Mud and Glory
The idea had been born with sunshine in mind. All the preparations had been made with sunshine in mind. Sunshine was in fact an integral part of the plan. Just someone forgot to mention the fact to the Big Man upstairs.
HUMBLE BEGINNINGS: It all began in December 1998, as a handful of intrepid adventurers set off for the hills of Monduklkiri in the first-ever organized mototrcycle tour in the Kingdom.
Sitting in the lobby of the Mekong Hotel in Kampong Cham, 29 dirtbike-mounted riders and the drivers and passengers of the four back-up vehicles watched as CNN almost gleefully announced that the winds of the little storm on the Vietnamese coast had hit over 120 kilometers per hour.
For the first time in living memory it was going to rain in December, and God, with a sharp sense of timing, had booked it to arrive December 12th, the start of the First Mondulkiri Rally-Raid 1998.
The fun kicked off earlier that day when the tour collected together at the Olympic Stadium, site of another first, the first Open Go-Kart Championship round held in Phnom Penh. We were scheduled to do a few victory laps of the circuit somewhere in the middle of the first rounds of the kart races, the cyclo race and the dance session from the chipper-looking cheerleaders.
Having successfully completed a few laps (a bit early in the game to fall off, with 400 kms of the best tarmac and dirt roads in the country ahead of us), the majority of the 29 dirtbike entrants followed Big Ben, one half of the Angkor Dirt Bike Tours team, and hit the little known river road to Kompong Cham.
The Land Rover support team, headed by Glen Robinson of Cambodia Astra Motor Ltd, would then steer the Land Rover Discovery, Defender 90 and ex-army aluminum-bodied ‘Light Landie’ along the main highway to our first night’s rendezvous at the Mekong Hotel, in Kampong Cham.
The Defender was also pulling the trailer full of supplies that included spare parts, a complete barbecue and enough food to feed this little mobile army for at least three days of the five-day expedition. The clouds were already gathering as the last of the team pulled out of the TOTAL petrol station next to the railway station.
The idea had started sensibly enough over a few beers several months previously. Ben, myself and three other dirtbike fanatics had made one failed attempt to reach Sen Monorom a couple of years before. Now, with the much improved security situation in the countryside, we were keen to try it again. But a big trip involving more than just a handfull of bikes would need support vehicles, which also coincided with the 50th Anniversary of the birth of one of Britains best exports: the Land Rover.
Supporting the Kouprey Wildlife Organization is one of the Bayon Pearnik’s pet projects, so we knew that they were very active in the area. They suggested that we use the trip to distribute information to the local people on how to avoid snakebites and what to do if they did get bitten, and also use sponsorship to provide anti-venom. The idea began to take shape.
Mobitel generously offered to provide the money for the anti-venom. TOTAL offered fuel for the bikes and Cambodia Astra Motors got together and provided the 5000 leaflets in Khmer warning of the dangers provided by snakes and the all important Rally-Raid race jerseys.
The leaflet had originally been written in Russian, then translated into English, which Cambodia Astra then had translated into Khmer. Ace photographer David Van Der Veen was called on to capture all the golden moments while his French counterpart, Alain, snatched digital footage so we could watch each other fall off our bikes again and again. Ray and Belinda from Weldmesh volunteered to be our mobile caterers, as some of the fatter entrants were worried that such an energetic trip might rob them of their hard-earned beer bellies. Angkor Dirt Bike Tours was formed to organize the whole venture — and off we went.
Early to Rise
It was an overcast 6am that a decidedly second-hand looking group of bikers assembled at the Mekong ferry crossing on the edge of Kampong Cham, ready to catch up with the support crew who had set off even earlier in order to make some ground on the faster moving bikers. But despite gray skies and the early hour, the mood was quietly exuberant — the moment had arrived, time to get seriously dirty on a virtually unbroken 280-km stretch of dirt. Excellent.
A motley collection of bikes had been assembled with the Honda XLR 250 and Baja being the most common choice, followed by the Suzuki DR 250 , a couple of Honda XR 600s and crm 250s, a DR 350 , an RMX and KDX 250. The only bike to draw “tuts” of disapproval and shakes of the head from the experienced dirt stompers being a rented Honda AX1 250, really just a modified road bike than a serious off-road tool like the rest. Then there were the Land Rovers and the Weldmesh supply trailer, of course, and a rented Mitsubishi Pajero piloted by some guys working in Ho Chi Minh city who had heard about the raid and just had to go. Five guys total had come from HoChi Minh, and one Phnom Penh old hand had returned specially for the rally while the most at least knew the way and that more than a handful had already ridden the road at least once. All these guys and only one woman to keep them all in line, and fed — brilliant Belinda the barbecue Queen.
The plan had been to leave Kampong Cham at first light, meet in Memot for lunch, distribute some leaflets, then meet again in Snoul where TOTAL had arranged a special petrol stop for us, before pushing on to Sen Monorom before dark.
This timetable had been formulated without including the idea of rain. This time of year is not usually called the dry season for nothing. We would still make the Memot lunch appointment and assess from there.
A comfortable night in the Mekong Hotel, which has outstanding views of the river but is unfortunately minus it’s excellent balconies following renovations, was rudely shattered by the sound of 28 motorcycles pulling wheelies in the car park.
The Land Rover support team was dispatched at first light. Heavily overcast, the skies promised rain as the ferry was boarded, inbetween forcing down the mornings first coffee. Ah, the joys of the open road. Bikers rapidly scattered per their own pace. Taking up the rear guard group in order to pick up stragglers feeling like a celebrity as crowds of people came onto the street to wave the cars and bikes through. But the first three hours riding was the easy bit, we had yet to see the real mud and the real rain. And there was still lunch in Memot to contend with.
Mud and Terror
Encouraged by the joint forces of the Land Rover 50th birthday celebrations and a Russian-led movement to warn the populace of the dangers poised by poisonous serpents, the trusting group of expat and Khmer bikers and drivers set forth to where few had dared venture before. Forces of nature also decided to take a hand and Mother Nature sent a terrible storm to harass the crusaders. Never before in living memory had it rained in the middle of the dry season, the middle of December. The second day of the rally was already three hours old when the rain started and our heroes still faced the dangerous proposition of lunch in Memot, 300 kilometres of man-eating mud and biker-melting barbeques before reaching their target. And then their was the trip to the waterfalls. And so read on gentle reader, read on…
Having successfully escaped the comforts afforded by the Mekong Hotel and the chill breeze over the Mekong expected, and deliver them the unfortunate French cinecam man who had been left behind in Kompong Cham in the morning’s comfusion.
Masters of Disaster
But such is life, and the hang-over was definitely my doing (as was the large bruise on my right leg from the first fall of the expedition, a spill taken while trying to drunkenly jump-start a bike between the hotel and a bar). Crowds of locals had already assembled by the side of the road in all the villages encouraging the riders through hand signals: their desire to see ever bigger wheelies.
My partner in crime and Angkor Dirt Bike Tours, Big Ben, whose foolish idea it had been to spoil a perfectly fine weekend drinking with some serious physical exercise, was somewhere up ahead with the lead pack, or perhaps escorting the support crew through a short cut via rubber plantation.
Low and behold, I caught the support team aand the eye in the saddle became more comfortably aappointed. Then we found our first major mud bog, no match for the Land Rovers, but deep enough to have already ensnared a passing truck. A nice gentle line around the edge and Bobs yer aunty, not dramatic enough for Sean the Disaster Master, a man more attracted to film footage than a blue bottle to three-day-old cream cake. Full bore he enters the quagmire, light brown sticky mud thrown four metres into the air, engine screaming, bike bucking , throttle cable snapping, splash! End of playtime.
All onlookers are almost dying of laughter and would have been rolling around on the ground if it hadn’t been completely covered in sludge by Sean. Lesson one in how not to cross an unknown puddle. Leatherman (the all singing all dancing in your pocket tool kit) comes to the rescue as the broken throttle cable is retrieved from the sloppy mess that was once an XLR and Sean rides away, the handle bars in one hand and a set of pliers in the other gripping the broken throttle cable. It would not be Sean’s last attempt to die on camera. But it would be one of the funniest.
A few kilometers later, Memot is reached, but half the group (the French and the Khmers) have not done as told and waited for us before proceeding to the next town, Snoul. We have arranged fuel to be transported by Total to the former rubber plantation headquarters because 29 bikes and one petrol Landrover could easily drink one small village dry. And the trailer was carrying enough bottles of red wine and Angkor beer to have kept the Ho Chi Minh trail busy for years more.
After scattering around a few thousand Mild Seven-sponsored snake bite leaflets (warning in Khmer which of the little blighters to look out for and what to do if one bites you other than die) and filling up tank and stomach, we were off again.
The weather was closing in and the chances of getting to Sen Monorom were already pretty remote, so it was head to Snoul and see where we could break camp. The road rapidly turned from gently undulating muck to a 50 km succession of sharp-lipped pools of unknown depth. Those of foolhardy- (Ben), crazy- (Ben), nerves-of-steel-(Ben) or short-sighted disposition (Ben) would hit these full-bore, hoping the bike would only disappear up to the handle bars in brown water and emerge into the air on the other side accompanied by a roaring wall of water, akin to a pelican doing full-throttle take off, all feather noise and water, and hopefully soaking the mug behind him (me). Those of more sensible- (me), delicate- (me) and already-soaked-to-the-skin disposition (everyone behind Ben) would pick carefully around the edge just pulling minor stonking wheelies off the lip. Execllent fun.
The Defender 90 and the Discovery were both taking the Ben approach and emptying whole puddles with a single launch while the ex-army light Landrover ( designed for throwing out of aeroplanes) wasn’t so keen on getting it’s feet wet and spat the dummy a couple of times with an overtly cautious mechanic driving it. Once the brother of the Defender pilot got behind the wheel of the light Landy, it was throttle all the way and no stopping until Snoul.
The rain started coming even harer, but Snoul appeared on the misty horizon. Ben soon had Dante’s Inferno going in the doorway to the guest house and Belinda was busy with the bags of chicken curry. We had survived another day.
Mud and Terror
Twelve members of our now depleted twenty-eight member roving dirt-biker gang had had the good sense to keep the Land Rover support vehicles and their vital cargo in sight. And now, sitting outside a guest house (the only) in Snoul, we muddy foolishness of the day reaching Snoul from Kampong Cham in very unseasonably wet weather. After a good old laugh at ourselves we trundled up to what DJ Phil had promised was the CASA of Snoul. A night club it may not have been, but loud and funny it was.
Next day dawned bright and early as they normally do as motocross boots were strapped on and the barbie was warmed up again and the village was filled was filled with the smell of bacom frying, the sound of egg sizzling, 90 and the Discovery would battle on through the mud, rain and raised river crossing we knew of just outside Sen Monorom that would have stopped the littlest Landie for sure.
Another of the group would also be staying behind feigning a knee injury and proving that all Aussies are not made in the model of Crocodile Dundee. More importantly, he was keeping the cook behind to tend to his woundedness. Roving dirt bikers alone in the wilderness without a woman to cook for them, how would they survive. Once again we thanked god in his wisdom for inventing the barbeque.
We left Snoul and hit the Samling jungle highway that cuts a motorway-size path through the bush from Chhlong, on the banks of the Mekong, all the way to Sen Monorom. The first 100 kilometres from Snoul is flat, straight and fast before entering the hill country that Sen Monorom nestles in the middle of.
It was in these hills that the going started to show the ill effects of the rain that shouldn’t have been. Large sections of the road had been churned into a truck-swallowing bog, all stand-up-on-the-pegs first-and-second-gear stuff, roost trails of mud flying from the back of the bike as the tyre fought to find a hard surface to grip. Excellent fun, but slow and very tiring. All the riders, bikes and Land Rovers gently turned a ruddy brown colour from head to foot.
Then silently from the steaming crept our first real adversary. Almost impossible to spot, this creeping menace grabbed each biker and viscously flung him down the road. Wh dubbed this new found terror Mud X, a substance rediscovered by UNTAC Landcruisers when they suddenly felt the unusual sensation of spinning off into the undergrowth from a normal-looking road. Cambodia may well have discovered a new source of income as ice skating rings around the world convert to using Mondulkiri slime. Unlike the ooze that had previously covered our path, Mud X lies on the ground and imitates a perfectly reasonable, hard packed dirt surface but once your front wheel touches it the motorcycle will follow this insane urge to lie down on its side, spinning and screaming, breaking its leavers and scaring its rider witless. Very unnerving and makes you wish you still had your traniner wheels fitted. Strangely enough the slipperiest of the breed lives in large quantity on the main high street of Sen Monorom, causing more than a couple of riders to enter the town triumphantly only to rapidly exit again on their butts chasing their screaming, spinning mounts.
While upright and feeling courageous enough to take one’s eyes off the road the views were outstanding. Thickly wooded, high canopy greenery with floating wisps of mist gave way to rolling grass-topped hills that one of the party said reminded them of the Sou7th of France. The temperate had also dropped appreciatively which explained why the Khmer riders who had arrived the night before ad were awaiting u in the guest house looked like a skiing party donned in balaclarvas and wrapped in blankets.
But we had made it, each and every one of us undamaged, exhausted and elated. And only two bikes had to be carried in the trailer, and only due to the deep river crossing twenty kilometres out of town. Deeper than it looked, that crossing.
Sen Monorom in the sunlight I’m sure is a cheery little town but by rain and heavy fog had all the charm of the British Midlands in January. Having a one day stopover we decided to go to visit a local waterfall “only an hours ride away” says a confident DJ Phil. Nine tortuous hours riding through mud holes big enough to make a whole XLR disappear, waist deep river crossings and villages full of Mud X, for five miniutes and several photos in front of the falls. Exhausting but definitely worth it.
Having made it to Sen Monorom then getting back should have been a breeze right? Well, mostly. The rain had played havoc with the lowlands with sections of the road totally blocked by downed trucks. It was a weary crew that reassembled in Kompong Cham two days later.
Zeman McCreadie is a freelance writer, avid adventure-seeker and co-founder of Angkor Dirt Bike Tours.
This story was originally printed as a three-part series in the Bayon Pearnik, January, February and March 1999 issues. It has been modified slightly for the web