I should start with explaining exactly what, and where the Cardamom Mountains are, so it will give you a better idea of why it was so insane. Funnily, I didn’t actually know any of this at the time myself. I’d simply plotted my course from one point to another and thought ‘Oh that looks like a fun scenic route’.
Oh how I was wrong.
The Cardamom Mountains are region in Cambodia covering hundreds of kilometers of jungle. It is one of the last regions in South East Asia to home the Clouded Leopard, Myan Sun Bear and Elephants.
Additionally to the wildlife problems, it is also the final strong hold of the Khymer Rouge (A mass genocide in Cambodia a few decades ago). And as such it has only been 10% explored and is the most densely populated area for unexploded landmines. (Holy fuck right)
Lonely Planet member posted the following:
‘I’ve trekked up phnom Samkos deep in the Cardamom mountains..there are no defined trails, machetes were needed for large sections of the way, it was tough. In addition to all the usual Jungle problems including leeches, wild animals like elephants and landmines there are Safrole oil producers operating in the area, shipping it to Thailand, these are dangerous gangs and don’t like westerners snooping around. The National park insisted I take two armed rangers with AK47’s. We went for 3 days 2 nights and set up camp in hammoks. The is no backup out there and the going is tough. The other thing is that the more off the beaten track you go the more expensive it gets as it is sensible to pay a bit for a guide who knows the route. This is not a trek like in Thailand where every man and his dog is out there, it is a place where caution is a necessity, if you mess up on your own, people will not be looking for you.’
So basically, I accidentally took my motorbike right through the middle…Pretty cool aye.
It was not cool.
I was taking my bike from Sihanookville, to Siem Reap, after partying for a few days with some awesome Swedish dudes I’d met. So at this stage of my trip, I was on a high.
Several hours just to reach the start of the jungle. Crossing vast open stretches of what I called ‘mush mush’ (it was like deep sticky powder) and my bike was constantly getting stuck. I was aware of the potential for hidden party poppers, so I knew I needed to stick to roads as much as possible.
Eventually, after some long hours of tackling the fucking sand river, I found a road.
Then I reached the forest. I stopped seeing locals, the usual tarp coffee stops hadn’t shown themselves for hours. At which point I realised I hadn’t even prepared. I had minimal water, and no food. I did however have several bottles filled with extra fuel. (priorities right)
Deeper into the forest I noticed the track I was on getting smaller and smaller, which then parted off into several directions. I’d pick the one that looked most ‘used’. Unfortunately this happened several times. Thankfully, Google maps had my back and it gave me a bearing to follow.
Then the sun started to set. I couldn’t continue in the dark so I decided I had to sleep on the floor.
So quite early on I realised I was totally fucked mate.
Now I’m no Bear Grylls. I didn’t construct a miniature tree house to save me from the bears.
The first night I sat upright against a tree. Most of the time I kept trying to keep my eyes open. The usual forest sounds, cracking branches and shadows, did play tricks on me throughout the night. There was a slight moon, however it was extremely dark. I kept using my phone to check the time, and this eventually died, around 3am.
It was very shit, just sitting in the dark for hours and waiting for sunlight. I didn’t fancy falling asleep.
The sun rose, I got back on the bike.
So now I was not only sleep deprived, but I was out of water, hungry, and with a dead battery, I had no bearing of where to go. There was a faint track still visible so I stuck to it and rode on.
Then I guess from being tired and out of water, I made my first mistake..I started to think I was going in circles, seeing weird shaped fallen logs for the 2nd time. Which obviously wasn’t the case but stupidly, I convinced myself to go off the track to find what I thought was the right track.
Biggest mistake ever.
After 10-15 minutes riding, completely ‘off piste’, the track I was looking for, was nowhere to be found, as I came over a hill and just saw a massive valley. I looked back, not seeing anything familiar, and I did start to panic.
Now I’ve had some training in the army, and I remembered sitting in lectures about panic attacks, thinking ‘Yeah it’ll never happen to me’.
Well fuck me.
It was like clock work. As my brain calculated the mistake I’d made. That I was truly lost in a vast forest, off the track with nobody knowing where I was. I thought, fuck, I might be one of those stupid tourists who gets lost. So my heart raced. I began breathing so fast I was losing my breathe. And then I began to make totally irrational suggestions, like climbing a nearby tree and waving for help?!…..I honestly nearly climbed that tree though.
After a few minutes, luckily I didn’t do anything more stupid. I stepped off my bike and sat myself under a tree for 10 minutes, slowed my breathing and calmed down.
Once I was ready, I got back on my bike, and turned around, heading back in the direction I thought I came. I used fallen trees as markers to find my way. And incredibly, I did. I got back to the track.
I wasn’t quite out the woods yet (See what I did there 😉 ), I returned to the track and vowed to never leave it’s side again. By this point however, most of the day had passed, and I could see the sun dropping again.
Then, out of nowhere I came across the first locals in 24 hours. It was a small lodge on stilts. And as I pulled up to it, a woman and some children came running out.
When I took off my helmet, I think she could see just from my face that I was completely drained. So she sat me down and came over with water. Which I pretty much inhaled, and she ran off to get more. The kids, just sat staring at me from a distance. I could have well been the first westerner they had seen. Which is quite cool really.
The women came out again and put her head to her hands, signalling for me to sleep. To which I nodded and put my hands together thanking her. Then, like the pathetic baby I was, I pointed in my mouth asking for something to eat.
She gave me a bowl of rice, and there were some other things floating around in there which I didn’t really fancy chancing, so I just ate the rice… She also filled up my water bottles and laid out a piece of carpet on the wooden boards for me to sleep (this was still outside and more like a porch), but frankly this looked like the Ritz compared to the tree I sat against the night before.
Now for the cute bit. The two kids that initially came out, hung out with me pretty much all evening. I spent my time trying to teach them English, just saying random words and getting them to repeat. The only phrase they got, and perfected was, ‘I love mum’. I don’t know why I said that, it was all I thought of at the time. I guess it was my way of saying thank you to their mum for giving me a place to sleep. See video below.
So now that I was fully refreshed, full water bottles and a full stomach, I said goodbyes. They even charged my phone! (they had a collection of car batteries for electricity). Before setting off however I asked the mum for one of their bananas, holding out a dollar in cash. I did actually give them $10 earlier as a thank you. She disappeared and returned with what I thought was half a tree but turned out to be a Banana bunch of around 30.
So with my banana tree strapped to the back of the bike, and looking like Donkey Kong in Mario Kart, I pushed on further through the forest.
Then the tracks started to disappear, and I encountered my next problem. Fucking Forest fires.
The floor became deep ash, like charcoal. And the trees around me had turned black, still smoking from a forest fire which had literally just passed through.
So conscious of this, I kept close attention to my nose. Luckily, I never encountered a full blown fire.
I got back to more thick jungle, crossing river after river and watching the Gibbons play in the trees around me. Now that was pretty cool. Although I felt like they were mocking me, as the stupid tourist who got stuck in a forest. See Video below.
So after being worlds worst David Attenborough, I fucked up again.
The new track I’d found, took me down a deep rocky canyon. I successfully worked my way down half the rocky boulders. Then suddenly I lost traction on my rear wheel, and fell. Throwing me off and lodging my bike between two rocks, ripping the rear tyre.
I made two attempts to pull it from the gorge and gave up. Then I lit a well deserved cigarette.
So after feeling sorry for myself, and regaining some energy with my banana supply. I gave it another shot, and successfully pulled my bike from the rocks.
But now I had a motorbike with a ripped rear tyre. I tried to ride on the rim, and this just didn’t work through the mush mush. So I stepped off the bike, using the throttle to assist me. I pushed the bike until I found another farm.
The forest was a lot thinner by this point, and tracks were getting more visible. I could see from my phone that the closet town was called Pursat, 30km away.
I pushed my bike into the farm. A man in camo pants comes out and immediately sees my problem. I then drew in the dirt, a truck, a motorbike and then $40 USD in a circle. Then just repeated Pursat to him.
He nodded. Then walked off.
By this stage, my stomach was burning from the sheer amount of bananas I had consumed. My inner monkey was not agreeing with me.
Then my truck arrived, 7 hours later, in the form of a tractor go kart. See below
It was no truck. But frankly I didn’t care. I was pretty desperate to get the fuck out.
Amazingly though, a Cambodian man that came with the tractor, spoke English. His name was Bo (or atleast that’s what I thought he told me) and he used to be in the Cambodian military. We strapped the bike to the trailer and set off for Pursat. Bo taught me about the region and how poor the schools are, with limited supplies. (It was one of the poorest communities I’d ever seen) We talked about why there are so many forest fires and why the landmines are still such a big problem. He asked him, that if he helped me, I would come back and help him with the schools. I did agree and I do intend on going back one day to find him.
What was also quite funny…as we went through all the small villages, it was like everyone coming out could see exactly what had happened just from the image of me, covered in shit, sitting on the side of the tractor and the bike strapped on with a torn wheel.
I arrived in Pursat at midnight. Luckily we found a mechanic, getting drunk outside his garage. After some negotiation skills from my new friend Bo, he agreed to change my tyre.
With my bike mobile again, I headed for Battambang.
This took like 4-5 extra hours.
I remember pulling over and seeing a small open hut, thinking it would be nice to rest for just a couple of hours. But I decided push on, and when I arrived in Battambang at 3am, I checked into the first guest house I could find. I’m really glad I held out.
I walked in the room. Dropped my bag on the floor. Stripped off, and sat in the shower for 2 solid hours.
And that’s it, that’s my getting stuck in a forest story.