The Death Highway

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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."

Mab's Daelim and the general road conditions

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.

Looking out towards Ban Lung...somewhere

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.

Lost south of Koh Nhek

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".

Kids in Koh Nhek

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.

Big skies north of Koh Nhek

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.

Crossing the Srepok river

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.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.

Read 4 comment(s)

  • Hi. I did this trip with friend from Ban Lung to Sen Monorom (191km) on mountain bikes. It was great fun, but not really dangerous and I certainly wouldn't call it a 'death highway' anymore (although it was the dry season when we did it)! We took 2.5 days. There were lots of villages (except for the bit between 5km south of Lumphat and 20km north of Koh Nyek (the Mondulkiri border). There was a clear track nearly all the way, a bit like a UK bridleway. There was one turning where we weren't sure, but there were moto drivers passing every 30 mins, so it wasn't long before we could check with someone. South of Koh Nyek it is now a sealed road (boring except for the beautiful hills).
    If cycling it, we'd definitely recommend starting at Sen Monorom as it's much more downhill from there! You could do it in 2 days no problem.
    It's the first long ride I've ever done, so it's not just for fitness fanatics!
    We stayed in Khmer houses at Lumphat and Koh Nyek with no difficulties.
    I'm happy to give more info if anyone wants it.

    Posted by Hazel Clargo on 28th March, 2009

  • Hi Hazel,
    I really want to make this trip by bike. Could you give me more specific information please? Thanks, Mariette

    Posted by Mariette on 12th February, 2010

  • Same as Haze, my friend and myself plan to do it next week. Any complementary info is welcome.

    Posted by bikeforfun on 9th April, 2010

  • I'd love some more info, Hazel, but I suppose it's a bit late to ask...did you post any of your experiences to a blog, or Flickr, or...?

    Posted by Lynn on 12th December, 2011

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