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Mon Dec 19 2016: Crocodiles and Landmines, Oh My!

The next morning we make our way back to the bar to try to get my bike's topcase mount patched up. We had a quick breakfast there and the owner asked one of his workers to take us to the workshop. So we followed him on our bikes as he drove a few kms into town and dropped us off in front of an open building where they looked to be welding scaffolding.

Nobody spoke any English, so we had to pantomime the problem.

One of the guys stopped his welding to take a look at the mount, then he went to work fashioning a new piece

We watched from the convenience store across the street while we sipped a Coke. He was done in less than half an hour and he called us over. Looks good! I asked him how much for the job, but he didn't seem to understand. So I just gave him $5 and he seemed happy with that and went back to welding his scaffolding. Quick and easy, and we're back on the road!

If only all our problems could be solved like that.

Today we are tackling the infamous Cardamom Mountains. This heavily forested jungle is probably the last unexplored place in SE Asia, with no discernible routes or means of access through it. Until the Chinese arrived. Of course.

The start of our Cardamom Mountain adventure

The Chinese have built several hydro-electric dams in the Cardamom Mountains, to the dismay of conservationists trying to protect the rainforest, the endangered species that live within it and the indigenous people who depend on the land for food and sustenance. One of the endangered species on that list is the Siamese crocodile.

Wat? Crocodiles! Sounds dangerous!

There are less than 1,000 indigenous Khmer Daeum villagers living in the Cardamom Mountains

Conservationists argue that the dams will flood their farmlands, causing hardships for the poorest peoples in Cambodia

The road that we're on is a well-graded gravel road, and the steeper sections of the path are reinforced with twin strips of concrete for the trucks and construction equipment to travel up and down. It's rather ironic that access to the interior of the Cardamom forest is funded by the Chinese hydro-electric dam projects. This road has opened up the rainforests to many eco-tourists and hikers who want to experience the beauty and the untouched nature of the Cardamom jungle.

And also motorcycle riders as well...

BRRRRM! Outta the way, Granolas!

Thank you once again, China!

Our route goes from the very south of the Cardamom forest in Koh Kong to the very north, near Krong Pursat. The forest is the largest in SE Asia, with over 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of mostly untouched land. And 300 kms of dirt riding through the middle of the forest! Glad we've got dirtbikes! Also glad that it hasn't rained here in a while!

We pass many of these houses on stilts. I wonder how high the waters get during rainy season. Or maybe they are preparing for the Chinese flood?
Okay, that's not funny...

Heading further into the heart of the jungle

We pass by many buildings that are part of the Chinese hydroelectric dam complex. Some residential buildings probably built to house those working at the plants.

There are many dams built by the Chinese inside the Cardamom, this bridge takes us to one of the smaller ones

Sitting on the bridge, checking out the dam

The war between the Chinese and the conservationists is not the only one waged in the Cardamom Mountains. In 1979, when Pol Pot was defeated, what was left of the Khmer Rouge retreated to these mountains. Here they continued to fight battles with the local villagers until almost the 1990s. The last of the Khmer Rouge were finally driven out in 1998, and the indigenous Khmer Daeum were able to reclaim their land once again.

The Khmer Rouge left behind nasty presents: Landmines.

Landmines and crocodiles?!? Who's idea was it to ride through the Cardamom Mountains?

We're not the only ones who have concerns. While Angkor Wat saw a record 2.2 million visitors this year, only about 1,000 people visit the Cardamom Mountains in the same timeframe.

Random signs and scenes from the Cardamom

Top Left: Danger Zone! At first I thought this was a warning sign for active landmines! Then the writing below reads, "Waterfall". Don't fall off the edge, Granolas!

Bottom Left: There was a monk in one of the restaurants we were at, he was telling us how they hand-make these monkey bracelets. Monk. Monk-ey bracelet. I know they don't speak very good English, but surely someone must have clued them in to the obvious wordplay here. Anyway, Neda ended up buying one of these Monk-ey bracelets. Cute, eh?

Bottom Right: Monk-ey crossing sign. Seriously! Better than a Crocodile crossing sign.

Posing in front of one of the pretty lakes inside the Cardamom Forest

This red soil we're riding on is highly fertile and is used to grow rice, bananas and yes, cardamom too

I don't know what kind of crops these were, but they were cool-looking.
Better in close-up! Like rows upon rows of green popsicle sticks!

We reach a bigger dam, worthy of a picture

This isn't the Lower Stung Russei Chrum Dam that was advertised on the sign at the entrance of the Cardamom Mountain, though. I checked online and that one is huge and not accessible by the dirt road we're on. Probably deep within private property, far away from angry eco-terrorists.

Past more Khmer Daeum villages

We saw some of the villages had set up local hostels for the granola hikers, if they wanted to sleep in stilt houses on their way through the Cardamom Mountains. That's pretty cool.

One of my favorite pictures from our ride. Neda staring up in wonder at the forest around her

At a certain point in the road, past all of the Chinese dams, the well-graded hard-pack devolves into a pot-holed, washboarded mess and there's more red soil and less gravel on the ground. The Chinese have no further incentive maintaining these paths. From hereon in, we travel the way the Khmer Daeum villagers do.

Concrete bridges are a Chinese luxury. The sign reads 10 tonne limit. What did I have for lunch and will these wooden slats hold?! :)

Consulting the GPS, doing a quick check on time

Our little motorcycle maintenance detour this morning took a chunk out of our ride time. I'd like to make it to the main village in the middle of the Cardamom Mountains before nightfall. Because you know, crocodiles and land mines and all...

On one of the steeper climbs, the way gets a bit muddy. The Chinese would have totally put concrete strips down right here!

This part of the Cardamom is getting a bit exciting. We're basically riding on packed soil, no gravel to be seen anywhere. In the dry sections, Neda up ahead is roosting me with a cloud of red dust. In the hilly areas, the water settles at the bottoms of the road, and the soil turns to thick and slick muck. There are many *oshit* moments when we think we're going to come off our bikes in the mud.

Fun. But a bit sphincter-tightening. But fun... Butt fun.

And then it gets worse. The mother of all deep and slimy mud patches lies ahead of us. Being the gentleman I am, I radio Neda, "Ladies first!"

Up ahead, I watched Neda struggle in the mud. I make sure to take lots of pictures for both of our viewing enjoyment later.
Well, okay... Mainly for my viewing enjoyment... 555

Neda's no longer having any fun.

Halfway through the bog, the back of her bike started fishtailing left and right like a dog wagging its tail. I could see her rear tire was clogged with mud and spinning in futility. She was making no forward progress at all, but instead was digging quite a deep hole beneath her rear wheel. I hopped off my bike (after taking many pictures - priorities!) and helped her push hers across all that red goop. It's always good having someone go ahead of you so you can learn from their folly.

You can see my solo successful attempt in the video below. Like a MF-ing Boss, I tell ya!

Neda's rear wheel. Zero traction from these knobbies.

While we were inspecting our rear wheels and taking pictures of our fun in the mud (it only becomes fun again after the hard part is over), we heard the sound of engines revving behind us. A truck was stuck in the same bog we had negotiated our bikes through. Another car was stopped at the top of the hill before the mud bog started and that driver was attempting to help push the truck through the slop. But to no avail, the truck was too heavy and the muck too deep.

I walked over to offer my help as well to push, but the truck driver was already on the phone calling a tow truck

He thanked me and I wished him luck.

Travelers always look out for one another!

Following the hydro-electric lines deeper into the heart of the Cardamom Mountains

These electric towers and the lines reminded me of our ride up the Dalton Highway, following the Alaskan pipeline to the Arctic Ocean. It seems that the energy industry is always paving the way through the wilderness. Literally.

We're about an hour away from our destination for the evening, the town of Pramaoy right in the heart of the Cardamom, when we see two crazy Barangoes riding towards us on tiny 150cc motorcycles. We stopped to chat with them. They were Italians and they had rented these scoots from Siem Reap. Like all travelers do, we quizzed each other on the roads that we each had just done. They told us that north of Pramoay was smooth sailing, good gravel roads. In turn, we told them that they had a lot of mud waiting for them on the way to Koh Kong.

It was late in the afternoon and they probably only had a couple of hours before sunset. Plus they were not dressed for the ride at all. One guy was wearing loafers and the other guy was wearing sandals!

I advised them that maybe they should turn around and stay the night in Pramaoy, but I know as a traveler, sometimes you just hate to turn back.

They wanted to get to Koh Kong for the evening, so we wished them best of luck!

Not sure if they ever made it, or whether some alligator is now wearing Italian loafers... (you see what I did there?)

And we made it to Pramaoy. This is our guesthouse for the evening.

Nobody speaks English here. And why should they? They probably only see a handful of Barangoes here each week, if that! We had to pantomime that we wanted a room, and using our fingers figure out how much it cost.

After parking our dirtybikes for the evening, I clapped Neda on the shoulder to congratulate her on making the ride and a cloud of red dust poofed up in the air. 55555!

OMG, we are absolutely covered head to toe in the dried red soil of the Cardamom Mountains. You could grow a field of rice paddys on the amount of dirt we had on us. Before taking my shower, I just stepped into the stall with all my gear on and hosed myself down to get the dust off. Crazy!

Top: The bustling main street of downtown Pramaoy.
Bottom: Neda does some shopping at the local convenience store. No 7-11 inside the Cardamom Mountains

We walked into a restaurant and because we didn't speak Khmer and were unable to read the menu, we just pointed at what other people were eating

I have no idea what it was, some kind of stir fried meat and vegetables topped with a fried egg on top. It was delicious! And so glad they also had our favorite beer in stock: Black Panther! Yesssss! What a great end to a fabulous day of dirt-riding!

That night, we slept the sleep of the dead. So exhausted!

The next morning. Preparing to leave Pramaoy

On our way out of the Cardamom Mountains. The Chinese have graded the gravel road back to civilization. Nice!

What a ride! A little bit of adventure, plenty of beautiful untouched nature, delicious mystery meat and exciting dirt roads. This was hands-down one of our favorite experiences in SE Asia!

Bonus Blooper Reel at the end :)

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