Mount Aural (Aoral) is the tallest peak in Cambodia with it's 1813 meters. The information is scarce about this mountain so I hope my detailed trip report will be of great help for other hikers and peakbaggers.
Preparations in Phnom Penh
The real challenge of Phnom Aoral is the language. They only speak kmer in the countryside. The whole area is also off-the-beaten-track and not even mentioned in Lonely Planet. Thus the first thing I did when I arrived Phnom Penh was to start looking for a random guy with some English skills who could join me for a small fee. First I get in touch with a couple of tuk-tuk drivers who could fit this task, that is, to bring their English skills (but not their tuk-tuk) up to the foot of the mountain. But I change my mind when I meet this very friendly boy Phanith who is working in the reception of York Guesthouse. He seems very keen on joining me on this adventure since he has never been there before. Because he's working in the guesthouse I stay in, he also seems more trustworthy than a random tuk-tuk driver on the streets. After asking his boss, Phanith gets a couple of days off from work. I agree to pay him 25 USD a day plus food and transportation costs. This is much better payment than he receives from the guesthouse (8 USD a day). I will need him for a couple of days only. I don't plan to have two guys with me on the mountain, so once Phanith helps me settling a deal with a local guide in the village below Aoral, he will return back alone to Phnom Penh.
I get Phanith to reserve two seats on the bus. Conveniently this bus will pick us up at our guesthouse next morning. The bus is actually going all the way to Sihanoukville, but we will get off in Kampong Speue. Still we have to pay the full price to Sihanoukville, but 5 USD per seat is still a cheap price. Then I buy some food and snacks in a store in Phnom Penh, so I have enough supplies for a couple of days on the mountain. I buy some extra so I can share with my local guide, in case he only brings rice.
Back in the guesthouse I organize my stuff. I have all hiking equipment needed, I just have to buy a hammock, which is easy to find in Phnom Penh. I also pack my mosquito net and repellent, because malaria is highly prevalent in Aoral. The risk is, however, fairly low in the dry season. Most likely it's not going to rain at all, so I don't need to buy a plastic roof for my hammock. But in case it will rain, I will just gamble on that the local guide will provide something. After dividing my stuff into one bag to leave at the guesthouse, and one pack to bring on the mountain, I go to sleep.
A long day by public transport
Early in the morning we are picked up by a free shuttle van, which brings us to the central bus station in Phnom Penh. The bus to Sihanoukville is ready for departure. The tickets were reserved and paid yesterday, so we have no problem claiming our seats. It takes a lot of time just getting out of Phnom Penh, with huge traffic jams everywhere. After almost two hours we reach Kampong Speue, but the stupid driver miss the central market (van-station) with almost 1 km. As we get off the bus, we meet all these dishonest guys who claim there is no share vans to Spien Daik, and that we have to hire their vehicle instead (sure!!!). Initially we even have problems describing where we want to go, because in the Lonely Planet Forum there is quite a few misunderstandings about the names of the villages up in Aoral. A village named Khang Choeng is not known by the locals in Kampong Speue, so I decided to just ignore the information I got from the Cambodian ex-pats on this forum. Now I know that these "experts" were just making assumptions, because none of them had ever put their feet on this mountain anyway. The online maps are a confusion too, because the names of the villages does not appear, or differs from map to map. But Spien Daik is the key word to get up Aoral, and I have pointed it out on this Google Map.
One of the guys in Kampong Speu offers to drive us for 25 USD in his empty van, quite cheap for a chartered two hours drive. This is a tempting offer, but I'm here on a mission to find out if it's possible to commute all the way to Aoral. So I must stick to my original plan, and chartered transportation will thus be foul play.
We eventually get over to the central market in Kampong Speu, where we easily find the van-station. More guys are approaching us and we receive more dishonest information, but eventually we find out that there is a share-van to Spien Daik, but the reliability of this service is probably fairly poor. No passengers, no departure, simple as that! The van we are supposed to join, only have one passenger, but the driver says it will fill up and depart within one hour. That suits us fine though, because then we'll have time for a long lunch here at the market. Almost one hour later we return to the van, but the driver has only collected a few more passengers. So we have to wait even longer. Almost one more hour pass before the van is full and ready for departure. The share van to Spien Daik charges 3 USD per person, so I pay 6 USD for Phanith and myself.
The drive to Spien Daik takes 2-3 hours with quite a few breaks along the bumpy dirt road. When we finally arrive Spien Daik, we start to organize for a motorbike ride up to Srae Kan 3 just below the mountain.
I am really thankful I have Phanith here. He was a great interpretor back in Kampong Speue and I really don't know how I would be able to find a share van without his help. Now he is also to great assistance when negotiating with the local motorbike drivers in Spien Daik and at the same time keeping me informed. Two local guys accept to drive us on their motorbikes, and they charge only 6 USD per bike for the bumpy and dangerous 1-hour drive to Srae Kan 3.
We arrive Srae Kan 3 the village below Aoral
The name and location of the village below Aoral was a mystery to me when I started on this trip. Now I know the proper name is Srae Kan 3, which I have pointed out on this Google Map
Shortly before Srae Kan 3, we stop at the village headman house in Srae Kan 2. He welcomes us to his village and name a guide for us. The headman's acceptance is essential for any climbs up Aoral. The village headman are not negotiating any price though. So we continue to Srae Kan 3 where we find our guide Narith and his home. We send the motorbike drivers back to Spien Daik, after making an agreement that one of them will return for Phanith early next morning.
The local guide Narith only knows a few words in English, so again my Phnom Penh boy Phanith is essential for making a deal. Together we discuss and agree:
-the itenerary, 2 or 3 days (even a dayhike would be possible, but the local guides won't agree, because they will earn less)
-the price per day for the guide (he asks for a steep 30 USD, but he agree on 25 USD)
-homestay and its cost (5 USD per day for two person including food)
-motorbike transportation to the foot of the mountain (10 USD one way), a must if you are on a 2 days itinerary rather than a 3 days
-motorbike transportation back to Spien Daik for myself (10 USD, which is almost double the price we paid the drivers down in Spien Daik)
After we settle a deal, we are ready for a much needed wash in the nearby river. Farmers and loggers watch us as we take a bath in the fairly cold water. Shortly after it is getting dark and we walk back to Narith's home where we get a simple but good dinner. After that Narith takes us to Chim's House, which is the actual homestay. Chim lets us sleep on bamboo mats outside of their sleeping room. During the night it gets surprisingly cold, and I start to realize what a mistake it was to leave my sleeping bag in Phnom Penh.
The hike to Phnom Aoral
Early in the morning, still dark, they make a fire outside the house so we can get some warmth back. Then the motorbike driver from Spien Daik arrives as agreed, and I say goodbye to Phanith, after giving him the guide fee of 2 x 25 USD plus some few dollars for the transportation back to Phnom Penh.
Now I'm alone, but an interpretor will not longer be needed. Narith brings me over to his house for breakfast (rice and dried fish). Then we get on his motorbike, and after a 30 minutes hellish ride and fording several rivers, we reach the trailhead. Narith hides his motorbike in the bushes nearby and we start to walk. The elevation at the trailhead is about 200 meters. First we are walking pleasantly on a logging road to the lower camp, and after that the trail continues steeply up the bamboo slopes to high camp (1150m). We reach high camp at lunchtime after about 3 hours. The early arrival makes a lazy day, but fortunately I have a book to read. During the night it gets terrible cold without any sleeping bag, so I have to keep the fire burning all night long in order to keep warm. After 2 AM and until morning we also hear noises from wild boars around our camp, a bit scary but I have my fire burning so I feel quite safe in my hammock.
Next morning we walk to the top in less than 2 hours. Nothing to see, just trees and bamboo everywhere, except from the Buddha shrine on top of the mountain. Then we return to high camp and after a short break here, we descend to the trailhead and find the motorbike. Unfortunately the rear wheel is flat, so I have to walk the 6 km back to the village, while Narith is driving slowly in front of me. Why the heck did he not bring a repair kit on his bike?
A lovely but cold bath is waiting for us in the river. Then we have our dinner, and after that I walk back to the homestay for another night. Early next morning Narith brings me back to Spien Daik on his motorbike. There are no vans to see here, but I get a hitch with a lorry (3 USD) to Kampong Speue, before I get on a share van from Kampong Speu back to Phnom Penh (1 USD).
Some additional advices
I have stated all the prices in USD above. Even if USD are a common way to pay, I would still recommend that you bring half of it in Riel and half of it in USD. And do not bring larger notes, it will be hard to get a change in remote places.
If you join alone with Cambodia Expeditions they will charge a steep 1000 USD for a climb up Aoral. If you organize it yourself you will spend less than 200 USD for the 4 days, everything included, as I have described above. Even if my "expedition" was much cheaper, it is highly likely that the locals got more from me than the tour operator in Phnom Penh would have paid them. So if you deal directly with the locals, the poor ones will benefit.
You can get in touch with Phanith's on his private e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.He's talking well English, and would like to be hired again. Now as he knows the way to Srae Kan 3, it will go even smoother than it did his first time!
See all the photos to get a better understanding of this fairly adventurous hike.