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Dirt Biking in Cambodia Ė Take a Spin on the Wild Side!
If youíre thinking of hiring a dirt bike and heading out into the Cambodian sticks, here are a few tips for the most serious - and not so serious - off-road adventurers.
Before you go
If youíre taking your own bike, get it fully serviced before long trips. Check your tyres, brake pads, oil, cables and suspension, especially if youíre heading deep into remote areas. The last thing you need is a breakdown in the middle of nowhere!
Make sure you know basic bike maintenance and repair. Itís pointless to have a perfect toolkit if you donít know how to use it!
What to take
Wear a helmet. There, Iíve said it. Wear a helmet! If you do wipe out itís going to be the only thing between your skull and the ground. Bike shops provide these with rentals, so try on a few until you get a good fit.
If you have one, a medium size Camelback is perfect. You donít want a massive back-pack weighing down your back tyre, so try to pack as minimally as possible. Russian market sells a wide range of day-packs perfect for riding, and most guesthouses and hotels can take care of other baggage for you. A bum-bag (fanny-pack) is perfect for carrying spare parts, tools and other small items.
Jeans or combat pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt are the best clothes for riding, and a sturdy pair of footwear is a good idea for protection. As biking boots are hard to come by in Cambodia, most people use tough shoes or comfortable army boots. You can pick up a pair of army boots for about at the army surplus market on Pochentong Road.
Donít bring too many clothes with you- just a set of clothes for riding and a few changes for evenings or around town. Laundry is cheap and quick so you can get your things cleaned along the way. Save a little space for a hammock & mosquito net if youíll be camping out or staying in a village.
Dry season can get very dusty, so wear some eye protection. If you donít have riding goggles you can pick up clear plastic safety glasses at Central Market for a few dollars. Youíll need them at dusk as well when all the bugs come out.
Main routes usually have small bike repair shops that can deal with flat tyres and minor problems, but if youíre heading far off the beaten track, a decent first aid kit and toolkit is advisable. A good toolkit would include a puncture repair kit, pump, a set of Allen keys, tyre levers and electricianís tape.
Dirt-bike parts might be hard to find in the provinces, so as a bare minimum take a spare inner tube, spare cables and levers for your clutch and brake, a few chain link and brake pads. Youíll need a few extra sets of brake pads in the rainy season as they will wear out quickly. A good oil-spray will keep your chain slick.
When heading into the countryside, itís best to carry a combination of local currency (riel) and low/medium denomination dollar bills. Faded or torn higher denomination bills are useless so donít accept them from anyone.
On the Road
Try to get an early start on rides, the earlier the better. The weather will be cooler and the roads leaving Phnom Penh less hectic. If heading into remote areas, this will also give you more time for rough stretches, rest stops and possible breakdowns.
Cover up and use sunscreen when riding; donít be deceived by the wind in your ears, itís HOT out there! A krama (Cambodian scarf) is cheap and will protect the back of your neck.
Drink plenty of water (thatís where the Camelback comes in!). Buy some ĎRoyal Dí rehydration salts and add them to your drinking water at rest stops; most pharmacies in Phnom Penh carry them for a few hundred riel. Heat exhaustion wonít hit you until the evening, and the last thing you want is to feel groggy when you should be relaxing.
We all hate them but mosquitoes are here to stay. Use a good repellent to keep them off you, and try to cover up around sunset when theyíre at their hungriest. Guesthouses will nearly always provide mosquito nets if necessary; make sure you tuck them under your mattress before sleeping. Natural deterrents include citronella spray, and Vitamin B12 or garlic supplements.
Repellent may also deter leeches in jungle areas, but check your ankles and arms if youíve been riding in the wet or through slow-moving water.
Donít tempt fate by leaving an open invitation for people to steal things. When parking up and exploring, make sure you lock up your bike and remove the keys. Youíll probably want to take your bags with you as well for peace of mind.
If youíre not sure of the best path around an obstacle, a flooded pothole or through a very rough patch, look for tell-tale tracks from past bikes or carts.
It is very common for bridges in Cambodia to be missing a few planks, or even complete sides. Half-built bridges are rarely closed off and usually have a small, unmarked diversion. Be very cautious when approaching all bridges in rural area; you donít want a 10-foot drop at 60 km per hour!
Riding in rural areas brings with it rural hazards, so always keep your eyes open for chickens, dogs, pigs, cows (and young children!) that might, and usually do, run into the road. Be particularly careful around sunset, as rural roads will be full of cows being herded home and students leaving school on bicycles. Farm animals are one of the largest cause of biking injuries, and getting to a hospital may be a matter of hours, if not days.
Use your horn. Sounding a horn is not considered rude or aggressive in Cambodia, and is used by everyone simply to say ďIím hereĒ. Use it as much as you like; going around corners, through towns and passing cyclists/cars etc.
Donít expect other people on the road to let you know their intentions. Swinging across to the opposite side of the road without signalling is VERY common, so give other vehicles a wide berth and watch them carefully for any sudden moves. Again, use your horn to tell them youíre there, as they wonít be used to fast-moving vehicles coming up behind them.
In the rainy season harmless looking puddles can turn out to be deeper than you might expect, sinking your bike, flooding your engine and sending you flying. If in doubt, follow old tyre tracks or go around it.
Look out for tree branches sticking up from the middle of the road; these have been placed here to warn passing vehicles of hazards such as ditches, holes and deep puddles.
Jungle roads and bridges are often maintained by locals working of their own accord. Please show your appreciation by dropping them a few hundred riel as a contribution for their work; if it wasnít for them many remote areas would be impassable.
No matter which country youíre riding in, some advice is universal. Use your common sense, keep your wits about you, and donít hare it around corners or through villages. Wherever you go people will be accommodating and friendly, so donít ruin it for everyone else by being thoughtless. Considerate riding and respect will ensure villagersí hospitality is long-lived.
Many areas you pass through have seen few foreigners, so donít be surprised if the residents of a whole village appear out of nowhere when you stop for a rest. Be prepared for plenty of stares and perhaps some nose-pulling by the children, and smile!
In any Buddhist culture, the head is considered sacred, so donít touch anyone on the head, even playfully. Young children are ok though. Another cultural no-no is pointing your feet at someone, especially the sole.
As with most countries in the region, outward shows of anger are considered taboo, and will rarely get the reaction you expect. In fact a common Khmer reaction to such confrontations is to smile or even laugh, which can be infuriating to outsiders. Keep your cool and donít take it personally, itís simply the Cambodian way of trying to placate you.
Be sure to take your shoes off when entering someoneís home and pagodas. A row of shoes outside is a tell-tale sign. If in doubt, have a look around to see what other people are doing. If youíre concerned about theft of expensive footwear, carry it with you.
When visiting pagodas or sacred areas, please remove your helmet or any other headwear before entering the grounds. Again check to see if people are removing their shoes and follow their lead. If visiting hill tribe cemeteries, please respect their beliefs by not entering Ďghost-housesí or burial areas without being invited. Hill tribes believe this would bring bad luck and disease to their community.
The part you donít want to hear
In the event of an accident, itís amazing how quickly locals and police appear out of nowhere. If youíve hit someone else, expect to have compensation demanded from you, whether the accident was your fault or not. The longer you hang around, the more ridiculous the demands are going to get (0 for a broken bike foot-peg is one expatís experience!). Try to settle the problem as quickly as possible, because if the police get involved youíll have to deal with their costs and possible bike impounding as well. The best solution? Safe and considerate riding. Prevention is better than cure!
About the Author: nw1 has travelled extensively in South East Asia and nowdays owns a safe and simple guesthouse near the beach in Sihanoukville Cambodia.