My near death experience in the Cardamoms

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My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby Bitte_Kein_Lexus » Sun Jun 01, 2014 6:33 pm

Ok, I'm exaggerating a bit, but I had an interesting experience a little while back and thought I'd share it. Forgive me if the writing is a bit dull, narratives have never been one of my strong points. It's a very long read by forum standards, so not really for those with short attention spans (and definitely not something you'd want to read on a smartphone screen). It'll likely also be a snorefest for those who aren't into this kind of stuff. Anyways, if you haven't been put off yet: read on.

To give a bit of background information: I've camped/hiked in Cambodia before. I'm also a decent dirt-biker. I'm no expert by any means, but I've done most of the classic trails that organized tours bring their guests on. I've also done a lot of random trails which one often discovers in Cambodia. Usually I ride alone. Speed isn't my goal, just trying to have fun, stopping to take some scenery pictures and so on. I'm not into riding ultra-technical trails or trying to top my previous times. I usually try to stay in guesthouses, but I've also camped or arranged to stay at a villager's house (with the village chief's blessing) several times in the past. I say this just so people know that this wasn't my first ride out. Anyways, this time around, I decided to do a somewhat famous trail which runs deep in the Cardamoms. Had a full service done on the bike, got some new knobby tires and because I wanted to save them of premature wear from paved roads, loaded the bike on a minivan at Psah Depot and off we went to my starting point.

The next morning, a bit before the trail started, I asked villagers about the road conditions. They said it was really bad (full of rocks is what they said, more on that later), but none of them had done it before, so I took their info with a grain of salt. So after lounging by a river for a bit, I set off a bit before noon.

Upon leaving the last village, the trail started getting smaller/narrower and the odd houses eventually stopped appearing completely. A few crops (mainly bananas) could still be spotted for a few hundred meters, but after a river crossing, these too disappeared. The jungle had started.

The trail was lots of fun, but a bit annoying. Sometimes the trees or bamboo overhead were so low I had to get off, twist off my mirrors and cant the bike through. Not as easy as it sounds when you're alone with a heavy bike and the ground is as slippery as a bar of soap. Still, it was enjoyable. Things got rocky, sometimes sandy, sometimes muddy and there were plenty of river/creek crossings. At times there were small clearings, while at other times, the trail was less than a meter wide under a gorgeous jungle canopy but with fairly think foliage all around, essentially making the “visible” trail only 30cm wide as you drove past and got poked/speared by the branches. A lot of riding was done in an uncomfortable “lying forward” position while thick vines, bamboo and tree branches often forced me to stop and ride slowly through either with my head down below the handlebars to one side, or lifting the obstacle over my head as I slowly drove past it.

The trail had a series of rocky climbs and descents and eventually completely merged with a very rocky riverbed. Big rocks sprawled everywhere. Probably a near impassable river during the wet season. There's always a way up, but some rocks were a good 40-50cm high, so you really need to approach them at just the right angle and speed.

After getting past one particularly bad climb and a similarly bad descent, I got to a rather technical spot. It was a hill with very deep erosion gullies and rocks near the top. I stopped and walked over the terrain trying to figure out the best way up, as it looked like one of those spots where you only get one try (especially if you're alone). I knew I'd be in shit if I made a mistake.

Now my bike weighs a good 155kg and with all the stuff loaded on, it was probably close to 165kg. I knew I had overpacked but never expected the trail to be that bad. Not the ideal bike for this kind of terrain. A small scooter or light and nimble dirtbike would have been far superior. I picked my path and gunned it but got stuck near the top as my rear wheel slipped on the rocks below, unable to get any traction. Did a few runs (but it was difficult to go back much) but couldn't get past the last bit. I'm a fairly strong guy, but I simply couldn't get it up by force (neither could I by standing on the side). I then stacked rocks under the wheels. Now this is rather difficult, as it was impossible to put the side-stand out, so I had to balance the bike with one hand, and use my feet to get rocks close by, then pick them up with my free hand and stack them under the wheels trying to create a ramp. Still, it just wouldn't work and despite several tries, I just couldn't get past it. I was obviously also spending huge amounts of energy trying to move the bike around and picking it up after falls.

By this time, I had also run out of water (despite bringing 4.5L, which I thought would be plenty). This definitely scared me, but I'd say it angered me a lot more. For someone who prides himself in always being prepared, I was really pissed/disappointed with myself. Oh, and I didn't even have a lighter... (something I usually always carry around on trips). Of course, there's absolutely no cellphone reception over there. To make matters worse, I had also burned through way more fuel than anticipated. The constant high-revs had gobbled up a lot. I bounced the bike onto the crest of a berm. I almost got past but the rear tire slipped and given that I was at the top of a small ridge, I couldn't get my feet down and dropped the bike “upside down” and had to lift it a full 120 degrees. Needless to say it's exhausting.

I started freaking out a bit, walking in circles thinking about my options. I was out of water, almost out of gas and in the middle of nowhere. I'm not going to lie, the idea that I might end up in Gavinmac's list of dead foreigners, make Kosantepheap's A14 page or win the 2014 Cambodian Darwin Awards did cross my mind. I quickly collected myself and thought of my options. I knew I had to make an executive decision: either keep trying to get over that bit and ride on (and waste a whole lot of calories doing it) or start walking in the hope of reaching a village before nightfall. Now that's the beauty of Cambodia. There are relatively few places where you can go and you won't find a village (or at least some homesteader or logger's cabin) within a few km. But I was deep in the Cardamoms and even 15km in a straight line is more like 30 if you consider all the elevation changes and winding path the trail takes. Either way, I had no clue how far I was from the nearest village.
Last edited by Bitte_Kein_Lexus on Sun Jun 01, 2014 6:38 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby Bitte_Kein_Lexus » Sun Jun 01, 2014 6:34 pm

I hiked up the last bit of the hill to scout out how hard the rest of that climb would be (and see if the terrain gave any clues of a stream coming up). I went back down and figured I'd try to ride on. After dropping the bike again, I got it up on a different section and attempted to get past from a different side. This time tried backing myself up as much as possible to get a decent amount of speed, preload and “cork” myself up onto the rocks. Looked easy and I almost got past but somehow I slipped and the bike ended up in a very deep irrigation gully. That was the last straw as I knew I'd spend a disproportionate amount of energy trying to get the bike out of there, especially at the angle it was. It's difficult to describe in words where it was, but I knew it wouldn't be possible alone. It was canted a good 40 degrees to the rear, the rear wheel had no traction with the ground and the gully was too narrow, so I simply balanced it to that it stood up straight. It would have to be pulled out rather than ridden out, and I didn't have the energy left to do that. Fairly straightforward if you're two or three, but alone its a huge pain and waste of energy.

I knew I had no choice but to start walking. By now it was almost 3:30. My hamstrings were starting to cramp up (a bad sign of dehydration and physical exertion), yet I decided to take the time to change. My clothes were completely drenched from the sweat, while the pants were torn in places, muddy in others and bloody at the cuffs from some leeches that somehow managed to latch onto me. I took off all my gear and got buck naked. I had to change in spurts as my legs were really cramping up. A scary feeling when you know you'll have to walk for an unknown number of kilometers through the jungle alone... It took a little while as I had to stop the charley horses from appearing. Once I got the pants on, the whole ordeal was repeated with socks (long-ass tubular ones too). I'd put the tip of my toes in, then “Arrrgh!”. I'd stretch the leg out. I'd massage my legs and a few seconds later I'd try to bring the socks up a bit further. Immediately my hamstring would cramp up and I'd have to extend the leg in pain. After maybe 10 minutes, I managed to get a new pair of pants, underwear and socks on and had laced up my boots. For those who don't know, changing clothes really freshens up one's mind. Putting dry clothes on is obviously more comfortable, but it mostly has a psychological effect. I felt like a new man.

I left all my stuff for the scattered around the bike and only brought along essentials: my camelpack, some snacks/food (which I thankfully had), an empty water bottle (to collect stream water), my 10 000 powerbank (for my phone) and my headlamp. It was 3:30 when I stepped off.

I walked shirtless with the idea that if I did have to spend the night out in the jungle, I could at least put a dry shirt on. Not knowing the exact altitude but having slept in Cambodia's mountainous regions before (Mondulkiri/Rattanakiri and Aural mountain), I knew how cold it can get at night, even in Cambodia! I had no hammock (great planning there Lex...) and couldn't have lied down anywhere as the ground is covered with ants, leeches, snakes and so on, but at least a dry sleepless night is better than a cold and wet sleepless night. Plus, having no shirt made walking way cooler.

So off I went, my main priority trying to find a freshwater stream. Water from a stream out there was bound to be good and either way, I think it's obviously better to get a stomach ache a day later than passing out and dying in the middle of the jungle from dehydration and being found a few days later by some dirtbikers or rangers...

I walked past a few deep, muddy creeks which had still water. It felt like the jungle Gods were taunting me. Eventually when I was at the top of a hill, I heard the sound of a river down below, but given that the trail was obviously on the ridge of a mountain, I didn't want to risk going down a very steep 50% slope through very dense jungle in the hopes of getting some water. I knew (or hoped?) I'd eventually cross another one by following the path. The question was when.

A few km later I noticed my pants were all bloody again. Great! Three more leeches. Those pesky fuckers manage to get up there somehow, despite having boots and long pants. Having no lighter (another thing I usually carry), I just pulled them off, but obviously this meant that the painless wounds would keep bleeding all day, my socks and pant cuffs soaking up the blood (and making it look far worse than it actually was).

Eventually I heard a heavenly noise. A fast-moving creek was coming up. Under the jungle canopy, I reached a rocky 4-5m wide rocky creek with fast-moving water. I lied down on some dry rocks beside a section of the river, filled my water bottle with some water, quickly put it up to the light and glanced at it quickly to inspect it. Looked good enough (and let's be honest: I didn't give a shit). I sat there for a while, drinking the cool water and forced myself to eat a bit despite not being the least bit hungry (another sign of dehydration/physical work). Raisins and salty peanuts helped give me a bit more energy. My legs were still cramping up when I positioned them in a weird way, but at least I had some water in my system. After filling up my camelpack and having a short rest, I stepped off again feeling reassured that at least I had water.

I checked googlemaps from time to time (but not too often) to check my progress. Seemed I was keeping a good pace at first, but as the day progressed and my pace slowed down, it dawned on me that I was still really far from the closest known village. Now I have a brisk pace, roughly 6km/h on decent terrain, and if I'm traveling light (as I was), I reckon I could easily do 7-8km/h. However, I was dead tired, my boots were completely soaked (and heavy) and it was proper hiking terrain. Steep climbs, big rocks all over the place, at times very slippery clay and so on. I tried to keep a steady pace without over-spending my energy. Luckily it was near impossible to get lost. The only question was: how far before I get to a village? Darkness had set but luckily it was an overcast full-moon, so walking without a headlamp was possible.

In a weird way, it was nice because I heard some weird animal noises which I'd never heard before. Also saw some huge birds with 2m+ wingspans. Apparently deer and possibly Gaurs still live in the vicinity. I also swear I heard a baby elephant near a stream... A trunk-splashing noise. I quickly walked away though, as I would have shit a ton of bricks had I come face to face with an elephant (more on that later). I also tried to make lots of noise while walking to scare away animals (especially snakes).

Eventually, around 6:30pm, I saw some cow tracks in the sand. This obviously gave me a huge relief and a big energy boost as I knew I was getting close to civilization. All I wanted was to see someone. Then, around 7pm (just under 4 hours after I had started walking), I saw a bright light through the trees and the first house I'd seen since the morning. I turned on my headlamp on and saw a figure near it. I yelled out “Booong, bonng!” as I stumbled towards the light.

A crouching guy stared at me wide-eyes as his two dogs barked at the strange shirtless ghostly figure coming out of the shadows. Still crouched down, tending to some food, he tentatively asked with wide-eyes: “You... walked here...?”

I sat down heavily at his table without asking permission and explained the whole situation to him. He was actually a ranger (the house a ranger station at the edge of a village). Eventually a few other guys showed up and in typical khmer-fashion we ended up eating and drinking rice wine. Upon hearing my elephant-noise story, the villagers told me that that particular spot was a known elephant watering hole, so it's quite possible that an elephant was bathing as I walked by. They also said elephants regularly ate coconuts at night behind some nearby houses, making noise and leaving shit and foot prints. Deer are also known to be around. Nice to hear. I was to sleep at some villager's house (who had been eating with us), as the rangers had their gun hanging off the walls so they figured it wouldn't be a good idea to have a stranger around. His wife wasn't happy when we showed up at 9:30 and reeked of wine, but she mellowed out after seeing me. The kids were fast asleep but his wife and mother-in-law quickly set up some bedding for me. After taking a shower and chatting for 10 minutes, I quickly fell asleep.

The kids all thought it was hilarious when they woke up and there was a big barang lying on their living room floor. Around 10am the next day, I set off with two guys on two bikes (I knew we'd need to be three) and an extra canister of gas to retrieve the bike. I had to get off and walk several spots because having two people on the bike was impossible on some of the big slippery hills or rocky terrain. Ok us an hour to reach my bike and for some reason, I felt really light-headed and puked a bit after getting there. It took a full 30 hours or so to completely rehydrate and get my energy levels back up. We lifted the bike out of the gully, got it past the rocky ridge and rode back to the village.

Anyways, I think this was just a good reminder of how some areas in Cambodia are still very much wild. I already knew this, of course, but had never gotten stuck alone and in a potentially very dangerous situation. Either way, I honestly haven't been so scared since getting shot at in Afghanistan. And that was more of an exhilarating fear and a worrisome fear. Being alone in dense jungle, far away from anyone, is a very unique feeling. I stayed composed and never freaked out, but for a short time, I was definitely very worried. Either way, I'm glad I didn't make it to Gavinmac's list or win this year's Cambodian Darwin awards. Stay safe!

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Last edited by Bitte_Kein_Lexus on Sun Jun 01, 2014 7:50 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby Kung-fu Hillbilly » Sun Jun 01, 2014 6:59 pm

Great story and maybe not the best experience at the time, but an experience worth re-telling. Certainly a reminder to anyone thinking of doing similar things to be as prepared as possible.

Twas a long day.
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby General Mackevili » Sun Jun 01, 2014 7:04 pm

WoW, a great read, from beginning to end! Some well deserved Karma coming your way!

Sounds like you got lucky as hell! I think it's very fair to call that a "near death" experience! Most people that get in that kind of scenario only realize how serious it is after it's too late.

And this is why we will need a FrontPage; we can't have a great read like that just getting lost in the threads over time. It needs a permanent home.

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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby Soi Dog » Sun Jun 01, 2014 7:18 pm

I enjoyed reading that. I like that picture of the family. Look how happy and contented they look together.
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby Kung-fu Hillbilly » Sun Jun 01, 2014 7:35 pm

Did the ranger only have one arm?
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby phuketrichard » Sun Jun 01, 2014 7:53 pm

Great read;
head over an post it on GT-riders, they seem to think only Laos has great rides :-)
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby Born-Confused » Sun Jun 01, 2014 8:30 pm

Great read! :bow:
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby General Mackevili » Sun Jun 01, 2014 8:43 pm

Kung-fu Hillbilly wrote:Did the ranger only have one arm?
The Lone-armed Ranger.
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Re: My near death experience in the Cardamoms

Postby FreeSocrates! » Sun Jun 01, 2014 8:58 pm

Finally know you are now... I spent many sleepless nights on this, and then you just give it away! :assasin:
The cedar roasted asparagus has good chew. I don't know how to enjoy it, so I'll Instagram it instead.


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