Chris Leather Exotic travel experiences
Friends laughed when I said I was going to cycle up Bokor Mountain. “You’re what? Everyone knows it’s a 32km, gruelling, bum-bruising, barely passable road in a motor vehicle. You’ll never do it on a bike”.
My first trip had taken three hours on the back of a “suspenseless” pick-up truck and clearly it was like childbirth – the pain was forgotten when it was suggested I should do it all again.
Bokor Mountain was once a lavish hill station resort, 1100 metres above sea level and three hours drive south of Phnom Penh in Cambodia - built by the French in the early 1900s to provide the wealthy with cool respite from the stresses of colonising Cambodia. A casino, luxury hotel, post office, village church and some grand French style villas - what more could you want for a holiday destination? The French left in 1947. Much later, the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese fiercely fought over the strategic location and made a good job of gutting the buildings and destroying much of the road which leads to the top.
It’s now abandoned ruins but from the hotel steps it is still possible to view one of the most spectacular panoramas in Asia - overlooking thick jungle, the expansive coastline of the Gulf of Thailand and Vietnamese islands to the east.
With 12 other cyclists, I set out from the ranger station at the base of the mountain at about 7.15am. I am by far the oldest (and the only female) so make an early decision to not even attempt to keep up with the “youngsters” who were mostly in their 40’s, and out of sight in the first kilometre.
Within 500 metres from the start I realise my big mistake. This uphill ride is going to be sheer hell and I have 31.5 kms to go. The paved road was completed in the 1920’s, but relentless use by military, logging and tourist vehicles, the harsh climate and no repairs for more than 70 years have reduced the narrow road to mostly rubble. It is less like a road and more like a dried-up river bed with football-sized rocks, jagged stones, deep ruts, scree, occasional boulders and car-sized potholes. Occasional fragments of paved road sit like ledges above the rest of the road which has sunk a foot below. And then when I think it can’t get any worse the road narrows into a one-wheel rut of thick sand with a precipitous drop of 50 metres down one side.
After juddering at snail’s pace for five kilometres over broken rocks and dragging the bike over tarmac ledges, I get into a sort of bone jarring rhythm. Yes, it’s tough, but if I can just stop looking at the odometer the distance might get covered more quickly. So stop looking – for ½ an hour. What? It now says 6 kilometres – surely odometer must be broken so give it a slap.
Decide to try not thinking about the pain in my forearms. Notice pleasant things like the lush tropical forest around me and think about the ice cream and chocolate I can eat after doing all this exercise. Wham bam! - didn’t realise that was a huge pile of loose stones and a big sand hole on the other side – ouch!
Odometer now says 12km passed. Only 22kms to go! Actually, that’s a bloody long way, especially as my bike seems to be developing a mind of its own in the steering department. Either that or I’m not coping with the rough terrain, as well as I thought I was. At 12km I stop to take a look at front wheel which seems to be a bit loose. Yes, very loose. The axle which holds the front wheel in place has gone – broken or fallen out somewhere in the last 10km. The wheel is being held in the forks by the brake. Not a good situation in the best of riding conditions.
A late-starting fellow cyclist comes past. He takes a look and says ‘ride slowly or your wheel will fall out'. Thanks for the help! Then he suggests that I get a ride with the next vehicle that comes past. Given that no vehicle has passed me so far, that prospect doesn’t look good. I gingerly hop back on bike, grip handle bars tightly and give my bike a talking to. I point out that we are stuck in the middle of nowhere and have a destination to reach within a respectable timeframe, so we better get on with it. Text fellow cyclists up ahead and get lots of good advice about going home or abandoning bike and getting a ride up the mountain. Ignore good advice.
The journey is slower, the boulders seem higher and the rocks sharper. I forget that I can’t jump the front wheel over ledges - wheel lifts out of the frame and bike and I crash to the ground. Replace wheel, inspect grazed knee and elbow and hop on again. Keep on inching up the road. How can it take so long to travel ½ km, then another ½ km? Stop to check the odometer is still working.
Have to grip handle bars to keep control and carefully plot where I put the front wheel. Damn, missed again. Slide off bike into a bush with hooks for leaves. Get up again. Remove sharp leaves stuck into arms and stick embedded in leg.
Temperature is getting cooler as we climb slowly up the mountain. Black clouds are rolling over the mountain and there is thunder in the distance
Yay! just passed a sign which says ‘Bokor 12kms’. This is now achievable even if I damn well walk the rest of the way. With a burst of enthusiasm, bike and I arrive at the Black Palace, one of the first abandoned villas 10kms before the top. Get a text suggesting I stop at the Black Palace because the road gets worse. How can it possibly be worse? I’ve just spent 20kms on the worst road in the world. So carry on.
Road definitely gets worse, but levels out. The stones are bigger and sharper. Car-sized potholes are filled with water which I try to ride through but frequently grind to a halt in the middle. Legs now covered with blood and mud – very attractive.
Thick mountain mist is closing in and it starts to drizzle. The forest cover disappears and a plateau opens out. It’s 6¼ hours since I started riding and this is the top of Bokor Mountain. Somewhere over there are the grand ruins of Bokor Palace Hotel, and the church and the view of the Gulf of Thailand, but the swirling fog is so thick that I can’t see much more than a few metres ahead. Nothing for it but to head downhill, but this time bike and me are in the support truck. Riding downhill with a front wheel that keeps falling out, no brakes and two out of 24 gears working – now that would be really stupid!