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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - DOUBLING DOWN the 'death highway'

DOUBLING DOWN the 'death highway'

It was on about the seventh near-vertical section of the notorious road up to Preah Vihear Temple when I began to question our ability to double 1,500 kms on a dirt bike around the north and northeastern provinces.

There were no photo opportunities of the breathtaking views or waving to the road-workers, just shaking arms from trying not to fall off the back as we sped up, ringing the bike out in first gear.

And while this road was littered with jagged rocks, lined with land mines and drenched after a torrential rainfall, we were warned of tougher roads to come - the infamous "death highway".

A passing comment on the need to get out of Phnom Penh for a little adventure two weeks earlier resulted in a flurry of dirt-biking tales, battling the deep sand along isolated frontiers.

I doubted my limited dirt bike experience could manage the terrain, so I found a willing companion to double me. A friend from New Zealand was visiting and naively agreed.

A plan was drawn up for a 12-day loop, including three infamous sections of road: T'beng Meanchey up to Preah Vihear Temple, T'beng Meanchey to Stung Treng, and the two-day haul between Ban Lung, Ratanakkiri province and Sen Monorom, Mondulkiri province.

Confined to one bag between two, the limited space was filled with bike-repair equipment, an extensive first-aid kit, hammocks and canned tuna for emergencies.

The speed of the paved highway ended 170 kms north of Phnom Penh, not to be revisited until 12 days later. About five kilometers north of Kampong Thom, the dirt began.

The 130 kms to T'beng Meanchey, the capital of Preah Vihear province, is a kind transition from tar-seal. The last third of the road traces Phnom T'beng to the west and gradually climbs to T'beng Meanchey. The elevation in the landscape is a welcome relief from the plains surrounding Phnom Penh.

Smoke from smoldering grasslands and forests cast an amber haze by the early evening. Burned stumps stood around Ministry of Environment signs delivering desperate messages of "don't incinerate me" and "forest is our life".

The people clearing and erecting makeshift stilt huts in the ash and dust had an opposing view of what "life" involved. They were clearing the forest for agriculture plots, a traditional practice used in the north and northeast. This cyclical practice, I was reassured, was not usually destructive to the forest, but recent losses of land to economic land concessions threatens to disrupt this cultivation process.

With this year being a particularly dry one, however, the burning leaves you with the concerned impression the entire landscape will soon be a char-grilled wasteland.

Leaving T'beng Meanchey for the ruins of Preah Vihear, we first headed west, then swung north onto a blinding, bumpy, white-sand track. The 90-km road we traveled on was not on our map, and we had to rely on our little plastic compass and a local policeman who sketched for us a network of roads and labeled them all 69b. A kind gesture, but not overly helpful.

After the white-knuckled trip to the top, we had an hour of light to explore the temple and gasp at the sweeping views below.

We were offered a pagoda pillar to tie up our hammocks for the night.

Mother nature began to stir at midnight, and flashes of lightening entertained us for the evening. The temperature dropped and a strong wind swept the leaves off the pagoda floor. After a sleepless night, the hammocks were abandoned and we sat in the middle of the pagoda laughing at our luck as the rain fell hard.

We took a different route back to T'beng Meanchey and met with the toughest section of road we had to manage in the entire 1,500-km trip.

Turning off at Choam Khsan, 50 kms north of T'beng Meanchey, the rain had transformed the track into a muddy slip-and-slide rink. Ruts became thick bogs, and with the possibility of landmines there was no alternative route through the scrub.

Conversation ceased and a five-hour battle with the conditions ensued. The view from the back was often just enough to take one's mind off aching body parts.

Heavy, wet sand was at its deepest between Khnat and Pou, just 20 kms north of T'beng Meanchey. I tasted it twice. Most memorably steaming my ankle through my wet sock trapped under the exhaust while taking the full weight of my companion on my shin. A few calming breaths were needed after that one.

We thought we still had the worst to come from T'beng Meanchey to Stung Treng the next day, so it was an early start with a newly cleaned air filter, an oiled chain and a positive state of mind for the pain of sitting on the back again.

The 150 kms to Thalabarivat, the village opposite Stung Treng on the Mekong River, took seven hours, but thankfully paled in comparison to the difficulties faced the day before.

The scenery changed as we neared the Mekong. Foliage grew denser and the sand became a brilliant orange. Half-dressed children came out of nowhere screaming "goodbye" before we could even say hello.

A rest day in Stung Treng seemed the best opportunity to learn how to ride the bike, and if all went well, share some of the driving. After a short lesson about the gears, I managed to drive us south along the river bank without any incidents. The Honda Baja was certainly different to my little Phnom Penh moto, and my 6-foot-3 companion on the back balanced any threatening wobbles, as I couldn't touch the ground myself.

We decided I would start the driving the next day to Ban Lung, Ratanakkiri. My glory came to an end 50 kms later, after I decided to accelerate through a deep-rutted sand section, and laughing with sheer joy, just managed to keep the bike upright. My erratic behavior was not so amusing to my passenger and consequently, I was banned from sand and confined to hard-packed roads. A wise move.

The faces of the women were changing as we traveled further into Ratanakkiri. They were muscular and darkened by the sun. Images of their beautiful grins when they glanced up from their evening bath at water pumps will be forever imprinted. Fragile Phnom Penh beauties, dangling their pretty high heels off the side of a moto felt a world away.

The gradual climb through the forest to Ban Lung brought a welcome taste of fresh, cool air - a moment soon destroyed by the choking, fine orange dust that engulfed the town. After seven days on the bike, we spent a rest day jumping in and out of the heavenly crater-lake, Yeak Lom.

We passed two French dirt bikers coming from the opposite direction, looking beaten down from the two days of sand between Sen Monorom to Ban Lung - the dreaded road we were about to tackle.

This stretch of deep sand - and little else - is known in the dirt biking fraternity as "death highway". While it's possible to complete the 150 kms in a day, most stop overnight in Koh Nhek, rumored to be the secret birthplace of Hennessy.

True to form, it was tough. But each time we thought we were pushing our luck to get through difficult sections of road, around the corner would putt a decrepit moto, three locals on the back, waving cheerfully as though on a leisurely Sunday drive. And credit must be given to Mo, the naive Londoner, unaware of the terrain, who paid $60 to travel by moto the entire 150 kms in one day. He held on - in considerable discomfort - rethinking the elephant ride he'd planned for the next day.

Also sharing the road were two brave English cycle tourers struggling in the sand. We felt cruel leaving them in our dust, but promised to send out a search party if they hadn't arrived in Koh Nhek by nightfall. They beat dusk by 20 minutes. They had cycled from Vietnam and Laos down in to Cambodia, but abandoned their bikes for a pickup truck for the remainder of their trip after that day's effort. No adventure junkie likes to admit defeat, but cycling on a road called "death highway" certainly lessens the blow to the ego.

Sitting in the village restaurant in Koh Nhek, sipping well-earned Anchors and shouting at each other under the noise of a dubbed Chinese film, it felt like it would be downhill from here. We all agreed the dirt bike was the best way to travel through this part of the country. The overcrowded, struggling pickups were not appealing, small motos lacked the fun of suspension, and the Englishmen confirmed that a push-bike just wasn't worth




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