Phnom Penh to Siem Reap
- 9.5hours riding time (including breakdowns)
Having packed the night before we were up early and ready to leave the hotel before 8am. We again left our larger suitcases with the hotel and made a booking for our return stay (this time watching to make sure it was recorded). It was only a short Tuk-Tuk ride to Red Raid Motorcycles to pick up our bikes but the weather turned on us as we were loading up. It was a typical tropical storm and despite being 30+ degrees it was absolutely pouring down. Not the start we’d wanted today. To make matters worse we’d given our drivers the address we had only to turn up and find it was a private residence not a bike store. It took a bit of asking around to finally figure out that there was 2 of the same house numbers on this street a few blocks apart.
We ran into the Red Raid garage at 8am as arranged, fairly wet but itching to get out of town as soon as possible. Unfortunately there were a couple of groups that had got in there before us so we were in for a bit of a wait. All in all it took an hour before we finally met Bernard (the owner) and got things underway. First impressions weren’t great. Admittedly we’d been spoilt by Jim in Laos but Bernard didn’t seem the least bit interested in talking to us. He claimed the deposit I’d sent a few months before was short about $50 despite having already paid an extra $30 to cover his bank charges. He also insisted on all three of our passports as security instead of just one per group as we’d done in Laos. This was a little concerning as it meant none of us had access to emergency cash or the likes should something go wrong.
While we were sorting this out we were told we’d have to wait a while longer for one of our bikes to be swapped out as they’d found a problem. We’d also only be on Honda XR250’s instead of the 250 Baja’s we’d confirmed with him weeks before. An hour and a half after we arrived at the store we were finally loading up our bikes. Jarrod asked about a set of tools and tyre tubes and Bernard insisted it wouldn’t be needed and just to find a mechanic. Not wanting to waste any more time than we already had we didn’t argue. We went to set off only to find Jarrod’s bike wouldn’t start. The mechanics had to take it onto the road and push start it with the assistance of another guy on a scooter.
As usual it was a bit of a wait for Shaun to strap down his bags but by 10am we were on the road and looking for our way out of town. We didn’t have a GPS this time around so we were reliant on our paper map I’d bought (won) the night before and occasionally Apple Maps on one of the iPhones. The only good thing about it taking so long to get the bikes was that the rain had basically stopped by the time we got moving. The downside was that it was now horribly humid and well over 30 degrees. As we had been warned by Jim, getting out of Phnom Penh was chaos. The roads were packed with bikes and cars and with traffic lights and road works every hundred metres it was really an uncomfortable start to the day. You wanted to lift your visor every time we stopped in traffic because of the heat but the fumes for the traffic made it worse with your visor up then down.
Eventually we hit the edge of the CBD and started our journey up National Highway 6A. What a horrible road that is! The first 200 odd kilometres to Kampong Thom is basically all road works. For the most part there are the battered remains of a single lane bitumen road in the middle and then a 30cm drop off either side to what appears to be the red dirt foundations for a much wider highway (although we saw no real work being done on it anywhere along the road). The lane in the middle is only one car width wide and there’s no designation as to which direction has rights to the use of it. As such its one giant game of chicken where the bigger vehicle ultimately gets right of way and the others must find their way down onto the dirt. In saying that the dirt on either side was often in far better condition than the road itself and as such was often preferred by the many trucks, cars and busses that seemed to believe 80-100km per hour was an appropriate speed for a half built road with no rules. This meant the entire mornings ride was in the thick red dust clouds kicked up by the other road users. This ride was so gruelling that it ultimately took us an hour and thirty minutes just to do the first 30km out of town.
The bikes also didn’t help the situation. The XR250’s we’d been given instead of the Bajas had much narrower seats, no indicators, smaller fuel tanks and headlights that are about as bright as a candle. They’re meant as purely a dirt bike and we had a whole lot of road riding to do on them.
We made it into Kampong Thom for lunch at about 2pm hot, exhausted and covered head to toe in red dust. It was here that we ran into the second issue of our ride. We had stopped on the side of the main road in town to discuss lunch options and settled on going back down the road about a 100m to a restaurant we’d been told did good food. Jarrod and I made it to the car park and started to get our riding gear off but Shaun never arrived. Jarrod wandered back down the street to find that his bike had stopped and would not start again. Despite attempts to kick-start it and roll start it the thing wouldn’t go. The two of them ended up pushing the bike up to the restaurant car park so we could call Bernard for some assistance. We went inside to order some food and get out of the heat and eventually got through to Bernard after calling a few times. He wasn’t a great deal of help and just insisted that there was nothing wrong with the bike and it just needed to be push started. We finished lunch and went back outside to give it a go and on the third or forth attempt at push starting it the engine finally cranked over. It was now 2:30pm and with only 2 and a half hours of daylight left and with 150km to go we were going to struggle to make it before dark.
The landscape changed quite dramatically after lunch. It was your typical Cambodia you see in brochures, movies and on TV. Sprawling rice fields with a scattering of tall palm trees throughout. The houses were also extremely ornate and brightly coloured. Given that the roads had improved massively and with far less traffic we could finally enjoy the scenery while cruising at about 70kmph. Knowing the guys wouldn’t want to stop I wound back on the throttle to try to put a gap between myself and the guys so I could stop and take a couple of pictures without holding them up too much. Eventually I lost sight of them in the distance behind me and continued on for another 15 minutes before stopping.
It wasn’t the ideal spot for photos as I couldn’t find any clear shots of the brightly coloured houses I was looking for but I was starting to worry about how long it had been since I’d seen the boys. I took a couple of shots but it quickly became clear that the boys had to have stopped somewhere. I jumped back on my bike and headed back in the direction I’d just come from. I eventually found Shaun and Jarrod parked off the road under a tree and not looking too happy. Shaun’s bike was dead. It had started to make some really weird noises and then stopped all together and no amount of push starting it was going to get it going again.
About 40km out of Kampong Thom and without a major town in sight we didn’t have many options with regards to finding a mechanic. I called Bernard and his only solution was for us to wave down a truck and get them to drive the bike the last 110km into Siem Reap. If we had to pay someone to do it he would pay us back. Great idea in theory but in practice we were foreigners, in the middle of nowhere, it was late in the afternoon and we didn’t speak any of the language to explain to someone what we needed.
For 2 hours we stood there trying to wave down a truck. Most were full and those that weren’t were generally big utes that wouldn’t stop for us. We had tried to speak to a few locals who had come outside to see what we were doing. We were able to put some basic words into Google Translate (thank god for 3G coverage) but we couldn’t understand their responses. Eventually we managed to get one guy to agree to do it for US$100. It was exorbitant but given it would be dark shortly, we still had 120km to go and we had so far had no luck in waving down a truck we called Bernard to get approval. Well I’ll leave out the expletives but the answer was no.
We tried for a further 20 minutes and eventually a large Toyota Tundra stopped for us. I didn’t think it was going to and threw up my hands in frustration as it was going past but 50m down the road it came to a stop and an army officer jumped out. I ran down with my phone and translated request in hand and got a nod of approval from what appeared to be a fairly senior Cambodian Army Officer. He backed up the truck to where the bikes were parked and quickly ordered the other 3 army guys in the truck to load it up on the back.
We gave them a hand tying it down and Shaun jumped in the truck with them and they disappeared into a cloud of dust kicked up by the spinning wheels as they took off. Shaun’s phone was unable to make local calls (including to Jarrod and my mobiles) so through a bit of miscommunication we’d both given him our phones to contact us when they arrived. It wasn’t until they’d left that we figured out Shaun now had all 3 phones and we had no way of communicating with him. With the sun already setting and a long way to ride, we set off after the truck as fast as we could hoping to catch up to it.
It quickly got dark and visibility became a real problem. My visor in particular was filthy from earlier in the day and with the headlights of oncoming traffic shining in I was just about blind to what was in front of me. The situation wasn’t at all helped by the pathetic little lights on the XR250s. They lit up about 1m in front of the front wheel which at 80-90km/h was as good as useless. Especially when dealing with a significant number of carts and bikes on the roads that had no lights at all. I quickly realised I had to stop and try to clean my visor and it turned out to be a fortuitous stop for us.
While I didn’t get the visor much better, as we were about to get going again the ute with Shaun’s bike on the back flew past us. They had stopped as the bike had fallen over and we hadn’t seen them in the dark. Thankfully we now had a solution to our problems. I quickly realised if I could sit in the wheel tracks of the truck he would swerve to miss the potholes and as long as I followed him I would too. I was also able to see a bit of what was ahead of us by watching their headlights on the road instead of my own. Clearly Jarrod realised the same thing and set himself just behind me in line with the other wheel. The only problem for us was our Army mate didn’t realise how badly we needed to keep up with him or was possibly in a hurry himself as he was flying along these roads at about 100km/h. It made for a very hairy ride! Our bikes aren’t made for those sort of speeds so were overheating badly most of the time. At that speed there was also very little room for error because if he did hit a pot hole so did we and we were going to come off far worse. That last hour and a half in the dark felt like 4 hours.
Eventually we pulled up to the edge of Siem Reap and our friends unloaded the bike off the back of the truck. They’d been so helpful to us that we didn’t try to ask if they could take us the rest of the way to the hotel. We offered them US$50 but the senior officer said no and it was settled. We shook hands and they took off back into the traffic. While Jarrod and I collected our nerves from the ride we’d just endured, Shaun filled us in on his air-conditioned journey. While I’d have taken his spot any day over riding in the dark as we had, it had been a little awkward for him. He was squashed in the back of the truck with 4 army guys and a huge machine gun mounted on the roof right in front of him. Apparently not a word was spoken the whole way.
Once done with the survival stories from both sides we had to deal with the next problem. We had to get Shaun’s bike to a mechanics or the hotel. We called Bernard and he said take it to the hotel and he’ll get a mechanic in the morning. The hotel was still 4km away so walking it there wasn’t an option. We had to tow it. Using a bit of the rope the army guys had used to tie it down, Jarrod tied it to the back of his bike and gave the other end to Shaun to hold on to (and let go of very quickly if things went wrong). I must admit I was glad just to be leading the way to the hotel as the towing wasn’t going to be fun or safe for anyone in the busy Siem Reap traffic. It took us about 20 minutes but we finally made it to Okay 1 Villa, our hotel for the night.
We had booked this hotel before leaving Phnom Penh as it was the sister hotel of the one we stayed in there. Calling it a sister hotel is unfair though as this was 10 times better than the death-trap we’d stayed in the night before. For US$40 per night we got a triple room including breakfast. The rooms were big and with a/c and a fridge. The rooftop also featured a large pool and restaurant. The staff were probably the nicest we met all trip. Looking exhausted and filthy when we arrived they were quick to run and grab us a cold drink from the fridge while we were checking in. They’d also given us an upgrade to a family room with 2 king beds which we kindly declined as we didn’t feel like sharing so they happily moved us back into a triple.
To tired to go out we wandered up to the roof for dinner. The plan for tomorrow was to get up very early (4:30am) and head out to Angkor Wat for the sunrise and a tour of the temples. Hopefully by the afternoon Shaun’s bike would be fixed and we could go exploring around Siem Reap.