Duration – five days
Motorcycle experience needed – as much as you have. Lots, none, it’s all the same out here.
Phnom Phen – Battambang – Bak Prea – Battambang – Phnom Phen
An exploration of unknown territories and an opportunity for adventure tourism.
“Are you sure you need a bike that big?”
That was the question asked by my travelling companion Matt whilst walking around littler filled streets looking at different options for my forthcoming road trip to Battambang. He had a point – the roads I was planning on taking would be mostly flat and fairly smooth, I didn’t have a passenger and the smaller bikes were both comfortable and much less expensive. I tried justifying my reasons to him, explaining that a larger bike would be much more comfortable, the torque would make the ride more relaxing and the weight would add stability. In reality, however, I just like power. So after a few hours of deliberation and exploring several different hire shops, I had rented myself a Honda Transalp, a 600cc V-twin adventure bike with ‘26,000km’ on the clock, all-terrain tyres and an almost perfect riding position for all 6’4 of me.
The journey would begin in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, a hot wild bustling metropolis of markets, temples, remorques (small motorcycles towing trailers of up to six people) and governmental buildings where it’s easier to fire a rocket launcher at a cow than it is to buy sunscreen. That is completely true, by the way.
The river front is modern and clean, the markets cheap and Cambodian people are among the nicest and most friendly people I’ve ever had he pleasure of meeting. Plus most people you’ll ever come into contact with speak better English than most Republican Senators so getting what you need takes no time or effort.
I was on my way to meet up with Kosal, the American-Khmer hostel owner in the city of Battambang, about 300kms north west of the capital, to check out a possible adventure tourism business opportunity. I was eager to head back there as I both enjoyed the hostel (BTB Hostel Cambodia, check it out) and was pretty stoked about the idea of spending more time in the Cambodian wilderness where Kosal’s idea of turning an unknown stretch of river into a world class eco-adventure tourism resort might take shape.
I collected the bike and, with the help of Matt, managed to attach my rucksack to it using an old kayak strap I happened to have in my bag for such an occasion. Amazingly, the back of a Honda Transalp is the perfect base for securing a Lowe Alpine 45+10 mountaineering bag; unfortunately this left no space behind me for my smaller bag so the bag went on my front like a new-born baby being carried around the Lake District by his overly enthusiastic parents.
After goodbyes with my travelling companion for the last month, I set off on my journey. First order of the day was to find some sunscreen. One might imagine this to be fairly straight forward, especially in a country where it’s almost perpetually sunny and there’s a fair chunk of Westerners around creating the market. Well, not on the road I went down. It was the main road out of the city to the north and lined with everything from shacks selling drinks to fiberglass repair shops and even a Ducati dealership. But could I find sunscreen? I even called at six different pharmacies as well as food stands, gas stations and even asked at a bank until eventually, when almost giving up and asking a young man for the time knowing I need to press on, he strikes up a conversation and boom. He knows a guy who sells sunscreen. He then started talking to me about German politics. Welcome to Cambodia.
Back on the road I’m getting settled into my journey. Driving out of Phnom Pehn wasn’t smooth sailing; they were resurfacing the road. But they were resurfacing it really slowly without actually closing it. So you’ll be driving for a few kms then the road surface will just stop and you’ll be on dirt; the dust which kicked up was as immense as the heat and made the whole thing rather unpleasant at times, but I was not deterred as my bike was humming away. I knew I had the right vehicle. With a 600cc V-twin, this bike was fast. Fast enough that you stay alert. Fast enough that you can overtake things with really not that much room and fast enough that you can pick your own cruising speed and you’ll be safe, stable and relaxed.
I rode my bike along the remarkably straight roads towards Battambang. I had all day to ride there, however I was very keen to get to my destination before sunset for obvious safety reasons. The directions were fairly easy; I had no GPS or anything, but I did have a small map and a world class sense of direction – helpfully all of the roadsigns in this country are written in English as well as Khmer making progress comfortable.
After an hours steady progress of 60-100kpm speeds depending on traffic, taking in the views and sights and only stopping for fuel and water, Cambodia gave me a rather unwelcome gift – torrential rain.
I take shelter for a few moments because I simply could not travel in that weather. As somebody who has lived in Ambleside, I’m familiar with rain; it’s called the Lake District for a reason. But this was on a whole new level. Everywhere was immediately flooded and I was immediately soaked to the skin.
But it passes and because it was still warm, no harm done. I continued my journey and arrived in Battambang before darkness fell. Kosal was waiting with a beer and a chair; the locals in wonder at the size of my motorcycle. We wouldn’t be heading our to the river valley until the day after tomorrow so I had a free day with my bike.
“Where should I go?” I asked my host.
“The lake. Find the lake. There’s roads you can take, but try and go this way. There might be a road, I’ve no idea. Looks interesting, though.”
“Sure. Find the temple, head east north east.”
The next morning, I found the temple with ease. My rudimentary map of the area was actually one of three countries so I forgave it for it’s lack of detail. I was carrying an iPod touch too, but annoyingly (or rather, more adventurously) the GPS function didn’t work and all I had was maps.me – a good function, but this area of Cambodia was hardly well mapped.
The temple was more than the sum of its parts. Impressive in itself, it actually offered an amazing view of the plains surrounding it – the plains I’d be riding across.
This was where the roads finished. And the adventure begins.
My route was – head west. I had a rough idea of which way east north east was; my map had just enough details and included the rivers which were surrounding me. Otherwise, I really was riding into the unknown. Wild Cambodia. Off the beaten track.
I took the path of least resistance; figuring Occam’s Razor to be by best options, surely the most beaten path must lead to the lake. People like lakes, so why not build a path there?