Mondulkiri Fourth Day: Pouloung village, Sreiomboum village, Bou Sra

We get up at 7 am and have breakfast in the guesthouse, before we go to the market and buy food and water. To make sure we don’t get stuck we find a mechanic, have the oil checked and fill up the motos.

Then we head northeast to Bou Sra. We never rode north on this road before and I am surprised that right behind the first hill it is getting rougher than most we have seen yesterday. We cross a small river on an improvised bridge and are charged 500 Riel each by a bunch of kids.

After that the road is getting somewhat smoother but still requires a lot of attention. There are deep grooves in the road, most likely left behind my heavy cars. Once you get into one of those it leaves you with only very few options other than just following it hoping not to get stuck. Yet the ground is solid and provides good grip for the tires.

We keep going and after some time we do not see settlements anymore. The forest is relatively dense and in some places impenetrable. Both of us have to restart the bike a number of times and while we proceed with moderate speed it remains a challenge in many places to maneuver those relatively heavy bikes.

The way I start this bike many times is I put it on the stand, climb on the moto and start it from this relatively comfortable position, before I flap the stand and go. However, I realize that the stand is about to break off and can hardly support the bike anymore.

The ‘road’ is getting tougher; there are many rocks and countless obstacles, sometimes forcing us to ride next to the road. And hills are pretty steep in some instances. Overall we move quite slowly. After about 40 minutes we have a break. I try to figure how Pongro is riding down those hills and ask him. I learn that he controls the speed entirely with the clutch. I am about to suggest using a lower gear. To demonstrate how he does it he takes the clutch clever and holds it tight. Oddly, at precisely this moment the clutch cable breaks. I does not take us long to realize that it is impossible to ride this bike without clutch. Ironically, today is the first day we go without the heavy set of tools and spare parts we usually carry and which includes a clutch cable.

Pongro is still confident that we can manage to fix the bike here. Once in while people pass on small, old Honda’s, sometimes badly overloaded but always very skillfully finding the way between all those rocks. We learn that the way to Bou Sra is still longer than the way back to Sen Monorom. Furthermore the road is getting tougher from here. And it is very unlikely we find somebody there who can fix the bike.

One of those guys stops for some time and Pongro borrows some tools and wire in order to try fixing the moto. The Phnong guy joins and for some time they try hard. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that this won’t work out.

This is where we got stuck.

My stand is about to break off.

So we agree that I go back to Sen Monorom, get the clutch cable and tools, get my stand fixed and get back with a mechanic. Since I know the way by now I find it easier to ride it. And enjoyable not having to wait for other people. It takes me just about 20 minutes to reach the guesthouse. I cannot use the stand anymore and it takes me some time to find a tree to lean the bike against it. I get the spare parts and tools and ride to the garage close to the market. When I arrive I cannot see any tree to lean my bike against. So I just stop in front of the shop in which about a dozen people is working. After some time I manage to explain that the stand is broken and I prepare to explain that another bike needs to be fixed half way to Bou Sra.

This is when my stand is being fixed.

Meanwhile I talk to the guy in the black jacket who seems to be the only person speaking some English. When he understands the situation he indicates he would not mind giving me company and fixing the bike. And he is confident that he will manage to do it. His name is actually Bun Tach. While I suggest that he should get another bike he is in favor of going together on my bike. However, I think I don’t want to risk other peoples’ live and at the same time prefer to risk my life myself. So we agree to go with two motos and after my stand is fixed we ride to his house to get his bike. While waiting I talk to his uncle, who is working for the governments’ Seila Programme (decentralization) which I am reasonable familiar with.

Later we get petrol and start going. We are moving not so fast, as it is difficult for Bun Tach’s small bike to make this way without being damaged. After only about 10 minutes his tire is flat and we spend about 30 minutes fixing it.

Where we got stuck is very close to Pouloung village.

When we reach Pongro he has been waiting for about two hours. It does not take Bun Tach long to replace the clutch cable.

We manage to convince Bun Tach to give us company to Bou Sra. It is already afternoon and initially we are not sure whether we should still go to Bou Sra. After all, even without problems it is not likely that we will be back before it is dark. Yet we decide to go.

This is after only 200 m. We are standing in front of a creek. Three Phnong people in a huge, old Soviet style car cross our way and we talk to them for some time.

We still have to cross this water. The Phnong guys try to show us where in the water we would be able to cross without getting stuck. Bun Tach follows their advice carefully and makes it with his small bike. Pongro just speeds up and tries to cross the creek straight ahead. Although he hits a number of rocks he manages to get over without the bike being down or the engine turning off. I try carefully to do it the Phnong way but I hit a rock and get stuck. I manage to restart in the water but it takes me some time until I have the bike free again.

We continue riding. Some stretches are in better shape and it is possible to go with higher speeds, but those stretches are usually rather short. Most of the time we are moving slowly finding our way between rocks, trees and countless old and hard tracks of Soviet style trucks.

Sometimes I wonder how even four wheel vehicles are able to go this way.

This is the next major obstacle. It is like a creek, not with water but with mud. We manage to find a way around it.

This is one of those Soviet style trucks. Those vehicles leave deep furrows in the road, like upfront, giving people on bikes a hard time.

This is in Sreiomboum village. Bun Tach leaves his bike here and we continue with two bikes, as he is afraid of breaking his.

We keep riding and the road does not get any better. After maybe 20 minutes we reach the next river.

I am irresolutely about how to cross this river. Before I can ask Bun Tach, Pongro tells me ‘just watch me’. Bun Tach gets on his bike and Pongro speeds up straight ahead.

This is when they are still riding.

However, before they reach the middle of the river they hit a rock and the bike falls. However, both manage not to fall into the water. However, Pongro seems to be quite frustrated. He does not care for the bike and leaves it to Bun Tach to get it out of the water, while he just walks over. I decide not to try this and just walk my moto over, cooling down myself and the engine. From now on Bun Tach is riding the other moto and he does so very well. In fact he is 23 years old and just finished his studies at a good school in Phnom Penh. While he lived there he was riding big motos actively. Now he moved to Mondulkiri to support his uncle who is official in the provincial government. And he has a sweet heart who is working in one of the guesthouses.

We continue the journey on the other bank, where we find a particularly difficult stretch of the way. It looks easy on the picture but really is nasty to right uphill, because it is very steep and extremely bumpy. It is not far from here where we meet the only tourist that we come across today.

From here it is still like half an hour. Finally we park the motos in the jungle and walk down to the river, where we find Bou Sra waterfalls. The sun has already left the place.

This is the upper waterfall.

This is the lower waterfall. Both are very powerful and high and in addition located in a natural environment of significant beauty.

We spend maybe about 20 minutes here. Frankly, the pleasure I get out of being here right now is rather limited. Although this is a beautiful place and nobody else is here I worry that we will have difficulties reaching Sen Monorom in time. Yet Bun Tach even suggests continuing our way a few kilometers to visit the indigenous village close by. I feel a bit frustrated as I belief even if we go on our way home right now we cannot make it before it is dark. Yet he is the one who should know and I decide that it does not make such a big difference at this point. And it would be nice to see the village. So we cross the river further upstream on a wooden bridge and it takes us another 15 minutes to arrive in the village. It as about to get dark and we see a number of people along the road, many of them children winking at us. We pass the village and turn around when we reach the other side. I am not sure what we are doing here. Since we don’t have time for interaction with villagers we start our way home immediately. I wonder what those people might think about our behavior. It really does not seem to make much sense just to speed through the village first in one direction and then into the other. And I fell we are maybe not behaving very sensitively here.

After we have almost reached Bou Sra again I look at my stand and find out that it is not there anymore. I lost it on the way. So we discuss briefly, I go back to the village to look along the way while Pongro and Bun Tach look around Bou Sra. With even higher speed I pass the village again, turn around at the same place and go back. I feel now those people really have reason to belief I am insane. However, I cannot find the stand. The other guys don’t find it either.

So we go on our way home. Now we are riding with fairly high speed. This is easier for me as I am riding alone on this bike. However, Bun Tach is doing very well on the other one. I must say at this point I really enjoy riding the bike and feel much more comfortable doing so, as I know the way by now. And at this point I am willing to take more risk. Many of the spots that gave me a hard time when we came turn out to be fairly easy, like the second river. Generally, had I expected this sort of terrain I would not have thought I would be able to make it. However, it actually is not that difficult and I feel much more comfortable.

When we reach the village where Bun Tach had left his moto it is almost entirely dark. He has a flat tire again and we use the time to drink some water and talk to the locals.

Phnong guy on my moto.

From here we have still more than half the total distance to Sen Monorom. And now it really is getting more difficult as it is dark and we are riding in the forest. I am being lucky in that I have two strong head lights which provide for sufficient vision. Bun Tach is doing well, as he is used to his moto and familiar with the way. Pongro has difficulties, in many instances getting stuck. He has to restart his moto many times and increasingly has difficulties to catch up. Generally, I am surprised that it turns out not to be as difficult to ride in the dark as I had expected. Still, it is tough and there is significant risk.

We are traveling faster now in the dark than we where doing earlier in the daylight. Yet it takes us until almost 7 pm until we reach Sen Monorom.

Pongro tells me later that this trip was a very bad experience for him. He fall a number of times and was sick of getting hurt. I had underestimated that he had only few opportunities to ride big motos. In addition, our activity here really does not seem to match Pongro’s expectations.

This evening we have a heated discussion about the future of indigenous peoples. Talking about their religions Pongro mentions that there are in fact spirits in the trees and so on. When we crossed the second river, he said a bad word and Bun Tach told him to be careful, as people get lost in this area quite frequently precisely for doing that. Apparently, both of them take this more serious than I would have expected. I learn spirits can misguide people who get lost for many days in the jungle and sometimes do not resurface again. I figure Pongro might have been quite afraid when we where riding back at night, he getting stuck and falling behind significantly many times.

Although there are still countless activities and attractions to discover we decide to travel back to Phnom Penh the next day. Frankly, I would have like to stay longer, but as Pongro did not talk to me much anymore and apparently has no interest in what is meaningful activity to me I do not see a better solution.

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