Bicycle touring is an adventure in itself, but if you want to get REALLY off the beaten track in South East Asia - then the Mekong Discovery Trail is for you.
Map included below.
We tried it on a whim as an alternative to the unshaded highway between Stung Treng and Kratie. The thought of a quiet track along the river seemed much more appealing and worth a try, even if we had to turn back at some point. After some online research, and not finding much definitive information, we headed out on our first spontaneous adventure of the trip.
Day 1: Stung Treng - Koh Preah - Koh Khnhaer
47km cycling + 30km boat
After a leisurely (and huge) English breakfast as Ponika's Palace, we headed to the river and cycled south out of the town on a paved road with plenty of mini markets for the first 10km or so. After a while, the road became unpaved but easy to ride while passing through small villages and over rickety bridges. The shade of the trees, lack of cars and friendly locals made this my favorite morning's ride of the whole trip.
A signpost for the island of Koh Preah at about 35km signalled the end of the path and the first boat of the day. The shop at the pier has an ice box of cold drinks. Quench your thirst before the crossing as the shop on the island is much smaller. We wanted to get a boat all the way to Koh Rougniv which is a bigger island further south (but not marked on maps.me). No one wanted to take us there so we paid 10,000 riel for 2 people and 2 bikes and made the short crossing to Koh Preah.
The main road on Koh Preah takes you past a small shop where you should stock up on water if planning to go further in the same day. The gravel road then continues across the island and along the opposite shore towards the southern tip. We didn't see any signs mentioning the Mekong Discovery trail but the direction was easy enough to figure out....it's a small island. We had cycled 5 or 6 pleasant and scenic kms when we came to a village area with a school and some home stays. One house was advertising boat services, a call was made and someone agreed to take us and our bikes to Koh Phdao (main village on the southern tip of Koh Rougniv ) for 40 dollars. We planned to stay in a home stay in Koh Phdao and cross back to the mainland the next morning to head for Kratie.
It didn't work out that way. We had just passed the northern tip of Koh Rougniv when the boat pulled in and the man told us to get out or else pay 150 more dollars to get to Koh Phdao. After a lot of frustration, we decided to just get out. We dragged our bicycles and bags up the muddy bank to a tiny village of a few houses (Koh Khnhaer). An old sign said that the Mekong Discovery Trail continued from this village to Koh Phdao - 45 km away. We decided to try to cover a few kms since we still had an hour of daylight left. Someone found a few bottles of water for us to buy and we were on our way. If you arrive at this point in the evening, it might be a good idea to ask for a home stay and start the next morning as the trail on the island takes an entire day.
The trail turned out to be extremely sandy with huge muddy puddles every so often. It was almost impossible to ride with heavily loaded touring bikes. I fell off once and Matthew's bike got stuck in the mud. As darkness fell, we realized that we weren't going to get very far and decided to stop at the next dry, clear area to camp for the night. We struggled on in the dark with head torches for another hour but the path just became more and more muddy and overgrown. We took a wrong turn once but some nice men driving a water buffalo-drawn cart put us right.
Eventually (after 7km) we emerged from the mosquito filled forest into a small clearing with a house on stilts. The nice family living there agreed to let us camp under their house. Not only that, but they gave us water to wash with, rice to eat and coconut milk to drink!
Day 2: Koh Khnaer - koh Phdao - Sambor
43km cycling + 1km boat
We packed up early the next morning, gave our hosts some money for the food and shelter and continued on the trail. The first 20km or so was very overgrown and again, consisted of deep sand. The last 15-20km became gradually less sandy and fun to cycle. Throughout the day, we rationed our limited water supply so we were jumping for joy when we came upon the first shop in the village. We guzzled 4 bottles there and then another couple 2 mins later at the next shop. If you plan on cycling this trail....bring LOTS of water with you.
The village of Koh Phdao has plenty of home stays but we continued on to catch the ferry to the mainland. There is a left turn before the southern tip of the island which takes you to the ferry point on the eastern side. We wheeled our tired and dirty bikes onto the boat, sandwiched between people and motorbikes, and made the short crossing to the town of Sambor. The only accommodation we found is the Daily Guesthouse. Turn left after coming off the ferry and it is about 1km away. We were charged 15 dollars - little overpriced but we were so happy to see a shower and air-conditioning. The restaurant next door serves a decent fried rice and spring rolls for a couple of dollars. The temple across the road has a turtle sanctuary in the back. It is pretty underwhelming but has a nice video which shows how locals are now taking responsibility for protecting the threatened and endangered turtle species in the area.
Day 3: Sambor - Kampi - Kratie
We really didn't fancy noodle soup for breakfast so we had some biscuits and headed off while keeping an eye out for some bread. When we spotted a man with baguettes hanging from his motorbike, we flagged him down. We would have been happy with plain bread but, to our surprise, he opened a big bucket and scooped lychee ice-cream into our rolls! Probably not the healthiest breakfast in the world but it definitely gave us a buzz for the next few hours and was way better than noodle soup.
Fuelled by ice-cream, we cycled the 21km from Sambor to Kampi where we had heard you have the best chance of seeing river dolphins. Tickets for a private boat were roughly 10 dollars per person and worth every penny as we got up close and personal with the endangered mammals.
After our dolphin stop, it was back on the bikes for the short ride (about 18km) to Kratie. We treated ourselves to 2 nights in the River Dolphin hotel for 20 dollars per night. The room was big and clean and the air-conditioning and shower worked well. Nice quiet pool and great food and drinks at a reasonable price.
Although the distances we covered on this trail were short, it was technical riding (more often pushing) and hard work without many facilities. That said, I actually really enjoyed it and would recommend it - provided you are well prepared.
Tips for Cycling the Mekong Discovery Trail:
Consider renting a mountain bike in Stung Treng and taking a small backpack instead of a fully loaded touring bike. Our bicycles were really too heavy for this trail.
Stock up on plenty of water every time you see a shop or at least before leaving the mainland.
Bring riel or small denominations of dollars to pay for home stays.
If the trail disappears or things don't go to plan....go with it and improvise, might end up being more fun!