How do you get across a mountain range when most of the roads are closed and those that are still open are in terrible condition?
You could get a few busses all the way around, but that runs the risk of leaving you stranded somewhere on election day in a country that has previously had some “issues” with elections. Alternatively you could jump in a 4×4 taxi that drives along a border patrol road – road is a generous term in this case – over and around the edge of some of the mountains until you get to a paved road which will then take you back into civilisation.
We chose the second option as we figured it couldn’t be worse than multiple busses in a county where bus transport had hardly been our friend.
The taxi met us in Koh Kong, already laden with 1 driver and 10 passengers. We made it 13 people. In a 5-seater vehicle. We were lucky though – we got to share the front seat so unlike the 5 passengers across the back seat and 5 in the boot, we could at least see where we were going. Our bags had to go on the roof though as all the indoor space was full of human, which is when we very much regretted not having bag covers – the 10 hour journey ahead of us through a monsoon soaked mountain range didn’t seem likely to result in anything inside them (including various fairly key electrical items) remaining even slightly dry.
So with a surprisingly relaxed attitude to the journey ahead of us, we set off. After 20 minutes it was lunchtime, so we all got out and went to a place that sold rice boxes. This gave us a quick opportunity to buy a couple of ponchos and tie them onto our bags to give them at least some kind of protection. After lunch, we set off again, this time to actually get on with it & work our way towards Pursat, a small town on the other side of the mountains.
We quickly moved from paved roads to heavily eroded dirt roads and our taxi driver’s skills were then tested constantly for a number of hours as he navigated the holes, mud, streams and steep hills as we ventured up the border with Thailand on a road that did not exist on our maps. Only a couple of times did one of the passenigers have to jump out and assist, with the many gears available proving very effective.
Claire had the uncomfortable seat between me & the driver, as my legs were too long and got in the way of the gearstick. It wasn’t until later in the journey we realised just how uncomfortable she was though – my seat was basically fine & I had a pretty nice journey!
The first leg of the drive was bumpy and very very slow, I was keeping tabs on it via our maps app to see where we were actually going and we essentially skirted the Cambodia/Thailand border for a number of miles. This allowed us to not only see the mountains – which were beautiful – but to also see the various other features of the route, including the section which remains packed full of landmines as soon as you stray from the road, which was both unexpected and quite worrying. The mines were laid by the Khmer Rouge to protect the borders while they were busy destroying the rest of the country.
Cambodians really seem to struggle with their bladders so we had regular short stops for someone to go & pee. One of these stops was a bit longer and while we were hanging around in the baking sun (which did actually make an appearance for us!) we all had to gather water from the stream on the side of the road in bottles & plastic bags before throwing it through the wheels onto the brakes to help cool them down. They were incredibly hot and most of the water evaporated in about a millisecond. Given we were in the middle of nowhere, a breakdown would have been an extremely unwelcome problem so we were more than happy to help!
The journey went on and on and on but we could at least see the scenery and watch the driver filming the bits of road he particularly liked, usually the most difficult sections which you’d have thought he’d want both hands on the wheel for but he apparently felt otherwise! Eventually, we stopped for some food just after the highest point of our journey in a spot where the car could sit on a little ford with the bonnet up & more water being splashed on it to cool everything down. One of the passengers even had a little swim to cool off! It was a beautiful spot and the driver was clearly happy to have made it that far with the roads now becoming more commonly paved, albeit only in the particularly damaged areas.
On we went again, soon reaching a half built casino that marked the end of the dodgy mountain road and the start of the fully paved main road that would take us all the way to Pursat. Getting this far had taken about 5 hours, and we still had about 4 more to go, so we were tired and starting to get a bit grumpy but delighted to be back on real roads in one piece and now more confident that we would actually make it to our destination that day.
The next bit of the journey was surprisingly nice – the road was a major highway that was still slightly under construction, but weaved around the hills and forest giving us plenty of amazing views. The highlight had to be where the road descended from the hills down into the valley below via a long, narrowing series of sweeping bends that vaguely resembled the shape of a snake coiled in a pyramid with it’s head poking out of the top. The view from this section of the road was incredible. On a clear day it would be astonishing & they have even made the effort to make the road itself quite pretty with little sections of streams & flowers as you go along. I can see that route becoming a major tourist attraction for people driving between Bangkok & Phnom Penh when the road has been completed.
Now back down out of the hills, it was simply a long slog along fairly slow roads all the way to Pursat. At this point we swapped seats as Claire was really starting to struggle and I quickly realised how horrible that spot was & how well she had done to last that long in it. The driver even suggested putting one of my legs into his footwell, which I declined to help avoid any confusion as to what consisted of a gear stick! Now about 8 hours into the drive, everyone was tired, bored and just wanted to get there. The driver was on his 3rd can of energy drink and was visibly exhausted, so as night drew in and the light faded we were hoping it wouldn’t be too much further.
It now became a pretty terrifying journey as our sleepy driver navigated his way around the tractors, cars and motorbikes that were all over the road, in the dark without any lights in a sort of real life but completely unrealistic hazard perception test. Particularly noteworthy highlights were the motorbikes going the wrong way up the hard shoulder with no lights on, the local wooden tractors chugging along without lights or reflectors and with massive wooden poles sticking out of the back ready to impale anyone who wasn’t fully switched on and the sheer number of people walking around on & near the road without any lighting to help them be seen. Remarkably, we didn’t see a single accident & our driver managed to not hit any of the hazards – including the ones that I absolutely didn’t see until it would have been too late.
Eventually, in hour 10 we started dropping people off as we went past their destinations and finally arrived in Pursat after a very very tiring day. We were thrilled to be there though. We’d been lucky with the weather and our bags had remained dry, but I honestly think if it had been raining all day we would have ended up stuck with the car unable to pass along most of the early roads.
The hotel in Pursat we had planned to stay in was sadly full (we were pretty much scared off by one of the people stood out front in what was to be the first of many fairly dodgy feeling encounters in this town all relating to the election in 2 days time including seeing a number of people being bussed into town in military style trucks) so we went to get some much needed beer. After also having some food and making use of the wifi in order to find another hotel, we went to bed exhausted and ready to continue our journey the following day to Siem Reap, our last destination in Cambodia.