A couple of weeks back we told you about our Top 6 Things to do in Kampot Town. But we didn’t just laze around at our favourite riverside hotspots the whole time we were in Kampot, no sir. We got out there, into the wild and mountainous countryside sprawling in all directions from the sleepy town, and did it the best way possible – on motorbikes. So, as a wee treat for you, this is episode 1 of 2 in a mini-series called “MotorBiking Kampot”, and this time it’s all about our scenic drive into Bokor Mountain National Park.
Renting motorbikes in Kampot is easy (like everywhere else in South East Asia!). Our hostel called a guy and half an hour later there he was with a couple of mates on a couple of automatic bikes for us. Good lads. Each bike cost 5 dollars per day and we had to get our own petrol. That was our first priority as we set off on a hot, dry season morning, squinting at the lonely sun, very obvious in a bright blue sky. Luckily there was a woman selling petrol from plastic bottles just outside our hostel for around USD 1 a litre and so we guzzled a couple of litres each and off we went.
Next challenge – mastering the bikes! Yes, yes, very funny, we couldn’t really drive our automatic bikes, har har – but we all have to start somewhere. Well, to be honest, I had driven an automatic once before, in Banlung, and it almost ended with me mowing down an entire family at a petrol station before wildly stuttering for the road and having to be saved by the father of said family who ran over and pulled the keys out of the ignition! So I wasn’t feeling too confident this second time around, and it was Emily’s first attempt ever. We learnt quickly though and soon got in with the flow of the traffic as we headed west out of town for 8km on National Highway 3 to the main entrance of Bokor Mountain. It’s clearly signposted the whole way, so it’s easy to find.
At the entrance, we paid 2000 riel (USD 0.5) and got a little ticket which we had to show at the top of the mountain and on the way back out again. We were soon whizzing our way up the winding mountain road and looking back over the remnants of the patchy green land spilling into the nearby Gulf of Thailand. It took about an hour to drive up the mountain, including a few stops to take in the scenery. We then found ourselves at a roadstop with a couple of restaurants and some people selling petrol (this time at USD 2 per litre!). We were both running low already and so there was no messing around this time, we filled them to the brim! The roadstop was a tad dreary, but just up ahead was a huge Buddha partially obscured by the creeping clouds, and that was a mystical sight indeed…
While parked up and staring at the mist shrouded Buddha, we got talking to a young Norwegian guy who was randomly staying at the same hostel as us. He apparently knew the way to our desired stop – an old French town perched on a sheer cliff face, towering above the plains below. So off we went through the clouds to this derelict little mountain outpost.
Bokor Hill Station was built by French colonialists back in the 1920’s at a cost of nearly a thousand Cambodian lives, just so they could have a little temperate retreat in the mountains away from the stickiness and heat of the capital. They partied here in a large casino and had usual township amenities such as a church, post office and apartments. The French abandoned Bokor Hill in the late 1940s due to local uprisings. It was then used by the Cambodian ruling classes until 1970s when the Khmer Rouge called time on the party, for everyone in Cambodia, and it was again abandoned – save as a military post for the Khmer Rouge.
One good thing about its turbulent history and resulting abandonment though, is how cool it looks. With nature fighting back for almost the last half century, the town has surprisingly come alive in death. The creeping fauna has given the buildings a new and vibrant skin and the desolation of the cracked walls, broken windows and eerie interiors seem more like evidence of a life lived than one ended long ago. And as further illustration of this point, the old casino, once the red hue covered poster boy of Bokor Hill, is having a human makeover, and it now looks boring. When we were there, it was plastered over and looked like the skeleton of a new build office block in Milton Keynes instead of a rustic and photogenic glimpse into the past – although from a distance you can still get a mean shot of it overlooking the cliff.
We had a random and brief reunion at Bokor Hill with Justin, the very first person we had met on our travels back in Bangkok. We parted with plans to meet up back in town and then our Norwegian friend had to get back to Kampot as well. So we bid a temporary farewell to him at the junction where you can head straight on for Popokvil Waterfall or turn right to go back to town.
We made it to the waterfall car park a short time later and had to pay a small fee (I think it was 2000 riel) to leave our bikes there. We thought the waterfall was class, except for one little itsy bitsy thing – it was February and there was no water! But we can’t mark it down because of the way of the universe and I’m sure it would be impressive in full flow in wet season. As it was, we had a great time at the waterfall, climbing down to the expansive basin below and getting some great shots…then I remembered I’d left the keys in the ignition of my bike and had to hightail it outta there! Silly me.
There is a lot of construction work at the top of the mountain which is unfortunately trampling on Bokor’s natural beauty. It seems that Cambodia’s infamous corporate badboy, Sokimex Group, which also owns the lease for Angkor Wat, has set out plans for a huge holiday resort on the mountain. So, with Joni Mitchell’s warbling warnings ringing in our ears, in a few years time the lovely guys at Sokimex will destroy a lot of what makes Bokor Mountain so special – getting away from the masses and their stresses below. There is already a monstrosity of a casino with a mammoth car park at Bokor Hill and it is a sad sight indeed.
Not to let our spirits be too dampened by the physical manifestation of corporate greed and ruination in front of us, we took some silly photos of ourselves and had a drive up to a temple behind the casino. It is perched on the cliff edge and there is a viewing platform offering a magnificent vista for miles around. But for those of you with vertigo, beware, it’s a straight drop down and there is no handrail!
Biking it back to Kampot we were both in high spirits and looking forward to our next adventure, although things didn’t pan out as expected – you’ll find out in episode 2 of “Motorbiking Kampot” what I mean. And on that note…so long, farewell, byyyyyyyeeeeeee (voice tailing away as I fall to the depths below)…. 🙂