Trails, Temples and Tuk-Tuks – Cambodia

Cambodia Featured image

Julian Challis heads to Cambodia for an adventurous ride through the jungles

We are drenched. We are filthy. We are exhausted. But the grins on the 10 faces at the roadside café are wider than the vast dirt road we have just left.

It’s only day three of our adventure in Cambodia and we are all completely hooked on this beautiful country.

From the life-affirming joy of flat tracking the sweeping curves of the plantation highways to the technical trails through the dense jungle, the riding here has been beyond what any of us could have ever imagined.

We’ve hauled bikes out of deep mud, crossed seat-deep creeks that looked too treacherous to walk and experienced some of the warmest hospitality a traveller could ever hope for. And there’s still over a week left…

Before deciding to go riding in Cambodia earlier this year, I have to admit that my knowledge of the country was almost non-existent.

As a callow youth, I’d bought the Dead Kennedy’s single way back in 1980, but I had little idea of the horror to which the dark lyrics referred. Between 1975 and 1979 over two million people were killed by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

Map of Cambodia’s location

With such an appalling massacre within very recent history, it’s astounding that Cambodia has emerged from the darkness as a vibrant, youthful and joyful nation.

But that’s the impression you get as you arrive at Phnom Penh airport. Taxis and tuk-tuks compete for the tourist fares as I leave the terminal, but I bypass the queues and meet up with Ride Expeditions’ tuk-tuk driver Phally and his machine, powered by a wheezing Daelim 150 motor.

Once on the road and away from the calm of the airport, the traffic is frenetic and unbelievable as thousands of bikes, trucks and cyclists compete for space on either side of the road, seemingly regardless of which direction they are travelling.

After an extended beer stop at the workshop while we look at the bikes we will be riding and chat to our local guide Vut and organiser and medic Toby, the Asian weather has taken a turn for the worse and the heavens open.

As the tuk-tuk driver reaches for his waterproofs, I’m forced to do the same in the back as torrents of rainfall. It’s so heavy that both Phally and I are reduced to laughter as the gutters fill to a foot deep and the water is almost lapping round my ankles.

Markets and Massacres

The following day, it’s time to catch up with my fellow travellers on the trip. Aussies Aaron, Adam, Andrew, Brenton, Clint and Matt have been out on the beers the night before and are suffering heavily, but nonetheless, we hop in three tuk-tuks and head out into the madly busy city.

First stop is a place where you can shoot real-life machine guns at innocent coconuts for an exorbitant cost. The boys splash the cash but I’m not buying.

Next stop is the somber and deeply disturbing Killing Fields memorial, ironically where similar weapons were used to slaughter thousands. It’s a chilling place and we’re all glad to leave and return to the city.

The evening passes in the far more salubrious and light-hearted setting of an Irish bar where the ribs are good and the local Cambodian beer is flowing. With another day in the city, I decide on a wander around Phnom Penh in the morning, taking in the vast markets and hordes of shops that spill out onto the gridlocked streets.

Andrew crosses a bridge deep in the jungle on Route-66
Deep in the jungle on Route 66

The markets are an assault on the senses, especially in the meat and livestock sections where parts of animals and live animals swing and gasp in the oppressive heat. This place is a vegetarian’s nightmare, and it makes your average carnivore feel distinctly queasy…

In the afternoon, after a welcome briefing and essential safety talk about the forthcoming riding, Toby the organiser has laid on a cruise on the Mekong River that borders the city.

It’s time to meet the final three on the trip, Swedes Magnus and Lars and ex-pat Doug, before we head to a suitably Asian meal at a riverside restaurant. The evening may be all very relaxing, but inside we are all itching to get on the bikes.

The adventure begins

Bright and early the next day the bikes are there and primed for action. There’s a selection of Kawasaki KLX250s with 300 kits, a few KTM EXC 450s and the support team are on the ever-reliable XR250s.

After an extended period where 10 blokes get kitted up and sort themselves out, we leave the hotel in convoy through the busy morning traffic and head for the first of many river crossings on the trip. Once across amid collections of vehicles from scooters to lorries, it’s a short stretch of blacktop through the villages before we turn left onto the trails that follow the Mekong.

Our progress is short-lived as the first of the trails has been washed away by the river, and we’ve had our first puncture.

As the support guys fix the tube we re-route and follow a fantastic series of tracks that border the river and cut into the agricultural land and forests that follow the water.

One minute the terrain is like an English orchard, the next it’s temperate rain forest, the next open farmland. The boys are getting the hang of the bikes, with a split between the hacker, point and squirt approach of the Perth lads to the feet up style of me and the Swedes.

We’ve been beset with more punctures than seems possible, so we take an early lunch at the roadside, where miraculously a meal of sweet and sour pork with rice and vegetables arrives within seconds of our arrival.

With the bikes and the riders refuelled, we set off north again, following the river through the fantastic scenery.

Every time we stop we are surrounded by a selection of excited children and bizarrely tall cows in similar numbers.

Rush hour in rural Cambodia
Rush hour in rural Cambodia

A series of concrete tracks take us through tiny villages and two wedding celebrations where the guests wave excitedly and we head on to a small ferry.

The boat takes us to a large island in the river, which we cross in a blur of epic trails and smiles before we hit the far side of the island and a decidedly more unstable ferry to our overnight stop in Kampong Cham.

A shower and freshen up is followed by dinner before the Aussie lads go in search of massage and karaoke – but less of the karaoke…

Whether the boys enjoyed a happy ending or not, was never discovered, but by 8 am we are out on the roads, cutting through the mad traffic with a single-minded focus that seems to work for the locals.

We refuel alongside locals brimming enormous plastic containers with unleaded and balancing them on their Hondas – it’s a bomb factory all around us.

As we leave the town, the road yet again follows the mighty Mekong as we zip through the bustling villages. After a few miles, we turn off and head to a vast temple complex.

Surrounded by life-size models of animals from across the globe, monks and devotees wander serenely among the various shrines to the gods.

Stopping for a drink in front of an intricately carved temple, we take in the vista of the river plain and the ancient buildings that surround us.

Well, most of us do, but the contemplative silence is broken by Magnus violently vomiting over the side of the temple walls. Clearly, his evening meal was disagreeing with him.

Heading on, it’s a mix of trail and road before the lunch stop, but we’ve underestimated the fuel the 450 KTMs need, so as the rain comes in we’re diverted to buy fuel from the many enterprising locals that sell it by the coke bottle on the roadside.

Aaron takes on the tall grass
Aaron takes on the Tall Grass

After lunch at another temple, we leave the road to take on some fantastic and fast trails through plantations. All around us, there are vast swathes of rubber, cashew nut and cassava trees.

With the chance to stretch our legs, we’re all hanging the bikes out – Matt reveals himself as the true star of the group as his all or nothing approach to throttle control is both effective and disastrous in equal measure. Soon the trails change into narrow and tight

lanes almost like we are in Mid Wales… Well, if Mid Wales had herds of long-legged white cows and Honda scooters around every corner.

The best section of the day is a long stretch of sandy tracks that follow between two overhanging hedges – it’s like a trail riding video game and we are all pinned and carving the berms like we are off-road legends.

We take another chugging ferry across the river to complete the end of the day in Snoul, but as the truck has been delayed on the bumpy trails and by three police stops who think the spare bikes on the trailer are stolen and headed for Vietnam, we eat dinner in our riding jeans before the boys arrive.

After the meal and a change of clothes, I join the Aussies in search of nightlife. There is none save for a barking dog and a flashing light in a local guesthouse, so we buy beer from a roadside vendor and watch the stars.

The King’s Highway

Day three on the trails turns out to be one of the high points of the trip. Leaving early, we soon turn onto a narrow trail known as the King’s Highway that disappears into the jungle. The route has everything – deep gravel, mud, sand, roots, hardback and rock.

As we slice through the undergrowth trying to avoid the mud and keep the pace, the trails just get better and at one point we are travelling through bamboo that is neck height if you stay sat down. I’m on the pegs in the lead group and I can see a comical trail of helmets floating through the undergrowth.

As the trails get wetter and tougher, some of the guys are having a ‘mare – Aaron is having bike drowning issues, Doug gets wedged in the mud and the support riders are kept busy helping them out.

Some bridges are best walked over
Some bridges are best walked over

Matt is throwing himself into the bushes at regular intervals, Adam is roosting anyone behind him and Brenton just blasts everything at full chat.

My bike snaps a throttle cable just before what turns out to be the end of the trails, so the longer-legged and faster Stocky swaps to get it out of the slop while I chug his bike to end.

We emerge to a small village to eat our packed lunches, and buy drinks and wait for the exhausted guys at the back of the group to roll in. While we sip on cold water, Doug consumes a few too many Red Bull substitutes – imaginatively called Red Bear – and is soon bouncing off the walls.

The trails open up to 10m wide tracks made from super-grippy red mud and for the next hour and a half we are pinning it through the landscape without giving one solitary feck.

When Brenton’s bike grinds to a halt I leave him with the mechanics and blast on towards the horizon with the throttle buried in the loud section. From stutter bumps to bridge crossings it’s flat out and I cannot stop smiling.

Day 3 Plantation truck 2
Clinton and Mad Max

When we eventually reach the road for iced coffee and cokes, the whole team take a while to arrive. Brenton’s front sprocket has mysteriously disintegrated and disappeared so the bike is pushed home by Toby following behind with his foot on the end can as the sweeper rider steers, while the other support riders have had to tow one of the XRs in with a bad case of dead battery.

The red mud is everywhere and we are drenched in sweat but it makes not one jot of difference – this is dirt bike heaven, and we are riding it. After such an arduous day, we are pleased to take the road for 25 miles to bring us to our next overnight destination. We follow a short cut in, but the red clay trail is stupid slippery and Doug takes a tumble – I should have taken note.

From high side to infinity

The accommodation tonight is stunning – huts on stilts in the grounds of a vast nature resort in Sen Monorom. We’ve got hot showers, comfortable beds and an unexpected bonus – a fourinch spider hanging around in the bathroom.

After releasing the arachnid, we enjoy a great meal in the clubhouse and spend time chatting to fellow travellers, although while I’m eating, one of the dogs has run off with my sandal. I hop back to a well-earned sleep under a mosquito net to ensure the spider isn’t returning. In the Aussies’ hut, they are busy tasering each other – like you do.

The following morning, we are on the bikes early and after refuelling, we quickly hit the clay trails. Climbing the first hill my back wheel kicks out, hits the side bank and spectacularly high sides me around six feet into the air.

Luckily, I land away from the bike, but in the process, I’ve whacked by legs on the bars and I take a few moments to recover. My body armour and knee pads have done the job and there are no other injuries, but following the incredibly tricky and slippery trail once restarted is handled a little slower.

Watersports ahoy
Watersports ahoy

All the group are having difficulties as we cope with rocks, gullies, off-cambers and worryingly, massive sinkholes and streams bisecting the trail.

By the time we reach a stop point in the dense forest, Matt too has had a big off, his fall only cushioned by his rucksack full of potato snacks rather than actual armour. He needs to stop too because he has a bad case of the trots, so disappears into the undergrowth for some private time.“It’s a bit like pickles,” he announces to the group, none of whom have asked…

The second part of the trail takes us through more forest and river crossings before we hit a long and stupidly muddy road.

The ruts are endless and the grip non-existent. I’m riding with Adam and neither of us are feeling the flow. We crab, slip and paddle our bikes as they become increasingly loaded with mud, and by the time we eventually see the road after what seems like hours, we couldn’t be happier.

Thankfully we have some tarmac time before lunch and after we turn onto fast and sweeping trails through plantations that take us into the bustling town of Banlung and onto our most luxurious stop at the Ratanakiri Resort – complete with luxury lodges, cold beer and a glorious infinity pool to ease away the day.

With our kit ditched, it’s straight into the water and onto the bar for a bit of a blowout as the next day is a rest day. And rest we do as the whole group spend the next morning by the pool, the Aussies pumping out the ‘90s hip hop and generally fooling around like they were the age they first heard the tracks – still just a group of friends but now with enough cash to take them on such an epic trip.

In the afternoon we visit an idyllic volcanic lake at Yeak Laom for more swimming in the azure water. The locals are there too, somewhat oddly swimming fully clothed as we back flip into the water. It’s a beautifully chilled afternoon.

Dolphins, Rapids and Temples

After a couple of days of technical trails, the next day’s riding is both fast and furious, as we follow fantastically long and straight dirt roads.

The flat-out speed tempered by the regular wooden bridges that demand respect but occasionally deliver a monster jump and even bigger grin. The plantation trucks we pass are like something out of Mad Max and we follow the Mekong north and towards the Laos border.

In the afternoon, we stop at a small village on the riverside and take a boat trip that allows us to see the ultra-rare Irrawaddy dolphins. There are only five in this stretch of the river and less than 300 in the entire Mekong thanks to their docile nature and inability to avoid propellers.

We cross to Laos for a drink at the former French colonial railway terminal. On the way to our next stop, Andrew is suffering from a cricked neck from back-flips the day before, so while he travels in the support truck, we stop at the vast rapids on the Mekong, marvel at the crashing water and grab the selfies.

Hot and steamy in the jungle
Hot and steamy in the Jungle

The humidity has been turned right up now so it’s a restless night for me in a guest house. We were meant to camp tonight but the rain had drowned the island where our campsite should have been, and I’m glad to get up and on the bike. It’s more sweeping dirt roads to start with for a good 20 miles before we turn into hard-core jungle trails that test our skills with tough going and every surface possible.

With the heat racking up, every stop is a relief but cannot be lingered on, as the lack of a breeze is not good. As the trail gets wetter we are having more difficulties and with a possible mile more of axle-deep mud to negotiate, we escape across some rice field to reach a better trail – we’re all so hot and knackered that after the next river crossing, the boys go back and jump in the river.

It’s a good job that our accommodation is a sumptuous boutique hotel with all mod cons and a pool, even if the waiter has all the skills of Fawlty Towers’ Manuel.

The morning brings torrential rain and none of us are rushing to get on the bikes. Luckily it stops just as we are about to leave and we travel a short distance to climb the enormous hill towards the stunning Preah Vihear temple.

It’s situated on the Cambodia/Thailand border and as recently as 2011 the countries were fighting over the region and the temple. Climbing the ruins in motocross kit is hard work but it’s an incredible place, so it’s unfortunate that the supposedly stunning views from the top are totally obscured by dense fog!

There’s an unspoken sense between the group that the tour is winding down, but the trails that we ride throughout the rest of the day are just joyful – long, fast and winding tracks with regular concrete culverts to negotiate.

After nearly a week of watching the European boys stay on the pegs, most of the Aussies are following suit and feeling the flow. We get to the guest house relatively early and there’s time to visit another temple.

This time it’s the truly jaw-dropping Koh Ker temple that rises from the flat plain like a man-made mountain. Drinking cold cans of Cambodian beer whilst watching the sunset from the top of this ancient building surrounded by new friends and old mates it literally feels like we are on top of the world.

Route 66 and out

The final day beckons and it’s perhaps appropriate for an epic trip such as this that we are riding Route 66 into Siem Reap and back to civilisation.

The trails are nothing like their American equivalent, but more fantastic and tight sand tracks cutting through dense undergrowth and across creeks. When the trails open up it’s more sand that demands flat-out, weight back riding that has us all whooping like kids.

It’s a great end to the riding and as we pose for a team photo, the grins need widescreen to fit them in. We cruise into Siem Reap like returning warriors, battle-scarred but victorious as we slice through the mad traffic that is the standard for Asia.

Wet and wild
Wet and Wild

When we finally reach the hotel the sense of achievement is immense and it’s high-fives and man hugs all-round – we’ve done it.

The celebrations continue until gone 4 AM in Siem Reap’s lively and vibrant Pub Street – on one hand, we don’t really want it to be over, but our bodies are kind of relieved that it is. So that’s my Cambodian adventure.

A fantastic mix of stunning scenery, unbelievable trails and a great bunch of guys to have ridden with. The organisation’s been flawless, the accommodation varied and interesting and the food similarly eclectic.

Cambodia is a truly beautiful country and its people have been, without exception, warm, welcoming and friendly to a group of grubby and noisy dirt bikers invading their country. If you want an epic motorcycle journey, this ticks every box and I feel privileged to have been part of it.

Want to ride this?

Ride it

Julian was in Cambodia with Ride Expeditions ( If you fancy going on this tour, it’s an easy process. Ride Expeditions sort everything out from the moment you arrive in Cambodia, so all you need to book are your flights to Phnom Penh and outbound from Siem Reap.

Other than that, all your transport costs, excursions, breakfast and lunch, refreshments, the whole shebang – is included. The only thing Toby and Anna won’t cover is your evening meals and beers, so we just split the bill.

Alternatively, Dancing Roads ( offers guided tours from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap all across Cambodia, including an intro to dirt biking tour which is perfect for those who don’t have much off-road experience but want to discover the adventure that the country offers.

Get there

Shop around on the flights ( is a great resource) but don’t try to save a few bucks with multiple transfers – it’s no good if you are in Cambodia and your riding kit is in the Philippines! Return flights from London Heathrow start at approximately £988.


You’ll need a tourist visa, which can be bought at Phnom Penh airport for around $40, and dollars are welcomed everywhere.

Experience needed

In terms of experience, you need to be a relatively confident off-road rider as the trails can get pretty challenging. Ideally, you’ll want to bring your own riding kit, although you can hire it from Ride Expeditions. Aside from Toby, who rides all the tours and is the travelling medic, there’s a lead rider, rear sweeper, and support truck carrying spare bikes. If it all gets too much, you can travel in the truck!