Phnom Penh to Laos: A Bike Touring Route
Cambodia‘s roads have improved a lot in the last few years and perhaps nowhere more so than on the route north to Lao.
There are still some stretches of dirt but overall things are a whole lot smoother than they used to be, especially for the final stretch to the border. Even with the improved road conditions though, don’t think this is an easy ride.
The river sections are fascinating but bumpy and from Kratie north it’s a long, hot and desolate stretch of pedalling. Your reward at the end of it all is a couple days swinging in a hammock on a pleasant Lao island.
Get your Lao visa before you leave Phnom Penh. Just bring 3 passport photos along to the embassy, pay your money ($40-50 U.S. depending on your passport) and pick it up a couple days later. You cannot get Lao visas at the border, although you can pay people in Kratie to send your passport back to Phnom Penh for processing.
Duration: At least 5 days in the saddle, figure on 8-10 total if you want to relax and do some sightseeing
Terrain: Mostly flat. Some bumpy river stretches. Lots of ferries in the wet season.
Accommodation: Hotels or guesthouses in all the major towns.
Highlights: The riverside villages between Phnom Penh and Kratie are fascinating. Take your time and soak it all in.
Lowlights: The long run north from Kratie. If you want to take a bus, this is the place to do it.
Tips: Pack a big hat and a long-sleeved shirt to protect yourself from the sun. Carry heaps of water and snack food north of Kratie.
Section 1 – Phnom Penh to Kampong Cham (105km)
Leave Phnom Penh by going over the Japanese Bridge. Turn left onto Route 6, back towards Skun and Siem Reap. Around 40km down the road, shortly after you pass through a Muslim village, you’ll see a small paved road forking off to your right. It’s not marked but you’ll see a petrol station and a couple huts selling the usual snacks and drinks at the junction.
Now it’s decision time. If you turn right you get the scenic Route 61 to Kampong Cham, which takes you through a string of remote villages along the Mekong. It’s all very friendly, with lots of kids and adults alike running out to say hello. They probably don’t see too many tourists out here. There’s food and water all along the route but on the downside it’s largely a dirt road. Most of the time it’s in quite good shape and there’s almost no traffic but it’ll be dusty in the dry season. We came through in August. Overall the road was smooth and hard packed but some stretches were a bit bumpy and muddy. It was still very passable, despite recent rains. We were easily able to ride the whole time.
If you want the paved road, you can carry on straight to Skun (stopping for a roast spider and a night in a guesthouse if you’re taking it easy) and then bear right on Route 7 to Kampong Cham. You may get there faster but you’ll have to put up with the traffic. As you’ll already have realised from leaving Phnom Penh, you can’t always escape to a ridable shoulder.
On the scenic route, the paving continues all the way through the first village and for a short distance on the other side and then you’re into dirt road territory until just before Kampong Cham. At various points, the road splits and it’s not entirely clear which is the main road. Just ask say ‘Kampong Cham?’ to anyone and they’ll send you off in the right direction. A few rickety bridges crossing various Mekong tributaries add to the adventure.
At the 80km mark you cross a larger paved road and there’s another decent sized village here for more than your typical food selection. Go straight through the intersection to tackle the last few kilometers into Kampong Cham. Click on the thumbnail for a printable map of Kampong Cham.
There’s a good range of hotels and guesthouses to choose from. On the Mekong, everyone’s favourite seems to be the appropriately named Mekong Hotel. It was full the night we arrived so we moved a street off the river to the Mekong Guesthouse (see the map). You can roll your bike into their large gated yard. For $6 U.S. they’ll set you up with a clean fan room and cable TV.
All along the riverfront you can pick up cheap food or a tukaluk. We found a cracking restaurant near the end of the huge bridge going over the Mekong. Check out the map for that too. We recommend the omelette. And the cauliflower stir-fry. And the rice. And the salad. And the iced tea. Not bad for $3.50 for two people. In the market, you can get the usual selection of fruit and vegetables. Pick up a bag of banana chips for just 6,000 Riels a kilogram. That’s a lot of banana chips! Your cyclist’s appetite can probably meet the challenge though.
There are some nice temples to explore around Kampong Cham. You could hire a motodop for a day to see them. Check out this report by Andy Brouwer. The closest one is Wat Nokor, just over 2km out of town on Route 7, the main road to Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, a man claiming to work with the police hangs around and tries to get you to pay a dubious $2 entrance fee. We asked for identification and then to see a ticket and he couldn’t come up with anything except a demand for money so we left. As a result, we didn’t get to see the inside of the temple but even the outside of the structure is interesting.
Feedback from Baerbel & Johan (March 2013):
We left the city as you described. The national highway is currently under construction and a nightmare to cycle on, very dusty, with mainly unpaved parts to ride on and as you mentioned, no shoulder at all and the traffic has increased enormously since you’ve been there. After about 20km we discovered a tarmac road right next to the river and decided to move onto that one. For about 5km the tarmac continued which then became a good dirt road for about 5km and a not so good dirt road for another 5km. Then it joins the highway again for another 5km and we continued as you described it.
Section 2 – Kampong Cham to Chulong (90km)
If you liked yesterday’s taste of village life, you’ll love today’s ride. It’s all along the Mekong River with plenty of kids shouting hello and a few temples to explore. You get a bit of asphalt on either end but for the most part it’s a dirt road that’s sometimes surprisingly smooth and a bumpy ride at other times. Throw in a ferry ride and by the time you reach Chulong you’ll have put in a good day’s pedalling. There are hardly any cars and only a few motorbikes to contend with.
Stay on the west side of the Mekong as you head out of Kampong Cham. Resist the temptation to cross the bridge and go up the other bank. That side is frequently flooded or impassable, according to locals we talked to.
The first 20km or so are entirely paved and you can make good time on this section, if you don’t get caught up yelling hello and waving to all the kids. Near the end of this blissfully smooth road is the village of Han Chey. After you cross the bridge you can fork left to ride up a steep hill to Wat Phnum. The main road continues to the right though and if you cycle along eventually you’ll come to what looks like a stairway to heaven, which it kind of is: a long set of stairs going up to the wat. Park your bike at the bottom and walk up to see the temple.
Shortly afterwards the road splits and the paving ends. You want the right bearing fork that leads down to river level. Carry on over the often bumpy dirt road until you reach about 35km on your bike computer. In early 2010 there was construction going on here so maybe it will be better soon. Asphalt reappears just before the town of Stung Trang. There are a few buffet restaurants and tukaluk stands here and you can grab a bite to eat before you get the ferry across the river.
If you didn’t see the ferry coming into town, double back about a kilometer from the centre and look for the locals waiting by the side of the road. The ferry dock is nothing more than a bit of packed dirt that slopes down to the water from the road edge. The owner of the boat will set out a bit of wood for you to roll your bike onto and it’ll cost you 2,000 Riels for the ride across the water.
Once on the eastern side of the Mekong, it’s back to the dirt roads and a long series of small villages, many of them Muslim. A ‘salam alaykum’ in reply to the cries of ‘hello’ always gives the locals a pleasant surprise. It won’t be hard to pick up some fruit and cold drinks for a snack out here but you may not spot any restaurants outside of meal times. The road is often bumpy and all that jostling around can take it out of you so have lots of small change on hand for sugary snacks to rebuild your energy. If you see people grilling tubes of bamboo over coals, stop and buy a couple. They are filled with a mixture of rice, coconut and beans. Great power food.
About 30km from the ferry crossing, you’ll reach a good, smooth dirt road. A few kilometers later the paving returns and you can easily zip along all the way into Chulong. There are a whopping three guesthouses to choose from. The first one at the entrance to the town has a restaurant and a young man who speaks good English but it was full so we carried on. Guesthouse 5 is near the market and run by the same family that own the local pharmacy and health clinic. It’s pricey for what you get ($6.25-8.75 U.S.) but there is cable TV. Our room was clean. Other travellers haven’t had such good luck though. Going out of town there’s a third guesthouse.
Feedback from Baerbel & Johan (March 2013):
We decided not to follow your advice and took the bridge to ride on the east side from the very beginning. The first few kilometers were really challenging as we had to go through sand and we almost decided to go back to the other side, however we thought that these 35 km were the most scenic of the whole trip. There was hardly any traffic, not even the typical motorbikes and it felt very laid back and ‘original’. And we could cycle all the time. It is definitely worth doing that side of the river during the dry season. After the rain it’s a different story.
Section 3 – Chulong to Kratie (36km)
Note: It seems this road is now fully paved. We have included our original description for reference but you are unlikely to encounter as many ferries in this section as we did!
After two days of full-on village life, there’s more of the same today. In the wet season, you could have several ferries and do-it-yourself river fordings thrown in for fun but a number of bridges have been built in this area so it’s not as bad as it used to be.
If you have a pair of sandals, keep them handy in case you do have to muck through. Or do as the locals do and jump in with your bare feet.
Your first ferry crossing is just a few kilometers north of Chulong. It costs 1,500 Riel for you and the bike and takes a few minutes, depending on how many locals are waiting. They are building a bridge here so the ferry may soon be obsolete. Let us know if you have an update on the bridge!
Once off the ferry, take the new high road, elevated to avoid flooding. It’s a hard dirt surface and you can make good time. Around the 8km mark you may well find the road just runs into the water and disappears where a lake has overflowed in the rainy season. Double back and look for a small road going towards the Mekong on your right. All the motorbikes will be heading this way and you can cycle directly along the Mekong through the villages, bypassing the flooded lake. Eventually you will come back out on the main road and cross a bridge. Don’t take the ferry that you’ll see locals waiting for here. We don’t know where it goes but we did determine that it doesn’t go in the direction of Kratie.
More flooding may mean you have to divert off the main road and into the villages along the Mekong once or twice more to avoid the water. No matter though, the villages make more interesting cycling than the main road. Even in the dry season you may want to try just slipping towards the Mekong for a scenic detour.
There are two more ferries close together (2000-3000 Riels for you and your bike) and a couple hundred meters of flooded road between the ferries where you can push through. All in all it’s no big deal and fun as long as you don’t mind a bit of mud and taking your time. The locals will be very amused to see the ‘barang’ pushing through the water. The paved road returns about 10km before Kratie, where you can pick up a good hotel room for $6 U.S. or check out the many guesthouses if you’re on a budget. Click on the thumbnail for a full size map of Kratie.
We checked in at the Oudom Sambath Hotel on the waterfront. There’s a friendly English-speaking owner who claims he can get a Lao visa for you if you neglected to get one in Phnom Penh, although you wouldn’t need that service if you’d read these pages first! The same owner told us the road from Chulong to Kratie is not usually as flooded as we found it in August. Apparently the rains started early in 2008. You can count on one ferry crossing but the rest will depend on the extent of the rainy season when you come.
Section 4 – Kratie to Stung Treng (145km)
This may be the hardest, hottest, longest stretch of cycling you’ve ever done. Before you leave, make sure you really want to cycle every last inch (your own motivation will be a big factor in getting you through), pack at least four litres of water, snacks and a takeaway lunch from the market. Start as early as you can. We got out the door at 7:30am and it was completely dark by the time we got to Stung Treng.
At first glance, this should be an easy run up Highway 7. It’s newly paved, there’s almost no traffic (three to four cars an hour) and the road is a whole lot smoother than it was before but the chip sealed paving still has a slight bump to it and you can’t make time like you would on proper asphalt. Prepare for intense heat reflecting off the road, very little shade, possibly a headwind and no guesthouses. We didn’t even see any temples! An overcast day is ideal for this ride. Otherwise, get out the sunscreen, your biggest hat and try your best to find a tree (on a well trodden path of course) to rest under when the sun is strong.
To reach Highway 7, leave Kratie by following the road along the river for 25km, past the dolphin village of Kampi and all the way to Sandan around the 25km mark. It’s a narrow road, paved but a bit bumpy and there are plenty of locals doing their thing to keep you amused.
At Sandan, there’s a big roundabout with a dolphin in the middle. Bear right if you want to go to Highway 7 or keep going straight if you want to check out Cambodia’s biggest temple. If you choose the second option, it’s unlikely you’ll make Stung Treng in one day. Prepare to ask villagers for a place to stay in one of the small towns on the way.
A few kilometers after turning right at Sandan you hit the brand new Highway 7. Turn left and off you go. For the first few kilometers there are regular but widely spaced shops where you should be able to get a cold drink, assuming they haven’t run out of ice. Take every chance you get to stock up on cold drinks to keep your energy up. The selection may not be great but we can recommend the soursop juice. Very tasty and refreshing.
Around the 50km mark you come into two towns close together, one of which is Sre Sbov. You’ll find a few houses, shops and a restaurant. Before you know it you’re out the other side.
Your next restaurant is about 25km later when you get to the town of O Krieng. You can even have a choice of restaurants and fruit sellers here. This is probably your best place to ask around for a bed for the night if you’re shattered and don’t want to continue to Stung Treng. Otherwise stock up on fruit and carry on.
There are a few more villages, spaced 15-20km apart as you work your way towards Stung Treng and usually a series of little huts. Although it’s desolate, you are never totally alone. There’s always a kid driving a few cows somewhere. It looks like a lot of land has been cleared here for farming and this area may build up in the next few years. If you are really lucky, you may even spot the odd sugar cane juice seller as you get closer to Stung Treng. This is truly heavenly after a day of pounding the pavement.
In the last 25km to Stung Treng a few hills appear. They’re not much more than bumps in the road but they can be tiring if you’ve been pushing hard all day. About 7km before the town a sign marks the turnoff to the left for Stung Treng. You can either go this way or continue on the main road until you see the new bridge over the Mekong, where you turn left to go into the town centre a short distance away.
If you go left onto the smaller road, it’s still a few more kilometers before civilisation reappears. Just as you start to wonder if you’ll ever see a town again the lights of Stung Treng appear in front of you. Do not bother stopping at the Mekong Guesthouse, the first one you see. You might be tired enough to be tempted but it’s grubby, overpriced and far from the town centre. Instead follow the traffic downhill, turning left at a major junction onto the main drag.
Soon you’ll be cycling past the market and you’ll be surrounded by guesthouses and hotels, many of them with flashing neon signs. You have returned to the modern world after a day out in the wilds! Click on the thumbnail for a full size map of Stung Treung.
We can recommend the Ratana Sambath Guesthouse on the southbound side of the main drag, opposite the market and one block back from the river. It’s either brand new or totally renovated. Everything in our room was sparkling clean and for $8 U.S. we got cable TV, a fan and air conditioning. You can park your bicycle downstairs amid the hefty wooden furniture. Bargain! On the adjacent corner is a bustling restaurant that turns out excellent food. They completely mixed up our order but it was all delicious so we weren’t complaining. On the southern end of the market (the furthest away from the river) you’ll find an internet cafe with reasonable speed for 5,000 Riel an hour. Do your online stuff here because it’s double the price once you get to the islands in Lao.
Feedback from Baerbel & Johan (March 2013):
We had to take the long way as you did and actually didn’t find it that bad. It wasn’t exciting, but we managed to arrived before dusk (we left at 6.45 am and arrived at 5.30pm). The road isn’t that good anymore and riding isn’t really smooth. There are good stretches and then there are parts that are completely broken open for hundreds of meters. This starts after about 30km and continues until you take the small road to Stung Treng that doesn’t want to end! What might be handy as well for others who might to consider taking this route is to not get off left at the sign to Stung Treng but stay on 7 and just take the exit to the left right before the big bridge over the river. The road is much smoother and I thought it’s shorter as well. And if you’ve been riding for that long already you might want to go for the easier road.
Section 5 – Stung Treng to the Lao Border (60km)
If you haven’t already had enough of cycling out in the wilds then you’ll get another taste of it today. Alternatively, get a bus from Stung Treng to the border or see if it’s possible to hop on a boat up to the river crossing.
On your bike, follow the same routine as yesterday and start out early with plenty of water, snacks and a packed lunch. A takeaway of rice and pork is just 2,000 riels in the market. Once you get started, there are fewer places to pick up a cold drink than yesterday. The only real cafe is in O Svay Commune, about 13km before the border. They do a nice iced coffee and you can spend your remaining riels on some inspired banana chips.
Like yesterday, there’s almost no traffic, few houses and it’s hard to find shade. This is an easy place to get sunstroke if you’re not careful.
The first sign of the border is a barrier across the road. There are two huts, one for Cambodian border guards and another about 500 meters down the road for their Lao counterparts. There are plenty of traveller tales about bribes at this border. When we crossed the Cambodians were completely professional and didn’t ask for anything but the Lao officers won’t get out of their hammock if you don’t pay the $1 U.S. per passport they ask for. There is a big sign that says overtime charges apply outside of the 08:00-16:00 working hours and on Saturday and Sunday. It’s anyone’s guess how much overtime will cost you.
Feedback from Baerbel & Johan (March 2013):
After Stung Treng we took the road to Banlung as we want to go to Vietnam first. This is a brand new road, however the tarmac is very rough and not really nice to cycle on. But there are no potholes, there is a shoulder (that can be used if people don’t dry their cassava on it) and there is still not much traffic. However, it is much more difficult than the route from Kratie to Stung Treng. It is 143km – our map said 158km and google maps 168km. But it is thankfully only 143km. There are restaurants after 20, 44 and 99km, there is not much in between other then drinks. And it’s an undulating road with long uphills and it is very hot as there is much less shade. This part is only something for people who really want to cycle everything. Otherwise I would definitely take the bus.
Section 6 – Lao Border to Don Det Island (21km)
Once through Lao immigration, Highway 7 becomes Highway 13 but is basically the same deal: a wide and sealed road with hardly any traffic. There are plenty of kids to practice your ‘sawadee’ greeting on though. It’s just as hot as the Cambodian side on a sunny day so stop and rest where you can. You’ll pass through a few villages and signs for waterfalls before you get to the turnoff for Nakasang at the 18km mark. There’s also a sign for a ferry to Don Det at the turnoff.
It’s 3km down to Nakasang village and the pier, where ticket sellers who are used to seeing people like you will be only too happy to ship you and your bike over to Don Det Island for 20,000 kip. You can pay in baht or dollars if you don’t have kip yet. Loading your precious bicycle onto a narrow boat can be quite the experience but try not to panic. You’ll be fine.
Once on Don Det you can have your pick of a string of riverside bungalows for 20,000 kip each. There are a couple shops on the island but predictably the selection is limited and prices are higher than on the mainland. It might be an idea to pick up some snacks before you leave Nakasang.
After a tough couple of days, kick back in your hammock and rest those muscles. You deserve it!
Thanks to Paul & Zoe for helping to update this page in 2010!