight of the trip and lightened the mood amongst the group.
Phil was then taken by Chea along about 10km of sand and dirt to the nearest town. When we got there Phil was already there sitting with a beer waiting for his taxi to take him the 200km to Siem Reap where he could see a doctor and find out what he had actually done. After two hospital visits it turned out that it was more of a strain and ligament damage and the cure would be rest so Phil would unfortunately miss out on the last day but we would all be meeting up at him at the hotel. An injury like this really puts it into perspective, what we were doing was quite dangerous but you tend to forget that. I know my pace for the rest of the day stepped down a notch or two.
After lunch and saying goodbye to Phil we rode the rest of the afternoon heading for Preah Khan where we had a look around the temple.
That night we had a home stay (sleeping in someone’s house) scheduled and would be staying in a village. When we got there asking where the shower was we were pointed in the direction of a large water container with scoops to simply pour over ourselves. I personally think this is one of the best showers I've had on the trip and was a great experience until Brendan decided to get back to nature and show the world what he was really made of.
The sleeping arrangement was 10 men in a room sleeping on bamboo slated beds with no mattresses. Let’s just say it wasn't the most comfortable night’s sleep. Before going to bed I got out to take some pictures of the stars. As there was no light pollution the view was amazing. At 4:39am I tried to get into the support truck to get away from the 5 people who were simultaneously snoring, but unfortunately it was locked so I had to get back to bed and suffer in silence (until the morning when I let everyone know about it). It turned out I wasn't the only one with most people reporting they had been up in the night wondering around.
We covered 160km that day in 8 and a half hours including stops.
The following morning we woke up at the homestay (some had been awake for hours already) and went for breakfast. After breakfast we headed back to Preah Khan to take some group photos in the morning light. We then left the temple and headed on our route. We stopped at a 1000 year old bridge that Chea and Leng had been keen to show us.
Continuing our ride some of the guys decided to have a play about on a jump so I grabbed my camera and took some photos for them. I just wish someone could have taken pictures of me and my superman extensions.
Chea lost a dollar to Leng that day by dropping his bike. This was Leng's standard fine for a crash or drop or just looking at him the wrong way. We came across some buffalo and I was keen to stop and grab a couple of pictures as I had missed out on the opportunity on other days where I had not brought my camera. Even better than the Buffalo were the local fishermen, wading in a lake and casting big nets out across the water to catch the fish when they spotted them moving.
We stopped for lunch and discussed Leng's "sting in the tale". On previous trips this section of the trip was very deep with water, however I'm slightly relieved to say that it was pretty dry and although there was still water we managed to keep all the bikes going and didn't lose any at the bottom which had happened on previous trips. The next highlight was a wonky bridge which some rode over while others took a river crossing.
At the end of the afternoon’s riding we came into Siem Reap and to our hotel where Phil was waiting for us with open arms. Actually that’s a complete lie, he was sitting by the pool with a beer but he did bother to come out and congratulate everyone for completing the ride.
The final day consisted of 120km in 6 hours.