Posted on April 4, 2017
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During my first extended stay in Cambodia two years ago I first learned about the Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia. I edged towards the mountains on my second hand Honda Air Blade as I got my feet wet with Cambodian exploration. Now I want to get into the mountain jungle and visit Osoam.
Now I have the opportunity to visit the Cardamom Mountains as part of a longer trip through Cambodia. Traditionally people visit the Cardamom Mountains from the south via Koh Kong or from the east/north via Battambang and Pursat. Typically I don’t follow convention and like to do things a bit differently.
My plan of attack is to start from the north and head straight south. On the road between Battambang and Pailin is a little village called Treng. It is there that I head south through Samlot and Promouy before getting to the hard part.
Or so I thought.Two years ago my mini-adventure took me within ten kilometers of Samlot. I was new to riding a moto and brand new to being on my own exploring Southeast Asia. Looking back I remember it was slow going. Not this time. My Yamaha XTZ although small by dirtbike standards allows me to go much fast than my Honda AirBlade. Because the road to Samlot is also being upgraded I was eating lunch in Samlot in no time.
After lunch I continued down the same road continuing past Samlot. This is a new road to me -something I always find exciting. I never know what is around the next corner or over the next hill. The route seemed innocuous enough. Although there was very little information on the internet Google Street View was not available for this part of the journey. I think I should have learned by now – no Google Street View means even that even Google wouldn’t go there.
It is reinvigorating to ride a road with hills. Siem Reap is flat as flat can be. Throttling up just to make it over a hill makes the monotony of flat riding all the more real. I can see higher hills in the distance and my goal of Osoam for my two night stay keeps me focused.
Along the way I pass through many small villages. As I ride through almost every village I have to say hello and wave to someone as I pass them. Every hour or so I stop for some water or to get some pictures as I practice my nonexistent Khmer.
As the kilometers tick on I notice the road is becoming more and more deserted. I pass fewer and fewer people as the road becomes more desolate. The dirt road starts to get more challenging as the ruts increase in size at the same time the width of my path decreases. Before I know it I am in the woods. The deeper I go the more I have to wonder if this is the right ‘road’. I worry about the difficulty of the road in the Cardamom Mountains if this is what I must ride though before the mountains.
Although many times my path is cut off by water covering the road there is always a well worn path that circumvents the obstacle. I am sure the water isn’t very deep but I am not sure if the bottom is more mud than hard packed dirt. Each time panic sets in I stop to look at the map on my phone. Sure enough. This is ‘the’ road to Pramuoy. According to my app it is about forty kilometers to my destination. I guess I was confused because I thought my destination was Osoam but somehow I entered Pramuoy in the app. In my excitement to get to Osoam I though I was getting close. Watching the sun creep closer to the horizon I wonder how much harder the road could get. And I haven’t even see the real mountains yet.
Shortcuts take me around the largest hazards but I never feel like I am on the right road. As the clock pushed further away from noon my confusion grew exponentially. Trust the map I told myself. It told me I was moving in the right direction and I was on the right path. It is good to have a healthy dose of skepticism when using GPS and apps otherwise one can get lost by following in oblivious bliss. My experience on this type of road helps put my mind at ease but that experience has been on day trips. This is different.
Finally I come to the point that I realize I am not going to make it to Osoam tonight. I will have to stay in Pramouy – assuming this small town has someplace for me to stay. I am beginning to regret my decision not to bring a mosquito net equipped hammock just in case I get stuck sleeping along the road somewhere.
Around four in the afternoon I turned on to a real road just a few kilometers east of Pramuoy. The road behind me was a little more primitive than I expected leaving me more than a little relieved to be where I am. Now for the short ride to Pramouy to see if this one street town has a place to stay.
As luck would have it the guesthouse listed on my maps.me app is now an office building for a Chinese bridge company. The man at the front gate pointed me down the road to the only guesthouse in town. Luckily they have a room for the night – actually I could stay in almost any of the rooms. It is almost deserted.
It is only eight dollars for the night but I would pay just about anything. I am happy to find a bed anywhere at this point. It’s a good thing the cost of a room is not based on the level of desperation shown by a weary traveler.
After waking up I was still feeling relieved that I had a place to spend the night. Dinner last night was at one of the many family-owned restaurants in town. Although the food was great there I decide to head across the street from my dinner spot just to change it up a bit. This breakfast spot is filled with only men. By definition I qualify so I sit down and order a steamed bun for breakfast. No English spoken, no English needed. I point my finger in the direction of something that looks good on an adjacent table. I get my food and the owner gets his money. Communication free transactions – the rule of the road.
Now it is off to the Cardamom Mountains. Finally.
Once I get close and start riding in the hills I realize how lucky I was to have taken more time than planned yesterday. If I was a few hours earlier I would have gone all the way to Osoam – but I would have had the pressure of impending darkness hanging over me. This would have made me rush and I would have lost the ability to thoroughly enjoy my surroundings in the Cardamom Mountains. I like it when things work out like that – only noticing the luck after the fact.
The Cardamom Mountains
Just as I headed deep into the mountains I pass a westerner riding in the opposite direction. Mederic is a young Pediatric Intensive Care nurse from France traveling around Cambodia. He quit his job in anticipation of working with Doctors Without Borders. Rather than continue working or hanging out in France while waiting for his first assignment he decided to head out and tour Cambodia by moto. I found out later that his first assignment came sooner than expected so within a week he was off to start his training. I guess there will probably be more touring for him when he finishes this assignment.
Now on to Osoam! The Cardamom Mountains are greener than I expected. I can only imagine how it looks here during the rainy season. Although I am sure I don’t want to find out what the road is like during those months. I am amazed at the way the local people buzz past me going up and down the hills with ease on their motos. Fully loaded with people, household goods, food, livestock – nothing seems to slow them down!
Even though it is not necessary to take the ferry into Osoam I wanted to give it a go. It is not often I get to ride a ferry – and usually it is more of a modern type and larger in size. It is 3,000 Cambodian riel for the ferry ride – about seventy-five cents US. Not much to cross over part of this lake in the Cardamom Mountains.
My home for the next few days is at Osoam Community Based Eco-Tourism. Run by Mr. Lim Osoam CBET has modest accommodations coupled with great meals. Breakfast, lunch and dinner all have huge portions – although something I usually try to avoid but since they are so delicious nothing is left on my plate. Ever.
Residents in the area have long survived on slash and burn farming and hunting in protected zones to provide for their families. The hope of Osoam CBET and Mr. Lim is that eco-tourism can bring in other sources of income thereby reducing the destructive nature of past enterprises in the Cardamom Mountains.
Tours around Osoam are available which will take you around the Cardamom mountains. Hiking, motorcycle tours, waterfalls, swimming, cooking classes and boat trip are all available. Treks can be arranged from a few hours to three days. Some of the wildlife in the area includes Siamese crocodiles, clouded leopards, sun bear, gibbons, wild boar, Sambar deer, wild monkeys, wild elephants, butterflies, hornbills, kingfishers.
Just about anything you want can be arranged by Mr. Lim. He is the kind of guy that gets things done. Of course if you just want to lounge around and swing in your hammock listening to the sounds of the jungle – that is included in the low cost of your room!
Falling asleep is no problem. Sounds of crickets and the occasional wind coming up the hill are the only noises I hear as I lay my head down at what would be considered an early hour back in Siem Reap. Once in a while the wind causes a tree to scrape against the tin roof of my bungalow. Mosquito net secure it is time for me to say goodnight to the Cardamom Mountains.
Early morning starts with the roosters crowing at 4:00 AM. At first I am startled when the rooster begins with seven wing beatings on its chest. It is s loud it sounds like someone knocking on a door – rap-rap-rap-rap-rap. Then the crowing is copied other roosters as the loudness of the volume diminishes as they take turns crowing further and further into the distance. It is as if an important message is being sent from village to village.
Then the dogs chime in around 04:30. For some reason It seems they all chose to sleep around my bungalow. I don’t know how many there are but the sound is almost deafening.
Now it is time for the roosters to start their routine again. In between the dogs and the roosters the crickets continue as the consistent white noise. A little more wind, the scrape of a tree limb, crickets, dogs, roosters. Crickets. Dogs. Roosters.
It is still over an hour to first light but the early morning animal ritual begins as humans take their cue to start their new day.
The pre-dawn light slowly chases away the darkened sky as the sounds of the crickets are slowly replaced by the whispers of waking families who live just feet from my bungalow. The sounds of the first motorbike passing on the dusty road signals another day has begun. A day just like many before and the limitless number yet to come.
It makes me wonder what it was like here ten or twenty years ago. What will it be like in ten or twenty years to come.
I lay in bed watching the light chase away the dark through my mosquito net wondering why it is that I will leave Osoam today. It has been such a short stay. There is so much more here to explore. I have nothing ahead of me but the unknown and there is little reason I can’t stay longer.
I lean over the side of my bed and watch the chickens run around under my hut through the spaces in the floor boards. The cluck-cluck-cluck mixes with the other morning sounds as I realize it is time to get out of bed.
My mind is still filled with confusion about leaving or staying longer. This trip is part of a longer one month trip around Cambodia and the longer I stay in one place leaves me less time to visit others.
But then it hits me. If I do not leave I can not return. The thoughts of this idyllic sleepy village tucked away in the Cardamom Mountains will always compel me to return. The thought of spending more time in the future will have to be enough to keep my mind at ease.
There are no showers or hot water here. As many in Cambodia do I go to clean up in a more modest manner. Washing consists of a large urn of water placed near the bathroom where I take a plastic pot and rinse my body. Then I soap up and rinse again with the plastic pot. Real life in Cambodia. Of course the lake is nearby if one prefers cleaning up in that manner.
Another huge breakfast followed by an insanely large fresh papaya just picked from the tree next to where I sit. As soon as I feel I can adequately stand with all that food I head out to my motorcycle. The increasingly routine process of loading up my motorcycle begins and ends and I am on the road.
I head south towards Koh Kong. Nothing I will see in the next couple of weeks is a repeat from my past. Every hill, every turn, every town and village will be something I have not experienced at any time in my life.
The unknown. This is what makes life exciting.