Story and photographs by Nate Clark
Jun 9, 2019
IT’S ONLY 10 A.M. but I’ve already arrived at today’s destination: the tiny village of Sra Em in northern Cambodia, just 30 kilometers from the Thai border. Sra Em is known mostly for its 11th-century Preah Vihear temple complex, a massive, sloping series of Angkor-style temples built to resemble the mythical Mount Meru— home to the Hindu gods and center of the spiritual universe. For me it’s just a pit stop. I’m riding much further east, to the rarely visited city of Banlung in Ratanakiri Province—Cambodia’s real life Heart of Darkness.
Today’s 200-kilometer ride from Siem Reap on my rented 110cc Kawasaki motorbike was a straight shot, almost too easy, and now I’m ahead of schedule. I won’t go to the temple until at least 4 p.m., when the light is best for photography. I hit the hotel pool but I can’t relax. All I can think about is riding. I head to my room to grab helmet and keys and soon I’m back in the green countryside, waving at monks and looking out for wild elephants.
Ten years ago, locals jokingly referred to Cambodia’s highway system as “The Dancing Way,” because the uneven grades and deep potholes forced you to “dance” for the entire journey. Once a seven-hour mission on terrain resembling a dry riverbed, the bus-ride from the Thai border to Siem Reap is now just a painless three-hour run thanks to a massive international effort to improve the country’s roads in the mid-2000s. Since then, Cambodia’s highway system has made a quantum leap forward, especially in less-traveled regions like Ratanakiri. Perfect for a motorcycle trip.
A year ago, I passed through Banlung on my way to Cambodia’s southern beaches but only stayed a night—something I always regretted after experiencing the roads and landscapes. When a three-week window opened up in my schedule in January, I rented a motorbike and headed east again, this time with no itinerary.
THE NEXT DAY, after a glorious morning ride from Sra Em, I enter Banlung for the second time. I choose a room at Banlung Balcony, a mostly wooden, lakeside affair with large, airy spaces and a pool. From here, I’m in daytrip heaven. I use it as a base for six days easily filled by riding out to villages, hiking to all five nearby waterfalls and diving into the crystal clear waters of one of Asia’s best swimming holes: the sacred Yeak Lom, a perfectly circular crater lake formed 4,000 years ago by a volcanic eruption. Its fairytale beauty is mind-boggling. The Khmer Loeu, eastern Cambodia’s indigenous peoples, consider the lake home to enormous spiritual beings who protect the land.
The completion of the eastern road to Banlung resulted in a massive jolt to the local economy. No longer dependent on cross-border imports from nearby Laos or Vietnam, the city of 20,000 residents now enjoys its own thriving downtown core featuring a modern, air-conditioned supermarket, trendy cafés, high-quality clothing shops and even a popular nightclub where Banlung’s youth rock out to high-decibel Khmer pop.
Banlung’s up-and-coming resort and restaurant scene centers on the shores of picturesque Kan Seng Lake, just a 10-minute walk from town. At night, travelers gather here to exchange stories, sip ice-cold Angkor beers and devour curried amok on one of the breezy lakeside patios. I spend most of my evenings on the wooden veranda of Banlung Balcony, chatting with the gregarious French chef-owner Franck Burlet as he prepares the handmade, stone-oven pizzas that have made him famous among Banlung’s small community of expats.
After so many days spent riding in and out of Banlung on my motorcycle, I fill my last in town napping by the hotel pool. It feels strange, just letting the bike sit in the parking lot on such a fine afternoon. After only a week back in the saddle, I already miss riding. I think I’m starting to understand the way cowboys feel about horses. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.
NEARBY KRATIE IS a nature lover’s paradise. Most travelers come here to paddle the Mekong in kayaks, cycle the rural trails of nearby Koh Trong Island, or to catch a glimpse of the endangered Mekong Irrawaddy Dolphin. From Banlung, the last 30 kilometers of the journey to Kratie is sublime—riding on the riverbanks through tiny Muslim fishing villages where life has remained unchanged for decades.
I ride south along Kratie’s stunning riverfront promenade. Eventually the concrete gives way to the red dirt lanes of the Roka Kandal fishing community—truly a place from another time. Outside the village’s modest temple, the 200-year-old Wat Roka Kandal, a family invites me to their stilted house on the river’s edge. As I approach the small cluster of wooden residences, life begins to slow down. Small children play games under the shade of banana trees while shirtless fishermen prepare their nets for tomorrow’s catch. One of Kratie’s legendary sunsets is in its early stages. Soon, glasses of homemade whisky are passed around, and a paper plate heaped with delicious fish and rice is placed in front of me. I’m overwhelmed. Cambodians know hospitality.
I wonder, if the situation were reversed, and a strange-looking foreigner suddenly appeared on my doorstep in Canada, how long it would take me to have dinner on the table?
THE FINAL 150-KILOMETER stretch back to Siem Reap is the least scenic part of the journey, and as the serene rural roads begin to widen it dawns on me that my adventure is about to end.
Cambodia, however, still has one more experience to etch into memory: I see a hat fly from a small motorbike seconds after it passes me on the two-lane highway. The young rider doesn’t stop or look back. I slow the Kawasaki and pick up the frayed, blue baseball cap. I stuff it into my coat and kick the bike into gear.
I pass through a tiny village and recognize the rider’s bright yellow jacket ahead. I follow him down a red dirt lane toward the river and pull up alongside him. I hold up the hat in triumph. He’s startled at first, but when he sees the cap he starts to laugh. Speaking some English, he introduces himself as Leem. He points to the hat and says, “My father.” Some locals approach and Leem says some words in Khmer. Hilarity ensues. Within minutes the whole village has surrounded us and I’m shaking hands like crazy. I beam with pride. Mission successful. These unexpected connections are what motorcycle riding is all about. I fire up the bike one last time and begin my final push toward the city.
Nationals of ASEAN countries do not need visas, nationals of most others can obtain a visa on arrival, but visit evisa.gov.kh for information specific to your nationality.
TOURS AND RENTALS
Cambodia Motorbike Adventures (day-trips from US$70) is a respected Siem Reap outfit that tailors tours for riders of all skill levels. Veteran guide Paul Hay even takes newbies on day-trips to nearby temples before the real adventure. If you’re set on self-guiding, Paul also offers a “phone tour” where he stays on-call 24/7 to translate and answer questions by telephone.
Known for their well- maintained bikes and friendly customer service, Siem Reap Scooter Rental (small motorbikes from US$10 per day) is the go-to place for rentals in Siem Reap. They rent by the day, week or month.
If you’re leaving from Phnom Penh, Sam Stretton and his wife, Emily, from Cambodia Motorcycle Adventures (tours from US$95 per day), have been guiding in Cambodia since 2011. For added comfort, a support vehicle will drop your bags at each hotel before you arrive.
In the village of Sra Em, the modern Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel (doubles from US$45) serves as the jumping off point for visitors to the nearby Preah Vihear temple complex. The hotel features big rooms with garden views, an outdoor pool and a games room.
Ratanakiri-Boutique Hotel (doubles from US$32) is a French colonial property with breezy, wood-furnished rooms and balconies that overlook Kan Seng Lake.
The tallest building in Banlung, Yeak Lom Hotel and Spa (doubles from US$60) has a rooftop bar that boasts the city’s best views. A short walk from the restaurants at Kan Seng Lake, it’s a great base to organize your day trips. Their impressive spa is in a lush, tropical garden.
Café Alee (+855 89 473 767; 78A Chey Chomneas Village; mains from US$4) features coffees, fresh baked bread and locally sourced ingredients; this is the place for breakfast in Banlung.
French chef Franck Burlet at Banlung Balcony (mains from US$4; doubles from US$10) serves world-class pizzas; his charming wife handles the Khmer favorites. Come early because this lakeside favorite fills up after 7 p.m.
The city’s real Khmer eateries are on the streets surrounding the Banlung Market. Tanam (+855 97 557 8555; mains from US$1.50), just east of the market’s main entrance, is popular for breakfast, while Mey Mey Café (mains from US$1.50) is well known for its tasty barbecue. Try lap Khmer, a lime-marinated beef salad, on most menus.