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Get Your Kicks on Route 66

October 21, 2004

by Jim CA2

I know there is hope for the country as the other day my landlord gave a local shoe shine boy some clothes for the Pchum Ben holiday. Instead of saying thank you, taking the clothes and running off, he reciprocated by telling her to get a couple pair shoes that he could shine for her.

Get Your Kicks on Route 66

As the rainy season is coming to a close, locals and tourist will be planning their riding adventures. Many routes now have been paved making it easier to reach the starting points for many great rides. From Phnom Penh you can now reach the following destinations on paved tarmac: Siem Reap, Battambang and Sisophon, Kampot, Kep via Kampong Trach, Sihanoukville and in the not too distant future Stoeng Treng via Kratie. Route 66 has not joined the ranks of paved roads and has been one of the must do rides for the adventure traveler.

Route 66 actually begins at the temples of Angkor Wat and heads east about 100K to the Temple of Preah Khan or as the locals know it as Prasat Bakan at the south west corner of Preah Vihear Province. This is not an easy ride as the route will take you through stretches of mud, sand, overgrown trails camouflaging stumps and fallen trees. Your cruising speed won’t exceed 30K an hour for any great length of time. Then there is the issue of landmines. The route is heavily mined so do not venture off the trails and make sure you stick to trails that are heavily worn by ox carts (which take longer but ideally are the best way to travel this route), vehicles, or other motorbikes.

We began our trip from Siem Reap and picked up Route 66 from the temple at Beng Mealea. From Siem Reap, travel back towards Phnom Penh on Rt. 6 to the town of Dam Daek and head north from the market. The dirt road from Dam Daek to Beng Mealea is in pretty good condition and you should be there with in an hour and a half of leaving Siem Reap. Spending time at the temple will eat up precious daylight so I would recommend it as a separate day trip from Siem Reap. Asking a few motodops about the route to Preah Khan, we left Beng Mealea under the false impression that our 250cc motorbikes could make better time than their Daelims.

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Travel prepared to spend a night in the bush. Leaving Siem Reap early you can make it to Bakan by nightfall if everything goes well, but there is plenty to see and many stops you will make along the way. Our journey began a little late and we spent time at Beng Mealea, therefore we didn’t make it to Preah Khan in a day. Make sure you pack enough water, necessary tools for your bikes (unless you opt for an ox cart), insect repellant, hammocks and mosquito nets. A machete wouldn’t be a bad choice either.

The first half of the journey will take you into thick jungle on a sandy trail with land mine warnings bordering the adjacent forest. Encountering big puddles along the way you will have no choice other than to drive right through them. Occasionally a small clearing will appear where a few thatch houses are homes to workers who brave the mine filled forest to cut down trees. In some areas the road improves to a nice drive through forest canopies, but the main reward for your efforts are approximately 10 ancient bridges that remain obscure to inattentiveness. Laterite stones on the path, or an occasional hump in the road is the only indication of their existence. We made a stop at one small bridge along the way and attracted the interest of a villager and his sister. They were very friendly and interested in our journey as they don’t see too many foreigners pass through their neighborhood. The girl had a pretty smile, but crows feet around her eyes indicated the 20 years of her existence hadn’t been easy. A tree at the bridge had been scripted in red paint marking their domain was clear of mines, though I couldn’t imagine how well the area could have been cleared.

Most impressive of the bridges is a span of about 70 meters and is located about seven kilometers west of the town of Khuav. Fallen Nagas mark the beginning of the bridge made up of massive columns. The river banks as well are shored up with ancient stones. I was awestruck at the work that went into this bridge site in the middle of dense forest and how this site probably was a rest stop for water during the long journey to Prasat Bakan. We arrived at sunset when a family was wrapping up their day bathing and doing laundry. Just like the villagers at the previous bridge, they were as curious about us as we were with them.

Next stop Khuav. Happy we were to arrive in Khuav. It marked the midway point of our journey but more importantly they had Crown Beer and Ice. There were three of us traveling and we put away a case of beer that evening. Villagers gathered at the roadside to stand to check us out. The road south out of Khuav appeared to be in pretty decent shape as there were a few newer looking Honda Dreams that made their way to the village in pretty good condition. One was driven by a slightly plump woman of about 30 years old who was curious and made her presence known to the three western travelers. After gawking at us for over an hour she took off only to arrive again at breakfast the next morning with make up and tight jeans about three sizes too small. I think I would have needed another five days in the jungle to recognize her sex appeal.

As night approached I made a search for accommodation. A villager rented us a house for five dollars and it included a battery and fluorescent lamp. We strung our hammocks and mosquito nets diagonally across the support columns for the wooden structure. I was dead tired and opted to sleep early, but my partners Matt and Mark spread a little more cash around the village. Sleeping early wasn’t a good idea as I was awakened around nine pm by the CPP campaign song that was played over and over and over and over and over. I presume the battery finally gave way to the local karaoke machine around midnight, but it didn’t stop the next village to recant the same song through the jungle for a few more hours. Add ear plugs to that packing list.

The next morning about 0800 after blowing a few kisses to miss tight jeans we set off east through puddles the early morning showers had left behind. Our continued journey brought us into more jungle. We passed a pickup truck loaded with some migrant workers stuck in the mud. This was a “dried up” riverbed. During the wet season I can’t imagine getting through here. Amazingly enough, the workers were able to free the pickup by laying out branches across the gooey terrain. And to think in the western world, TV commercials with lame by comparison locations actually sell off road vehicles.

We hit an area of high grass in the forest where we met an oxcart. We pulled over to give way, but unlike Phnom Penh drivers, he simultaneously extended the same courteousness. The grass got high and it got thick. I was a little concerned about the loss of the trail but we braved through the high grass sticking to what vaguely resembled a trail with out getting blown up and found a more distinct trail again.

About three hours into our journey we found what we were looking for. A small vine covered prasat emerged from the jungle. Mark had gotten off his bike to take a look and immediately did a two-step to avoid a snake. He was able to get a blurred photo of what looked to be some kind of viper before it disappeared into the thicket. This temple sat outside and outer wall that encompassed a baray that spans approximately five square kilometers. We continued along the wall to a structure on the east end of the complex. It was a temple adorned with the four-headed Bayon face relief. Jake from Adventure Cambodia had told me that it was one of three temples that display the Bayon heads. The temples at Bayon and Banteay Chmar are the other two. Set your GPS to N13° 24’ 724” E104°45’422” to get to this temple. After exploring this temple we went to the main site through a large walled entry way.

Taking nothing away from its grandeur, we were disappointed to find that this site had been ravaged in recent years by looters who had a free for all with power tools. The looters have been able to work unimpaired as this site is very remote and difficult to get to. Whole reliefs have been removed from the corners of the main structures and fallen rocks litter the site. Walking around the site rubble of what was once remarkable sculptures lay scattered on the ground. If you are reading this on line and know some one in the western world with nice Angkorian sculptures in their houses….kick their ass as they are the ones ultimately responsible for the destruction of such a fantastic site.

From the main site we continued east with relative ease to the town of Ta Seng. We traveled a few kilometers north to Prasat Damrei (elephant temple) that is a pyramid that overlooks a lake. Our military map of the area revealed that Prasat Damrei was an integral part of the design of the Bakan site. A straight line east from the main site bisects the Bayon headed temple and the elephant temple. Matt had suggested we camp at such a wonderful setting, but succumbed to my desire to get back to civilization.

We left Ta Seng around two pm and asked the villagers about the continuation of Route 66 which would have take us to the road that connects Kampong Thom to T’beng Meanchey. We were told that there were rivers that were too high to cross at this time. Thinking back I think the villagers were having a laugh on us.

We set off south to Stoung located on Route 6. It didn’t seem like such a great distance on our map, however this was the worst parts of our journey. The beginning of the route we found ourselves on sandy track dodging deep ox cart grooves. A few more deep puddles and small villages later we hit a clearing and the village of Okuauar. The whole village came out to see us and we felt as if we had just liberated France. The road leaving Okuauar was wider and we thought we were home free. Okuauar was an isolated outpost. A few kilometers out of town the road was crater after crater filled with water. Losing daylight, we blasted through the water we would have made an effort to go around earlier in the day. As we finally lost daylight I saw a sign for the medical facility at Dong. We had only traveled ¾ of the way to Route 6. I don’t know what we were thinking but this was probably one of the most dangerous journeys to do at night. We encountered partial bridges, some with planks missing, and later found ourselves on dirt mounds that were to be new road construction. Cruising on the elevated dirt embankment Mark had made a sudden stop at a twig stuck in the ground with a rag attached to the branches. This marked a sudden drop as one day there would be a bridge connecting the two hills. We drove down the hillside and continued along the roadway until we arrived at a wat. We asked the locals at the wat how far to Stoung? Only a few more kilometers on that better road across the new road construction. What road? We don’t see any road, it was pitch black outside. But we crossed the mound of dirt and found ourselves on a dirt village side road that let us out on Route 6 at a gas station about 8:30PM. Six hours from Ta Seng we had reached the main road, and now we would continue on for approximately the same distance to Kampong Thom, but this was on paved road and that paved road would cut five hours off this leg of the journey.

If you consider getting your kicks on Route 66, December-April is the best time as there is less water. There is little breeze and it is hot and sticky. Preah Khan can be reached from Kampong Thom in a day but you will cross a couple rivers and water level depends on the time of the year. You can also get to Khuav from Kouk Thlok Kroam the next major town between Stoung and Dam Daek. – Jim CA2



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