Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Cycle Touring Cambodia's Mekong Discovery Trail

Cycling the Mekong Discovery Trail - DO IT !!!  
Stung Treng to Phnom Penh, Cambodia

A great chance to get off the main roads! Quiet rural riding between Stung Treng and Koh Preah

This blog-post has been created because a number of cycle touring friends and ourselves have found it really difficult to find information on this great cycling experience.  This is a local tourism initiative set up some years ago but has since been left to its own devices. The "Mekong Discovery Trail" officially stretches from Stung Treng to Kratie.  It's a long, hot day if you do the main road (145km) but it is amazing to split into 3 or even 4 days for something different. The following is a route description from Strung Treng to Phnom Penh, which incorporates information from us and other cyclists also (See also Anna and Ollie's blog at: www.passingthatway.blogspot.com). 

General

Bike and Tyre Suitability:  
For the majority of the journey, a normal cycle touring setup will be fine, with the exception of Koh Rogineav island.  For these tracks we would suggest you will need to give your bike setup some thought.  On the island if you are well laden and have skinny tires, it is possible that you will struggle when it's really wet and muddy.  As we describe below, there are portions of the island that you'll need to walk regardless due to the sand.  The fatter your tires, the lighter your bike, the easier it will be.  Mountain bikes for this portion would be awesome!!  

Weather Effects:
We cycled the route in August 2016, during a dry-ish period of the monsoon. Plenty of people have cycled it in the dry season. We generally had one brief afternoon downpour, although one night it rained for about 2 hours. It hadn’t rained in Phnom Penh for the 2 weeks leading up to our ride. This level of rain/mud was fine for the trail, however, if it is significantly wetter than that, we would suggest that you should do more of your route on the main road.  Friends of ours cycled it in the middle of summer in very hot / dry conditions.

Some official information and maps:  http://www.camboguide.com/cambodia-destinations/kratie/mekong-discovery-trail/
Good map:

Our Route:




Getting to Stung Treng:
While people will be riding there from the Laos or Vietnam borders or Phnom Pehn, if you have some time contstaints you can also catch the bus through from any of those locations.  We caught a Soraya Bus (bikes $5) from Phnom Penh, but you can also catch buses through from both borders.

Homestays:
Homestays here are definitely more expensive to stay in compared to budget cycle touring.  This is mostly due to the food costs, so expect that they will put a dent in your budget.  We had some great experiences and some awkward experiences with these, it may often depend on which Homestay you end up in.


6km south of Stung Treng, you leave the tar seal and hit the dirt road


Route Descriptions

 Stung Treng to Koh Khnear (87km: 21km sealed plus 66km off road) - we split this into two days but you don't need to ....
- From the Central Stung Treng market by the Mekong follow the road south beside the river, after 6km the sealed road turns to a dirt road.
- Follow this, crossing wooden bridges, through villages. After 8km is village Koh Sampeay. Continue following the river through Damrei Phong (dolphins!), on to Srae Krasang (8km after Koh Sampeay). 

At the time of writing you could not continue along the river roads to Koh Knhear, a turnoff is needed out to the main highway (or a $40 boat journey).  There are two options at Srae Krasang to get to Koh Knhear via the main highway. 1) Tar seal option (more direct and less adventurous route):  Follow the tar seal road back to the hightway at Srae Krasang  OR 2) Dirt Road, slightly more mountain biking and more fun/interesting option from Tboung Khla (see below)

From Srae Krasang continue straight (tar seal goes left) for 13km of dirt rail, gently undulating woodlands to Tboung Khla. 

***!! About half way between Srae Krasang and Tboung Khla (at about 37km from Stung Treng) you come to the ferry landing for the boat across to Koh Preah. There is a small sign on the mainroad which reads “Welcome to Koh Preah”. Take a small ferry across to the island and bike the final few km to the village and a well-organised Homestay system.  When we arrived and biked past the school, the village leader called out to us and organised a fellow teacher to have us stay at her house.  This was probably the coolest and best organised village of the lot.

Koh Preah Homestay (2016)

Ferry across river - $2.50 for 2 people and 2 bikes (5,000R each)
Homestay $17 for 2 people for dinner/stay/breakfast ($3 each for lunch, dinner and sleeping and $2.50 each for breakfast)

Koh Preah is a lovely village, with a really friendly leader, Saylom. He'll hook you up with a homestay quick as!


The first of many ferries - this one takes you across the Mekong to Koh Preah if you choose to stop here.
Summary of day one towns that have some food available:
Koh Sampeay: Drinks and snacks, restaurants
Damrei Phong: Drinks and snacks
Srae Krasang: Drinks and snacks, basic food.
Koh Preah: Drinks and snacks, homestay
Tboung Khla: Drinks and snacks, restaurants
Koh Khnear: Drinks and snacks, restaurants, homestay

Day One afternoon / Day Two (with Koh Preah option)
If you have stayed a night/visited Koh Preah head back across the river and  towards the main road, turning right at the intersection to Tboung Khla.

Tboung Khla to Highway (20km): At Tboung Khla turn left and head east to National Highway 7.  This is an undulating dirt road that crosses small rivers and farming settlements (the dirt road looks as though it carries on south but it does not meet up with the next village further downriver.)
- Highway 7 (18km): At National Highway 7 turn right (cafes here). Cycle about 18km to junction with a dirt road on your right. There are some big signs there about Ecotourism and village initiatives.
- Cycle SW on dirt road for 12.5km to riverside village Koh Khnaer. 

Koh Khnear Homestay (2016)

Sleeping - $8 for two people ($4 each). We were directed by some locals to one homestay with a family, but I understand there may be a few. Here is the least well organised of the homestay locations. Our homestay was located on the left a couple of houses down after turning right at the intersection at the end of the road.

Dinner and Breakfast were offered at $4 each per meal which we thought was a bit pricey so we declined and opted to find our own food in the village. Hopefully this was ok culturally – but we had an awesome noodle dinner for $1 each just before you got to the final intersection when heading into town on the left and an amazing breakfast for $1 plus packed lunch for $1 from the breakfast restaurant.  This was located on the right hand side a few shops down after turning right at the intersection when heading into town.

Ferry – again initially quoted as $7 at our homestay so we asked around the village and found a guy down the street turning left after the intersection when coming into town who would do it for $5 for both of us and 2 bikes. Our host changed her price to $5 in the morning but by then we had organised something else. You need to organise your ferry for the following morning so you can make an early start.  We left at 6:30am.

On the road from Tboung Klua out to the Highway - adventurous!


Koh Khnear village where you spend one night and organise a boat to take you across 
to the island. The village soundtrack included generators, grinders, 
dogs howling, midnight cow bells, kids and some rain on the roof!!

Koh Khnaer to Koh Phdau (38km):
- On the island you have 30km of remote trails and no water. If you are travelling south, you will find the sign below at the canoe drop-off point.  Ask the people at the huts in the start for directions.  Initially it is just a narrow path through the rice paddies, before turning left after 50m and over a fence into the jungle.  We were worried after finding really muddy conditions in this first  section, but it did get better!

Follow trail signage south along ox-cart tracks through the woodland.  The track splits numerous times, with usually no signage, so always choose the most major looking fork and try to keep heading south! Very sandy and slow. After 30km+ arrive at the first village on the west coast of the island, continue south passing through several small riverside villages before reaching Koh Phdau. There are a few ambiguous sign placements and a few places where it is hard to tell the most major. Blue spray-painted arrows mean nothing. Good luck!!  On our route map we've marked a few positions along the way if you get really lost and have your phone/GPS with you...

The first of many signs...!

The beginning of the trail - thankfully it got easier to ride than this


Look out for signs on the trees, and otherwise just pick the biggest fork


Maybe less mud in the dry season - it didn't cause too much of an issue 
for us although we did take our bikes for a bath in the river 
at the other end. 


Through the woodlands!


Another route decision - notice the signpost though - they were usually well-placed 
although there were one or two which, left us scratching our head and wondering 
what direction we should actually go. 

Water – we carried 7 litres of water plus 2 cans of sprite and had one litre left at the end. Others we talked to carried 10L. Depends on the time of year – we hit a good day!  It can get very hot!!!

Koh Phdau Homestays (August 2016)
As you cycle into the village there are homestays scattered along the road for many kilometers
Cost:  $22 for two people – ($3 each sleeping, $4 for dinner, $3 for breakfast) No other options in the village for eating but we got our best homestay food here!
NB:  They also added in an extra $2 extra "community development fee" that they hadn’t told us about until it came to payment time.  This seemed to be a fairly recent addition, which you may wish to query them about, if they forget to explain it to you.

On the road to somewhere...


As you turn left from Samphin headed for the ferry back to the mainland

 Koh Phdau to Kratie: (two options, east bank or west bank) 45 or 55km
- From Koh Phdau cycle south for about 4 km to Samphin. Just past a small village pagoda and school turn left to follow dirt road 2.5km as it bends right and leads to ferry port. Take the ferry to Sambour - be willing to wait! Ferry cost – less than $1 each (3000R)

- Sambour to Sandan (12km). Turn left off the ferry into Sambour village centre, where there's a great market. Otherwise turn left after exiting from the ferry towards the market and take the first right, then take the next right and follow road south towards Kratie. After 12km you reach Sandan village.

- A few kilometres after Sandan, (in a place maybe called Thum or Kakhot village), you reach a short dirt trail down to the river on your right, this is the ferry crossing to Vodthonak on the west bank of the Mekong. If you want to take the east bank route to Kratie (more built up, seal road), ignore this and continue to head south through villages to Kratie. 

Monks in Samphin, once you cross back to the east side from the island. We stayed east and biked straight to Kratie - lots of fun local food and small villages along the way. Tarseal.

If you want to take the west bank route to Kratie (quieter gravel), cross here on the ferry. 
- Vodthonak to Praek Prolung (28km): At Vodthanak turn left, cycle about 5km crossing several wooden bridges then 18km very close to the river bank. Shortly before Saob is a junction, turn left just after crossing a bridge. Another 3.5km after Saob turn left to the ferry at Praek Prolung. 
- Praek Prolung to Kratie (3km): Take the ferry across the Mekong to Peam Te. Follow your noses north up river to Kratie. 

Accommodation in Kratie: Plenty, we stayed in Mouha Outdom Hotel, a 5min walk north of the market on the main riverside road. A basic private double room with fan but no WiFi in the room for $5 (2016) - most of the other options were around $7.  There was great food options at the market, like advocado shakes (4000R), multi choice options with rice (usually about 4000R each), buy bananas, etc...

Kratie to Kampong Cham – 120km
From Kratie you can choose east or west bank. As at August 2016, advice was the East side was a good road for 60km south of Kratie before becoming very muddy and bumpy. We took the Westside, so from Kratie, cycle south for 5km to a bridge across an inlet. Turn right and make your way down to the river and the ferry to Praek Prolung. There are restaurants at the ferry landing on the West side. 120km to Kampong Cham, mostly following through old style villages. Good dirt road for 50km and then good tar seal. 

Plenty of food options and drink places along the way. At 75km the road goes steeply up a hill into a rubber plantation. It is about a 3km square detour but probably easy. We looked at google and saw a more direct route straight down the side of the river, however, the road deteriorated, became too loose and steep to ride, but rejoined the tar seal quickly. The last 33km is a bit of a drag as you are back on a main road, but generally fine.

Accommodation in Kampong Cham: Plenty, we stayed in Mekong Crossing Hotel, one of our fanciest rooms, fan only, for $8.  We grabbed some food down by the market and took it to the Mekong riverside with some frozen watermelon.

A larger ferry this time round across to the west-side.


Awesome gravel road for 50kms after Kampong Cham on the westside


Don't believe Google that this is the main road - small but fun detour


About to rejoin the tarseal at the end of our wee detour. If you want a 
bit of fun, go this way, otherwise the tarseal would be quite fine!!
To Phnom Penh – 94 kms
Many options. The main highway (6/7) on the west side is apparently very average due to it's busyness. A local described the east side as shorter but in worse condition and the westside small roads as longer but generally slightly better condition. We followed Google’s “walking route” on the east side, which was the shortest option.  The road conditions are VERY variable depending on the time of year etc, what were amazing conditions for us, might be super washed out or under construction for you.

From the riverside in Kampong Cham, we cycled south past the main road leading to the bridge. We were on road 223, which followed the west side for 20kms. At 20kms there was a bridge and we turned left just before it down to the river to a ferry crossing to the east side (1000R each incl bikes Aug2016).

Upon reaching the west bank there is a great noodle soup place just as you come up to the main road on the left. There were plenty of other food options along the way, so you don’t need to carry much. We were on an OK gravel road for about 10km and then the road turned really, really awful for about 20km. Rough, loose, corrugated gravel. They were doing this road up slowly, so it may improve... Thankfully, at 53km from KC the road turned to lovely tar seal again and it is amazing! 

We followed this road all the way down to the main intersection with the road from Vietnam heading across the bridge to Phnom Penh. We carried on straight ahead following the Mekong for another 20km until our final ferry crossing.  To reach the ferry, turn left opposite the Svaychroum Pagoda onto a dirt road that crosses a causeway. Ferry cost 1500R for 2 people & bikes (Aug 2016).  After heading up from this you follow the trafffic round to the left before you cross a bridge into the edge of central Phnom Penh.  It's amazing going from quiet country roads to a humming large city in an instant!

Cranking (hot) market about 40km from Kampong Cham on the east side. 
Death Road, which in Aug 2016 was most definitely under construction. If you can 
hack it for 20km, the rest of the day is a nice ride!
The final ferry across to Phnom Penh from the east side

Please add your comments / any amendments to this, so we can keep it current!!  

Safe journeys!!!!


Andy and Miriam (with a lot of input from Anna and Ollie, Lisi Aimer and Jonathan Barford)


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