Sra Em (Preah Vihear Temple) to Kompong Thom
- 5.5 hours riding time
We had done a bit of research the night before and found out the gates to the temple doesn’t open until 7am so getting up there in time to see the sunrise was out of the question. Instead we’d decided to be up there waiting at the gates for when they do open. The poor weather we’d had the previous evening had thankfully cleared up over night and the sunrise as we were packing up the bikes was brilliant. Although a little disappointed we hadn’t been able to see it from the top of the Preah Vihear Temple, we at least knew it was going to be a great morning up there.
We had to come back through Sra Em on the way out so settled on grabbing some breakfast after the Temple. The ride up to the temples took about 25 minutes and we pulled into the still empty ticket station just before 7am. There isn’t actually any charge to get up to the temple, they just require your passport details for security reasons. You can’t see the gates from the ticket building so after waiting about 10 minutes Shaun decided to ride up and check if anyone was there. That was the last we would hear of him for an hour. About 7:15am a truck load of locals turned up and one promptly grabbed our passport details (they accept photocopies) and issued us a couple of tickets and Jarrod and I were on our way in search of Shaun.
The road up to the temple is only accessible by 4WD or motorbikes due to some very steep narrow sections (that are also a lot of fun). As we started our ascent it was clear that the weather may not have been as good as it had appeared at the bottom. The top of the mountain wasn’t even visible and was cloaked in thick white cloud. We entered the cloud about two-thirds of the way up and visibility immediately dropped to about 10 metres. Where the road turned from concrete to stone we spotted a sign saying parking area so we pulled the bikes off to the side and made the rest of the journey on foot. Given there wasn’t another person in sight we couldn’t leave our riding gear with the bikes so continued on with helmets in hand.
Without any clear indication of how to get to the temple and unable to see a thing we walked on in the direction the road had come in on until we finally spotted a small pillar off to our left sticking out of the ground. As we got closer we realised these were the ornate linings of an old stone path and what must be the way up to the temples. With the cool water vapour from the clouds on your skin and not know what was going to appear out of the clouds next, walking along the path was a truly eerie experience.
The photo above is my favourite photo from the trip. Jarrod had actually stopped to let me get a photo along the path without him in the frame and it was only once I was done and trying to grab something out of my bag that he wandered ahead and I snapped one last photo before taking off. As is often the case its the unplanned shot that turns out to be the best.
Eventually a building began to appear through the clouds. It was a temple at last, but only a small one. We climbed the steps and entered through the main door only to realise that the path continued on out the other side.
It wasn’t for another 100m or so through the clouds before we hit the main temple and at last found Shaun. He’d got to the gate at the bottom of the mountain and realised there was no one there so just continued on up. Not only that, he had ridden right past the parking sign and continued along the very slippery stones right up to the temple.
The main temple itself is truly spectacular. Still for the most part cloaked in thick cloud, exploring around and through it without another soul insight is an experience I’ll never forget. I could have stayed here the whole day just exploring and taking photos.
Once through the other side of the main temple we found ourselves on top of the 500m high cliffs overlooking Thailand. The only other people up there that morning were the Cambodian Army. Located along the edge off the cliffs and reasonably well out of sight of the temples are a large number of bunkers and machine gun outposts. Thailand and Cambodia have fought over the Preah Vihear Temples and the land around them for nearly 100 years. Despite International Court of Justice rulings both countries have outposts on opposing mountains and from all reports the respective armies spend their days staring at each other through binoculars waiting for the other to make a move. By the time we left we’d have seen 30 or 40 of the Cambodian Army guys wandering around but they showed very little interest in us and didn’t at all take away from the experience.
The only downside to the cloud cover was that the view from the cliff tops into Thailand was a bit limited. We did manage to get the odd break in the clouds though as you can see from the photos below.
After siting for about half an hour with our feet dangling over the edge admiring the view and agreeing that it was a great decision to come up here, Jarrod and I reluctantly decided it was time to go find Shaun again and hit the road. We had a long day of riding ahead and we weren’t sure where we were going to be spending the night.
To anyone who does get to Cambodia the Preah Vihear temples are a MUST. I say that reluctantly as I don’t think it would have been the same had the place been full of tourists but while it’s still quiet there’s no experience like it. It can be done as a day trip out of Siem Reap so even if you don’t want to change the whole route through Cambodia as we had done you can still visit it.
We eventually made our way back to the bikes and despite both Jarrod and I betting otherwise, Shaun did manage to keep the bike upright on the slippery rocks back down to the carpark. We made the quick trip back down the windy road and past the only other tourists we’d seen all morning (who had turned up in a sedan and were stuck half way up) and then back to Sra Em for breakfast. Sore, tired and entirely over the dramas we’d had with the bikes in Cambodia we debated how far we would push that day. The original plan was Kompong Thom but with Phnom Penh only an additional 160km beyond that and very little to see in between, the though of having an extra rest day off the bikes to relax seemed very appealing.
The roads south were again first class and riding was easy. We cruised through most of the morning at about 90km/hour without much to stop for. We had been told there were some interesting rides through the rubber plantations about 60km north of Kompong Thom and given we hadn’t really done much other than road riding in Cambodia I was keen to get off-road and have some fun. We pulled over on the way through and I tried to convince the guys to take a detour. The response wasn’t great. It was a hot day and no one had a lot of faith in the bikes if we did take them off-road. The area we were in was fairly remote and Jarrod also pointed out we’d only have limited fuel as it had been 160km since we last filled up. In hindsight it was lucky I got outvoted on that occasion. Barely 1km down the road we all found ourselves switching to reserve tanks.
We’d seen a few signs for towns and hoped one of them would be big enough to have a petrol station. We were wrong. About 30km up the road we were out of fuel and were going to have to resort to what we’d been warned to avoid all trip. The roadside fuel vendor.
As you can see we had a choice of bottles and had to pick the ones with the least sediment in them. After a bit of negotiating we got a large bottle each for US$10. Quiet a premium over the petrol stations but we were in no position to push hard on the price.
With enough fuel to get us to Kompong Thom we hit the road again only for my bike to die about 500m down the road. For what ever reason I’d flooded the engine and now had what little fuel was left in the tank pouring onto the road. We couldn’t find anything obviously wrong with it despite my bike only running properly with the fuel turned off.
We arrived in Kompong Thom at about 2:30pm and after filling up the bikes we found somewhere for lunch. With only 165km to go to get back to Phnom Penh the boys wanted to continue on that afternoon. I fought against it. While we’d been making great time for the last two days of riding the roads were about to get dramatically worse. The 165km ride to Kompong Thom on the first day had taken 3.5 hours and was one of the most gruelling rides we’d had all trip. If it was going to be the same going back then we’d be riding the last hour in the dark on some of the worst roads in the country. It took a bit of convincing but eventually the guys saw my point and we located a hotel for the evening. We’d get up nice and early in the morning and tackle the roads in the coolest part of the day.
It had been a long and incredible day but being so close to the end of what had been an exhausting 2 weeks of riding was bringing us all down a bit. Thankfully we found a great dinner at the Arunras Hotel Restaurant and after a feed and a few cold beers everyone was looking on the bright side again.