This week we had a chance to visit our friends who have been working in Sumatra for a couple years. It was great to sample their life, the local culture, and a bit of central Sumatra.
It could be the dream of every adventurer. Late night conversation with a famous travel writer. The conversation turns to locations that are too good to publish for the public. A couple drinks later and a few too many details are revealed.
My birthday this year was the day set to head for the mentioned location which we will call 'secret underground mountain temple'. The trip started out on a good note - we filled a van with our bikes and belongings in the pouring rain. I ran down the stairs of our house with a plastic bag in each hand. It was only an hour later when it was time to pass out food that I realized that I had brought the bag of garbage with us and left the food bag out on the street with the trash.
The day trip was combined with a 90km bike ride to take into the scenery. We accomplished everything that we set out for and that's about all I can say about that. Got to hold some cards back for the possibility of late night conversation and free drinks.
On our way down Kirirom Mountain we arrived at the hydropower station. The first thing that caught our eye was an old raft made of barrels. This would be a great way to boat around the reservoir. Just to make sure I asked someone living nearby if we could take it out and there didn't seem to be any problem except for the fact that he thought it was too old and the reservoir was full of crocodiles.
Pushing these two things aside we carried the raft to the edge of the water and set it in. Sure enough it sunk right away, much to the enjoyment of the few people that materialized out of the forest to watch and we were simultaneously attacked by a gargantuan water centipede who may have been living in the barrel.
Today we rode along the rail lines within Phnom Penh city. That's another way of saying we took a tour of PP slums. It was fun to see how people have integrated the rails into their lives though since trains haven't used them for decades.
Following the tracks into the center led us to Boeng Kak lake which is currently being turned into Phnom Penh's newest beach... well sand dune anyway. We were the only ones out to catch some rays though.
Our journey ended in the train yard behind the abandoned railway station. It didn't feel like we were supposed to be there but there was lots of action back there and no one paid us much attention.
We have accomplished what I would say is one of Cambodia's more difficult adventures. Well, hiking to the top of Mt. Aoral (1813m) is not too difficult when you eventually get around to the hiking part. Arrangements and access are the real adventure.
The trail head is way off the beaten path, down roads that are difficult to maneuver by any vehicle (I claim horseback would be the best). We nearly destroyed our motorbikes fording rivers and avoiding stumps, holes, and rocks. Also, making arrangements with a guide in a nearby village are nearly impossible without a good command of Khmer language. We thought we had everything sorted out until the last minute when paying our guide :)
The actual hike is not that interesting. The trail hasn't been developed at all so no one has cut away any trees to make any sort of view. We did have fun camping at a stream about half way up except for half freezing to death in our hammocks.
Anyway, like most adventures in Cambodia, the means is often more exciting than the end. This was definitely the case with Aoral.
Okay, that was one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life. But I'm sure glad we did it. All things considered, it's amazing the trip worked out so well. Everything about the experience tested us - but that's to be expected. Because when you get into the Cambodian boonies the potential for patience-testing-stuck-in-the-middle-of-nowhere types of things going wrong, increases exponentially.
But besides a few bug bites, bent moto parts and broken brake (which we got replaced), ridiculously dirty clothes, and queasy stomachs from too much filtered mountain water, we're doing swell. And we certainly earned bragging rights - because summitting Phnom Aoral is no easy feat (and the view from the top sure isn't a reward).
This is how it goes.
-Start in Phnom Penh and jump on a motorbike and drive for 4 hours until we hit the turn off towards Aoral. Then the adventure starts. Cause the road breaks down to a sandy, pitted, potholed mess and only gets worse from there.
-After 2 more hours arrive at a small village and run into the village chief [with funky hat and teeth grill]. He helped us identifies a guide [who had a 'muscular' cat] and we negotiate a price. Follow guide to his house - in another village a few more km down the road and hammock camp out underneath his house overnight.
-Head out the next morning on a track that should not be called a road. Because it was really more of a drainage ditch. Or a giant mud puddle. Or actually a river in some parts. Yes, we have officially driven down a river and forded three more. [It takes 2 hours to go 8 km.]
-Arrive at the base and hike at a 40 degree angle for 3 hours straight. Heart rate through the roof the entire time from tripping on rocks, pulling ourselves and our huge bags through bamboo thickets, up vines and over rocks.
-Arrive at camp, set up hammocks, eat. So, so thankful there is a water source at camp. No time to waste, we hit the trail again for the summit. Two hours later, reach 1813m. The reward? No view, but a little Buddhist shrine and a plaque [and jungle leeches] and the knowledge that we've accomplished something few in Cambodia have. And that's worth it.
-Camp out overnight in our mock US army hammocks (mosquito net included). Enjoy the cold and wearing sweatshirts and socks and a campfire in a tropical country.
-Check out early Sunday morning. Hike down steep terrain. Twist ankles a few times, get permanent stains on our buts from falling so much in the mud, tear clothing, quadriceps are jello.
-Get back to our motorbikes! Miraculously they turn on and we start our journey down the road-from-hell once again. This time I ride on the back of the guide's bike. I question my sanity. It is a motor-coaster. There is no other description. He jams his bike into first and careens down hills. I lose my hat ducking for a large branch. Then we crash into a mud pit. [Thankfully it was a soft landing]. Get back on the bike and race on towards the finish line.
-Reach the village intact. Celebrate with coconut drinks from a local vendor [and for some reason corn cobs]. Begin the long drive back to Phnom Penh with a pit stop to fix the motorbikes.
-12 hours after leaving camp in the morning, we arrive home.
Even after all of that, I still think it was worth it.
Hours of preparation and research culminated in this weekend's adventures by bicycle. We threw our bikes on a local van and headed up to Kampong Chnnang to investigate a couple places.
The first day we headed out to a huge (2.5km long) abandoned airstrip in the middle of nowhere. It was built by slave labour during the war and abandoned after the Vietnamese liberated Cambodia in '79. After a pleasant exchange with guards who apparently still watch over the airstrip, we were granted access to test our top speeds on the strip (45kph for me). Other activities included sneaking by a sleeping guard to get up into some sort of control tower with a nice view of the area.
The main reason for coming out here was from a tipoff that there exists some underground tunnel networks and hidden complexes that were built as part of the airstrip project. After searching a nearby mountain through an unusual abandoned village and quarry we were met with disappointment as various 'tunnel entrances' were actually just creepy huge storage tanks hidden in the forest.
Then we were riding around the area and happened to sit down at the correct noodle restaurant. We befriended the owner and he showed us the real entrance which happened to be coincidentally, only a km or 2 from his place. And what a find! Seriously, the creepiest underground complex i've ever explored. Enough to start an urban explorer Cambodia chapter for sure.
The next day was more of a ride in the countryside as we cycled a little known path around a mountain in Kampong Leaeng (across the river from Kampong Chnnang). An even less known path led us from this mountain loop into the forest where we enjoyed going 1km/h through sand but it ended up being the most fun of the day.