The Death Highway
First published 17th July, 2006
I'd long considered the overland trip from the capital of Mondulkiri, Sen Monorom, to Rattanakiri's capital of Ban Lung, but the combination of my not being a particularly accomplished motorcyclist, and not knowing of any other means to do it, had led me to settle on a trip to Sen Monorom alone. So imagine my surprise when, as I walked into Sen Monorom from Vibol's Guesthouse, two Daelim drivers rode up and asked "Rattanakiri?"
Mab and Neung looked like they had just ridden to Sen Monorom from Ulaanbaatar. Their bikes were caked with at least three inches of mud, grime and filth. English-speaking Mab, with his combat fatigues and an army-issue water bottle strapped across his chest looked shattered, while Neung was content to sit on his bike chain-smoking as Mab gave us the spiel.
I was immediately interested, and my travelling companion A, having missed an opportunity to do the trip a few years earlier, didn't need much convincing.
"How long and how much?" we asked.
Mab looked at Neung for a moment and then turned back to us.
"The trip should take about 10 hours. We came yesterday from Ban Lung and the last part was bad but otherwise road ok. The price is $50."
Fifty dollars! Ban Lung is a good 200 km north of Sen Monorom -- working out at about $1 for every 4 km. We look at the very well worked-over bike and taking into consideration what we'd heard about the road, we figure the price, while expensive, would probably be worth it -- it turned out to be worth every penny.
"So when do we leave?"
Referred to in Matt Jacobson's Adventure Cambodia as Death Highway, the "road" from Sen Monorom to Ban Lung is a pretty special affair. For dirtbike enthusiasts, the trip enjoys legendary status and many a tale of monumental hardship. Fjording nasty rivers, reconstructing smashed up motorbikes and splinting smashed up limbs, while simultaneously finding the right trail among dense forest, grassy plains and unsignposted trail-fork after fork.
Our 06:00 take-off rolled into a 06:45 departure as we bought water, raincoats and stuffed ourselves with a Pech Kiri yummy breakfast. Then in a blaze of dust we left Sen Monorom's bright red dirt airstrip behind us.
The road started out great -- still a little slippery in places -- but overall an easy ride. Within an hour or two we were planning afternoon activities in Ban Lung -- oh how wrong we were to be.
After the graded stretch, the road continued wide and flat, with hardly any potholes. Lots of little bridges crossed creeks and small rivers. Villages here and there dotted the way. Lots and lots and lots of kids.
Then, around 35-40 km into the trip, Mab slowed down and veered diagonally for the left-hand shoulder. Thinking he was calling a toilet stop, I got ready to hop off, only to spy at the last minute a "goat track" veering off into the forest -- this was the "road" to Ban Lung.
The road deteriorated rapidly and alternated between mud, rock channels carved by erstwhile fast flowing waters, sand and dust. Fallen trees necessitated forays off into the surrounding forest, while all around us the forest towered.
We reached some fine stands of forest and Mab mentioned how he'd like to run two day one night camping trips along this route. A fine idea -- I asked why he wasn't already doing it. As always money is the issue. With a small influx of money, he could buy a few tents, a better bike and get started -- yet, as with so many situations in Cambodia, the lack of just a few hundred dollars stops so many ideas before they even get off the ground.
Three hours, four hours pass, we still weren't at the halfway point of Koh Nhek. The road continued to get worse. Thrown around and bouncing on the back of the bike almost continually had my back in a continual state of intense pain. Already I'd lost much of the feeling in my left hand -- weeks later, in Bangkok I'd need to undergo treatment to address the damage I was doing to my body.
We reached an even smaller, crappier trail running off to the left.
"To Kratie," mumbled Mab as we rock and roll our way past.
I laughed out loud and asked after the road condition.
"It is bad, very bad" he said. "I ride it once. Never again".
We eventually reached Koh Nhek via a dusty, appallingly buffalo-rutted road that runs into the eventual crossroads that mark Koh Nhek. We threw up our feet at the local karaoke bar/restaurant place. Dust was everywhere -- all through the camera gear, on every surface of our bodies -- touch anything and a miniature cloud of super fine red dust puffed up.
Towards the back of the restaurant sat a large glass jar with its lid tightly sealed. Within sat about three inches of meat seething in maggots. We called over Mab to ask after it and after a long pause he confided it was "beef with special sauce".
After Koh Nhek the scenery changed. Grassy plains, occasional paddies and a trickle of villages. According to Mab the whole area was decimated by logging some 10 to 15 years earlier -- mainly at the hands of Vietnamese logging interests. While Mab mouthed off at the Vietnamese gutting his country, he had few words for the local politicians who no doubt profited handsomely from the ravaging of the same forests.
While there's much regrowth, already sections are marked for relogging, and in the distance we heard chainsaws. The regrowth was interrupted by grassy plains with very sandy soil making it difficult to ride in. In these plains nothing grew but grass. Like small moonscapes carved out of the forest, we wondered why they were there: No answers from Mab or Neung.
It was getting late and we were yet to reach the Srepok River. Made famous by Apocalypse Now, the Srepok was the river upon which Colonel Kurtz's fictional base was sited. The town on the far side of the Srepok is Lumphat -- once the capital of Rattanakiri province until it was obliterated by US bombing. Rumour has it the road from Lumphat onwards is fine.
We were still on the track when dusk fell. We had been riding almost 11 hours with just a break in Koh Nhek by the time we reached the Srepok. With a rising moon behind us and the last remnants of sunset on the horizon, we wheeled the bikes down onto a raft of two sampans and the boatman poled us off into the current.
The last hour or so was the dustiest part of the entire trip and, due to a temple fair in Lumphat, traffic was heavy -- as was the dust.
When we reached the main Ban Lung to Stung Treng road, I was ready to get off the bike and kiss the road. Then 30 minutes later when we arrive at a guesthouse in Ban Lung, I'm ready to kiss Mab.
The Sen Monorom to Ban Lung trip is an amazing one. I'm very glad we did it. The timing, in early November, was perfect, when the heaviest of the rains were finished, yet the dust hadn't had time to really get going. So if you find yourself in Sen Monorom and a moto pulls up suggesting a bit of bush-bashing -- go for it.
Read 4 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (16)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (18)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (9)
- Thailand (79)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (32)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.