Photo: Big skies in Kompong Thom province.

Northwest Cambodia by motorbike

Cambodia’s wild northwest, where Pol Pot finally met his end and the Khmer Rouge fought their last fight, is still relatively unexplored compared to other parts of Cambodia. But intrepid souls will find some of the country’s most stunning temples, history aplenty, and a chance to explore nature -- all while scarcely passing another tourist on your path.

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Introduction

We took off on a ten-day motorbike trip around the region, one of the most exciting, exhilarating and fun trips we’ve undertaken in Cambodia. It’s also one of the rawest. There is not always much in the way of tourist infrastructure, especially in places like Anlong Veng — though that will soon be changing, thanks to the work of Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-CAM).

Simple pleasures.

Simple pleasures. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

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Beng Mealea and Koh Ker

Assuming you’re starting from Siem Reap, you could catch a bus or mini-van directly to Anlong Veng but that would mean missing out on two gorgeous temple sites along the way, namely Beng Mealea and Koh Ker Temples. If you’re not operating under your own steam, it’s seriously worth making this a discrete journey, returning to Siem Reap to continue with the rest of your exploration of the region.

Beng Mealea is virtually the archetypal jungle temple, with all of the adventure suggested by Ta Prohm, yet significantly fewer crowds. Except for the exterior wall and some internal structures, much of the temple has completely toppled, meaning you need to climb over enormous carved stones in order to explore. Good shoes are a must, as twisted ankles are a bugger to treat out here.

Looking out from Koh Ker.

Looking out from Koh Ker. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Further along, Koh Ker is a completely different experience; a ziggurat with views across vast swathes of northwestern Cambodia is the highlight of a huge city complex, with many sanctuaries still standing among the forest that has grown up around them.

With an early start, you can make it to Beng Mealea and Koh Ker, and then on to Anlong Veng and Choam all in the same day. If you prefer to take things at a more leisurely pace, there is a small but friendly guesthouse a couple of hundred metres before the ticket booth for Koh Ker.

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Anlong Veng

A strange little town, it must be said, Anlong Veng occupies a key place in modern Cambodian history. This is where Pol Pot was effectively excommunicated by the Khmer Rouge, which had taken a sudden interest in cleaning up its public image. Pol Pot, by the middle to late 1990s, had become old, unrepentant, as dogmatic as ever, and somewhat delusional. This was the man that the Khmer Rouge finally put on trial in August 1997; he was convicted in a lean-to surrounded by a rent-a-mob who yelled “Smash, smash, smash” when his list of crimes was read out. Somewhat conveniently, a little too much so some suggest, he died shortly afterwards.

Koh Ker from the ground.

Koh Ker from the ground. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Pol Pot's grave can be found at Choam, just 15 kilometres beyond Anlong Veng, near the border with Thailand. Along the bluff from here, you can also spend the night at the creepy and somewhat rundown guesthouse that was once Brother Number 5, Ta Mok the butcher’s, property. The views from here, especially around an August sunset, are stunning, and it’s a wonderful spot to wind down a busy day.

If you don’t fancy that, there are several guesthouses in Anlong Veng. We preferred Monorom as the cleanest and best value. Just across the road from there, and a little further south towards the roundabout, you’ll see an open-fronted restaurant with a red facade. They offer good traditional Cambodian food here, and the very friendly and helpful owner speaks very decent English.

Meet Anlong Veng.

Meet Anlong Veng. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

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Preah Vihear Temple and Sra’Em

To see Preah Vihear temple, you need to get yourself to Sra’Em, the market town that serves as the gateway to the site. Getting here from Anlong Veng is best done by taxi. You can pick one up just below the roundabout (on the Siem Reap road). It’ll cost either $4/$5 for a share taxi, or around $20/$25 for a private one to yourself. Negotiate, you’ll most likely be quoted more than this initially. Alternatively, you can pick up one of the Rith Mony buses en route from Siem Reap.

Preah Vihear, the temple in the clouds, sits on top of a 650-metre cliff commanding stunning views across a huge swathe of northern central Cambodia. Provided it’s not raining. Or cloudy. Preah Vihear is a completely different experience from other temples, not just because of the views, but because of the way it gradually reveals itself along a kilometre long causeway that rises up into the sky. For those who can get there, it is one of the loveliest temple experiences in Cambodia.

Pol Pot's grave.

Pol Pot's grave. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

If you are travelling on a rented motorbike, don’t even attempt the ascent to the temple unless you are very confident in your own skills and equally confident in your bike’s performance. The road becomes gut-churningly steep on the last few stretches; it’s even worse when you have to go back down again.

Back in the nearby town of Sra’Em, there’s not a great deal going on other than being a base for visitors to Preah Vihear. We did however find a restaurant that serves up a delicious beef claypot. It’s called Lemy’s, and it’s just to the north of the market, on the road to Preah Vihear. If you ask around — just say “Squall Lemy’s?” — you’ll find it.

The view from by Ta Mok's house

The view from by Ta Mok's house Photo: Nicky Sullivan

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Kompong Thom

From Sra’Em, it’s a straight run down to Kampong Thom, albeit a longish one. The 260km journey can take up to seven hours by bus, since so many of the provincial buses make unscheduled stops along the way. A taxi can cost around $45 to $50 privately, or around $8 for a share taxi.

But, once you get here, this is where things can slow down a little, and also where you’re going to do a little U-turn from. The capital of Kompong Thom province, Kompong Thom is a mid-sized Cambodian city with a thriving market, lazy river and just a few low key things to do and see. If you can, check in to Sambor Village, a lovely relaxed retreat, which you will have earned after two nights of very and fairly basic accommodation. Even if you can’t, it’s also a nice spot to drop in for dinner.

Taking a rest at Preah Vihear.

Taking a rest at Preah Vihear. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

We’d recommend taking a day to wander around Kompong Thom, maybe visit some of the nearer temples. There’s a small but free museum, hit the market, and enjoy a lazy stroll along the river and town . You can also rent bicycles and there is a gorgeous dirt track that leads north of the city from the western side of the bridge. The next day is going to be long.

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Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan, Betreed

Temples, jungles, zip lines. What more could you ask for? You’ll need to organise a taxi for today, which will likely cost about $100. You will also need to coordinate with Betreed, to make sure they send someone to collect you either at Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, or at one of the villages in between.

Kompong Thom pagoda.

Kompong Thom pagoda. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Sambor Prei Kuk is the site of a pre-Angkorian city, with dozens of temple remains dedicated to the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma scattered about a large forest. It is one of the lovelier temple sites that we’ve visited, and completely different from anything you may have seen at Angkor. But this is just the starter.

Preah Khan of Kampong Svay is further on, and a site that once held near mythical status, not so much for its beauty or mystery, though it has plenty of those, but for how monstrously difficult it was to get there. Lucky for you it’s very easily accessible now, along a reasonable, if occasionally bumpy, red dirt road, and is about 100 kilometres from Kompong Thom.

Sambor Prei Kuk

Sambor Prei Kuk Photo: Nicky Sullivan

This temple, built by the “warrior king” and prolific builder, Jayavarman VII, of Ta Prohm, Bayon, Preah Khan and Banteay Chhmar fame, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay will very likely be deserted as you approach the inner enclosures along grassy paths flanked by small, stone structures, and the occasional cow. Small is a relative concept of course, they’re roughly the size of crofters’ cottages, but dwarfed within the grounds of this very romantic site.

The temple is approached along a broken causeway, and if you’re with people, you would be paid to separate yourself from them, and wander around alone. There’s something reflective in the air here, and it’s not just the mosquitoes, of which there are legions. Bring spray.

Exploring Preah Khan.

Exploring Preah Khan. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Your next leg is to Betreed. This is a wonderful site buried deep in the forest — the nearest local village is more than five kilometres away — where a family who have lived in Cambodia for 20 years have created a wonder world around the wondrous world that is Cambodian woods and wildlife. On the edges of the Boeng Prae Wildlife Sanctuary, Sharyn and Ben Davis have staked out hikes, ziplines, and incredible treehouses that add up to an unforgettable experience. We have ever since been trying to work out how we can just move in.

From here, they’ll be able to help you work you way back to Siem Reap, just a three-hour journey away, and where you may want to collapse into the arms of the first masseuse you see.

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Logistics

You can tackle this in a number of ways. For maximum flexibilty, it’s possible to hire scooters or motorbikes out of Siem Reap now, though you may need to pay a hefty deposit for longer-term rentals and will certainly need to hand over your passport for security. On the other hand, we don’t really recommend hitting Cambodia’s roads without some sort of guidance. It’s not just that it’s dangerous, which it is, but not being in a position to ask for help when accidents do happen can put you in a very difficult situation up north. A 250cc dirt bike, if you can negotiate one, will cost about $40 per day, while a scooter will be from $8 to $15 depending on the make.

The forests around Betreed.

The forests around Betreed. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

One alternative is to book a tour with one of the several motorcycle touring companies based in Siem Reap. They have the guides, the knowledge and the support that can get you safely to any and all of the below.

A car and driver will cost between $80 and $100 per day, which includes their food and accommodation. They may well choose to dine and stay separately from you. Private taxis also operate between the principal destinations. Another option is shared taxi, which would work between the principal towns, and would usually costs about $5 per stage. You will have to wait until the taxi is full before it departs, so you do lose a little control over your timing. But that’s what holidays are for, right? There are buses to and between the principal destinations too, in particular GST and Rith Mony run services. There may also be minivan services en route between larger destinations, such as Siem Reap and Preah Vihear city that can be picked up en route.

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