Death Highway RevisitedSeptember 5, 2016
It is now about 13 years since I travelled from Sen Monorom, the capital of Mondulkiri Province to Banlung, the capital of Ratanakiri Province. This road was nicknamed The Death Highway by Matt “Jake” Jacobson, the author of Cambodia’s best ever guide books, Adventure Cambodia and Ultimate Cambodia. Jake and his co- riders did it in the wet season which must have been unbelievably tough; me and my mate Fletch did it in January, the dry season, which I found tough enough. These days roads have improved, but I wanted to see just how much?
I left Phnom Penh around 7am on Sunday July 26, planning on lunch in Snoul with arrival in Banlung around mid afternoon. My bike of choice was simple. After discarding my BMW GS650F and 6 Harleys I loaded up my most comfortable and reliable bike, my Honda 1100cc Shadow Sabre. As I was flying to Australia in about a week I was not keen on breaking down 600 kms from Phnom Penh. With any minor mechanical problems there is at least some chance of getting the Honda fixed in “Outback” Cambodia. I departed in beautiful weather, overcast and around 30 degrees C.
Snoul is a town with absolutely nothing worth seeing, this is why in my opinion the “powers that be” have built some huge ridiculous monument a couple of kms out of town.
I have recently spent a lot of time in Snoul building a farm shed with living quarters right on the Vietnam border, about 40kms out of Snoul. Also local “tradesmen” were building a similar size shed on the outskirts of Snoul . . . . . . I have no doubt his shed cost much less to build than my shed.
After lunch around 11am I headed on to Banlung. The closer we got the cooler it got and then down came the rain. I understood it was the wet season but the temperature had dropped to an Arctic like temperature in the low 20s. I was not prepared for that and had absolutely no wet weather gear. Despite the weather, the nearer you get to Sen Monorom, the nicer the roads get.
As with all country in this part of the world the signs of illegal logging/deforestation are sadly everywhere to be seen.
I made it into Sen Monorom as planned, cold and wet. On the first day I had ridden 376kms. I found a cheap guesthouse on the main street with hot water. I certainly didn’t need air con but the fan was useful to dry my soaking clothes because I was traveling light, with only 1 pair of trousers and 1 long sleeve shirt. For my 5 dollar room I was given a key which fitted an unlock able door; you clicked the button inside the room and it did nothing. I had nothing of great value so it wasn’t really a problem.
I have an English mate Jamie who was GM at the magnificent Mayura Hill Resort. We had been in contact and I wanted to check out the resort. I met Jamie at The Hangout bar shortly after. The Hangout was a bit “backpackerish” but a good place to visit. Callum the owners is an excellent host and the expats I met there all seemed decent people. I soon learned there are two types of people who live in or visit Sen Monorom, those who love elephants, and others more like myself.
As I was on a scouting mission for future biking tours Jamie invited me back to the Mayura Hill Resort for a complimentary room. Hee didn’t have to ask twice. The $5 I spent on accommodation in Sen Monorom got me into a luxurious bungalow. I didn’t need the air con or the pool.
Days 1-3 13 years ago My mate Ian from Wagga Wagga was visiting and wanted to visit Ratanikiri. A chat around with a few mates at a few bars found 3 other guys wanting to join us: two American expats called Shane and Beau, and Beau’s visiting mate whose name I can’t remember now. It was a long time ago.
We all had different time schedules so we started together knowing we would splinter over the next few days. Ian hired a Honda XR250, the perfect bike for this trip, I rode my 400cc Honda Transalp, not the perfect bike, too big physically. The two expat yanks rode their Suzuki DRs, a 400 and a 650 from memory. Not sure what Beau’s mate hired but I do remember he rode in a pair of shorts.
We spent the first night in Kampong Cham. Beau, a photographer, and his mate decided to hang around in Kompong Cham and catch up with us that night in Kratie, but we never saw them again! The remaining three of us set off, deciding not to cross the Kompong Cham Bridge, which at the time was, I believe, the only bridge over the Mekong River in Cambodia. We followed the river about 40kms and caught a ferry across the river. Shane knew this ferry and the cost, but about half way across the river the ferryman told us a new cost, way above the proper local rate. After Shane refused to pay the ferryman, he simply did a U-turn. We had no choice but to pay the new special long nose price.
We followed the river through Chhlong and onto Kratie. That night we stayed in Kratie and discovered the nightlife was pretty much non-existent. The third day was ridden on sealed roads to Stung Treng, where we met a local expat living on the river, another Yank. Shane decided to stay in Stung Treng for the night, but Ian and I pushed on along the dirt track to Ban Lung, Ratanakiri. I had my first spill on this dirt track, coming into a bridge too fast. The bridge was simply side by side logs with plenty of gaps between them. I laid the bike down and ended up under the bike on the bridge – no real damage done except for a broken front brake lever, and my pride. The day was spent in the dusty town, where I managed to get my brake lever “welded” which held together long enough to get me back to Phnom Penh. The next day we would tackle the “Death Highway”
Day 2. The “Death Highway
If anything the weather had got worse overnight; cold, miserable and drizzle are words best describing the weather as I set out for Banlung. The first stop was to buy some wet weather gear, a green lightweight smock and a bungee strap for a belt – $4 well spent. It is hard to see but behind the white seats in this photo is the old airport runway. Planes don’t land here anymore, which is probably a good thing as its right in the middle of town.
It soon become obvious the “Death Highway” is no longer – the entire road is brilliant. Even in the constant rain and cold the whole 200 odd kms is a great ride, constant curves and hills and very little traffic.
I have a mate who lives about halfway along the road at a town called Koh Nheak. Richard has a bamboo business. He does everything there is to do with bamboo, from construction to toothpicks and Biochar. He does a wonderful job employing plenty of locals, so I called in for a cup of coffee. Note my wet weather gear.
From Koh Nheak to Banlung the rain continued with a few dry spells. The road continued to be a great ride. Although it was an excellent surface, and as my great old mate Dave Jones used to always say ‘Beware of Potholes.
Just before I reached Banlung, around the town of Lumphat, I crossed the Srepok River. The story goes that this is the river featured in the classic movie Apocalypse Now. But that’s probably bullshit. The movie was actually filmed in The Philippines.
In Banlung the rain had stopped so I had a good look around and checked out the famous Yeak Laom Lake. Apparently it’s a volcano crater, 700,000 years old, 800 metres across. The old King once had a chalet here but the Khmer Rouge destroyed that in the war years. To me the $2 entrance fee was way too much as I found it boring as fuck. I suppose there are two kinds of people in the world, people who like volcanic crater lakes and people like myself.
I checked into the $20 Ratanakiri Boutique Hotel, a very nice hotel with an excellent General Manager in Mr Lim. I did notice that there were very few tourists around town, which probably explains why it was so cheap for its quality. The only thing missing was a pool but I didn’t need that in the freezing weather. The hotel is overlooking another Volcanic Crater, the Kan Seng Lake, I got to thinking if these volcanoes were to suddenly fire up it might not be so fucking cold in this part of the world.
In the evening I went next door to the Thy Ath Lodge. I was starting to get a bit bored by my own company and I thought I might meet a few people and have a few beers. Totally deserted, not even staff, but a good view over the Volcanic Lake. And still the drizzle continued.
Days 4-6 13 years ago Ian and I left Banlung early. It was important we got to Sen Monorom that day. There would be no guesthouses along the way. We had Jake’s adventure Cambodia Guide book but no real map, no GPS, and not much idea where we were going. The first problem was in the town of Lumphat where there were manny dirt tracks but we had no idea which one was correct. We managed to explain to a local we wanted the road to Sen Monorom, and would pay him to guide us out of town on his moto. When it was obvious we were on an outbound track we paid our guide the dollar and continued on our way. It was the right track as we soon reached the Srepok River, down a very steep bank and onto a bamboo raft/ferry.
Whilst riding/sliding down the river bank it was obvious that if we miss the ferry we might actually slide straight into the drink. We crossed the river without incident and had no problems with this ferryman. It was soon after the river that things got much more difficult; small tracks headed in every direction but basically all part of the same road. There were plenty of dry creek beds but the biggest annoyance for me was the sand – plenty of it and deep in places.
At one time I stalled my Transalp. I had my right foot in the sand and the bike leaning more than I was comfortable with. As I pushed off with my right foot it sank further in the sand. There was no way I would get the bike upright on my own. With the bike at around 45 degrees and my foot deep in sand I did all I could, before bailing out. I managed to avoid the falling bike, then picked it up and continued on. It was around now I began to regret my childhood spent riding horses when there was always a perfectly good Honda CT90 farm bike I could have been riding.
After what seemed like hours we reached Koh Nheak where we refueled the bikes and continued. Fortunately the road from Koh Nheak to Sen Monorom had been greatly improved over recent times and was actually a decent laterite road which made the second half of the tour quite simple. I had to admire the local motodops who were taking backpackers the entire way for $20. I still wonder if they returned home immediately or waited for a return fare, much like the Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville taxi drivers. That night the beers went down well but I was surprised by how cold Sen Monorom was on an early January night. We spent two nights in the town.
The next day was again a solid day of riding with an average dirt road and crappy bridges all the way back to Snoul. From Snoul back to Phnom Penh via Kompong Cham was a breeze on good sealed roads. The new road and bridge across the Mekong about 25 kms from PP which bypasses Skun and Kompong Cham was still years away from being constructed.
Days 3 and 4
I woke at 4am to discover the rain had stopped. Things were looking up but it was short-lived. I woke again around 6am and it was raining again – not pouring but very persistent and annoying. Breakfast at the hotel would be lacking I was told as it was too wet for the staff to ride to the markets to buy stock. I was told the rice porridge would be made without any actual rice! It didn’t really worry me as I had bacon and eggs.
I got away in very wet conditions. My plan was to travel to Preah Vihear City, the city formerly known as Tbaeng Meanchey. I had assumed that Krung Preah Vihear (the city) would be close to Prasat Preah Vihear (the temple). I was wrong. They are about 100 kms apart!
I would travel to Stung Treng for lunch before crossing the massive new bridge over the Mekong, but these plans went out the window as although in rained the whole way, and I was cold and wet, the road was so good I arrived much too early for lunch and nothing I saw in Stung Treng excited my taste buds. I had a look around the town. It is on the junction off 4 rivers including the Mekong and the Srepok which are massive rivers in Stung Treng. The last time I went through Stung Treng the bridge over the Srepok River was actually finished but locked with a tollgate and the guy with the key had gone for breakfast. Me and Ian were on a Phnom Penh to Vientianne in Laos road trip and were forced to use the ferry, and once again we got screwed over by the ferryman.
In Stung Treng there were also a few old Colonial houses left over from a bygone era, some of these reminded me of similar houses down the coast in Kep which still stand today. I assume these old houses are owned by the rich and corrupt – generals, politicians etc.
From Stung Treng I crossed the Mekong River still thinking I was heading to a town very close to the Preah Vihear Temples. The rain was easing and eventually stopped. The occasional road markers eventually let me figure out there were two totally different places, Kr Preah Vihear and Pr Preah Vihear. The fighting between Thai and Cambodian troops has not flared for a few years now so Preah Vihear Temple is something I want to add to my Harley Tours. When I discovered the two places were so far apart I decided to not bother checking out the temples. There are two types of people in this world, those who love temples and people like me.
The town of Preah Vihear City is somewhat underwhelming, I drove around for a while, found nothing that looked like a half decent restaurant for lunch, so decided to push on before the rain returned. I had no desire to head to Siem Reip so figured the shortest route back to Phnom Penh was via Kompong Thom, about 130kms from Preah Vihear City. About 125kms from Kompong Thom the rain came back and continued unabated to just before I reached my destination. The road was once again in an excellent ride on a great surface.
I reached Kompong Thom for lunch around 3pm and 470kms after I had left Ratanakiri. Phnom Penh was just another 170 kms away, but although the mind was willing to continue my body had had enough. I checked into the Arunus Hotel for $8. It had a fan (clothes dryer), flat screen TV and bed which was all I needed. Unfortunately i had to suffer a cold shower. It wasn’t till morning I noticed a small switch near the door with the words “hot water” written on it. With the flick of a switch, the hot shower was much appreciated at 6am in the morning.
I was back in Phnom Penh by around 9am, the entire road from Seim Reip to Phnom Penh is now fantastic, but there are a couple of improvements I would recommend:
1. As the new road often bypasses towns, put up a f**king sign so people know which way to go! 2. Round up all the minibus drivers, line them up against a wall