Should we take this back road instead?

Every culture is different. It took me a while to understand that when a Vietnamese person tells you that a town is 17km down the road, don’t expect it to be 16 or 18km away. It will be 17km. Likewise, it took Ryan and I a while to understand that if asking if Chheb is down this road, the response “yes” has little implication on whether Chheb is down that road or not. We got lost.

There may not have been any signposts and the road matched the description of “dirt but good” that we had been told, but there were some signs that we should have told us we were going the wrong way. Things like people in military uniform with automatic weapons are quite common along international borders, but not 80km from the border. The river that flowed right to left instead of left to right should have raised alarm. There was a signpost for a tourist attraction waterfall that looked similar to the one we’d seen on the Laos side of the Meekong two days earlier. Towards the end of the day we commented that people were still drinking Beer Lao on the Cambodian side of the border. We looked quiet surprised when someone said Sai Bai Dee, the Laos word for Hello, at about 4pm having ridden nearly 70km away from the Meekong and by now over 100km as the crow flies to the nearest point in Laos.

We were expecting Chheb to be 80km from Thala Boravit where we started that days ride. Just after 80km we came to a 4 way intersection that wasn’t marked on any of out three maps, but we’d been told there was a new road that we wanted to take. There was a small cafe / restaurant at the intersection so we stopped in for water and asked directions from a guy that spoke some English.
“How far to Chheb?”
“54 kilo”
“What?!”
“No no. Fif-ten”
“phew, for a moment I thought we were totally lost”

We pulled out our maps, scratched our heads about where this new road must be. Asked about guesthouses in Chheb, which apparently there weren’t. But apparently there was one in this town. We scratched our heads a bit more.
“What is this town called?”
“Sra Lao”
Scratch. scratch. There’s a Sra Lao up there somewhere. Wait.
“Where is Laos?”. Point northish. “Far?” No. “Where is the Meekong?” . . . . Oh.

In short, we had ridden 70km along a dirt road to get to within 12 km of where we had been in Don Det, Laos, two nights earlier. We went into the town, found a guesthouse and drank 3 Beer Laos (aka. Nearly 2 liters) each to make us feel better.

The following day we tried again to get to Chheb. Apparently there was a choice of two dirt roads, the old bad one or the new good one. I’ll take the new good one thanks, which was recommended. Both are the same length.

The new good road was 99% good. However the 1% was the bits the bridge builders hadn’t gotten to yet, so it was either big gullys and water crossing, a bridge made up of some logs, or rough as guts dried mud where the water had come over the road already. By the end of the day there was only one tyre track in the road, no cars at all went on this road. Slow going, hot sun, sweat and dust made for a really tough day (note the 3 beer Lao as carbo loading the night before). The only town we went through was one of those stare-towns where people want to stare at you, but no interest in helping you. We managed to get three people giving conflicting directions and got onto a road out of town that was 95% good (much more dried mud than before).

However, approaching Chheb (signified by the number of mobile phone towers) we came to a t-junction with a perfect condition, wide road with all the drainage and bridges in place. We found out later that this was the road we should have been on 24 hour earlier.

After a feed in Cheeb, we knew we had to push on to get the following days distance down. Ryan and I are both carrying bivvy bags and it does seem a shame if we never use them. We got 4 opinions on which road to take and opted for one where the guy wanted us to pay him for his advice, then headed out of town. Hoping we were on the right road, wondering when we would finally get to this asphalt road and legging it as hard as we could.

At sundown we found a small turn off to a field, set up camp, looked at how small our bivvy bags were and regretted the decision, ate food and tried to work out where we were then gave up. That night it rained, getting us wet inside our bicycle bags and turning the road outside into sticky mud.

On day three of our misadventure, we filled up on a breakfast of sticky rice and sweetened condensed milk (almost as good as in a soft bread roll) and tried to leave. I made it about 200m before my mud guards filled up and I had to take them off, 5km down the road we both got stuck in the stickiest of clay mud. 135km from our destination, things weren’t looking good, but couldn’t get worse. Thankfully they improved and the road turned from mud to gravel to bad asphalt and finally into good asphalt with milestones and everything.

Ryan and I both made purchasing errors through mis-communication that morning. Ryan tried to buy 3 litres of water but came back with 6 which wasn’t such a bad thing. My error was when I spotted the stall opposite a primary school selling dough balls rolled in sugar, normally 10 of them would cost around 2500 riel. They make pretty good riding food so I tried to buy 20 and gave her 5000 riel but then she filled up two bags with 20 in each, clearing out nearly all of her stock. As I rode out of town I had the mental image of school kids running across the road at recess to find that today there were no fried dough balls because some foreigner took them all. The tears in their eyes are still with me.

The three days were 80km of dirt to Sra Lao, 100km of dirt to south of Chheb somewhere then 140km to Kompong Thom of which the first 20 or so were dirt. We were knackered and caught a bus from Kompong Thom to Siem Riep, it was 160km of flat boring straight road anyway.

Sticking to the signposted roads from now on.

About shuttrjames

I`m riding a bike through SE Asia. i come from a country where we only speak english, have good maps and no hills. Here. I am in trouble! Follow me to get lost in the back roads of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. james
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2 Responses to Should we take this back road instead?

  1. K says:

    Have you thought of investing in a compass? GPS? EPIRB? I got lost just reading your story as I don’t know any of the place names. I gather you had left Laos days before (presumably at a legitimate border crossing), were trying to get from A to B in Cambodia, and ended up in Laos again (presumably NOT via a legitimate border crossing). It sounds like the machine-gun-wielding border guards were asleep on the job.
    Keep having fun!

    • shuttrjames says:

      Ryan had a compass. He told me about it two days later.
      (Ryan has now left and I don’t have a compass, oh well).
      And no, we stayed in Cambodia, but could see Laos 50m away across the Meekong.

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