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"Short stories and travel reports from my life adventures around the globe".

Travel Report: Bokor National Park, Cambodia.

Bokor National Park Kampot.

Bokor National Park.

December 2015 & August 2020. It was a typically burning hot day in Kampot as our tuk tuk began puffing up the steep, winding roads of Bokor Mountain. Despite the sapping summer heat, I felt thrilled to be returning to one of the world’s most fascinating national parks.

Wonderboy and I had come here nearly five years earlier as part of a group tour. While I had enjoyed the experience immensely, I later realised it had all been a bit rushed. And that we definitely hadn’t seen all of the park’s unique and bizarre sights.

Tuk Tuk tour Bokor National Park.

On our way up Bokor Mountain.

Now, guided by a knowledgeable private tuk tuk driver called San, it was time to make amends! In fact, San seemed just as excited as Sladja and I. Almost certainly due to the fact that he’d landed an unexpected day’s work at a time when Kampot’s tourist industry had been wiped out by COVID-19.

Perpetually grinning and joking, he led us upward, resulting in blossoming views over the city of Kampot and the province beyond. What a landscape, and we had it all to ourselves.

Bokor National Park, Cambodia.

Views over Kampot from Bokor Mountain.

Views over Kampot Province.

As we progressed, San offered a few fragments of Bokor National Park’s troubled history. It was a story I was well aquatinted with, though I listened politely anyway. French colonists arrived in the 1920s and set about developing the mountain with the construction of hotels, casinos and fancy private residences.

Monkey Bokor Mountain Cambodia.

Bokor National Park.

“Mountain full of ruins” tut-tutted San as we pulled up for a moment to feed a wild monkey at the side of the road. The monkey seemed delighted though not particularly grateful for the wedge of waffle San threw him.

Abandoned hotel casino Bokor National Park

The neglected Bokor Palace Hotel, December 2015.

The giant Bokor Palace Hotel stood at the very heart of the great French Hill Station. Opened on Valentine’s Day 1925, this Art Deco mansion’s eighteen rooms were fully booked for the better part of the next twenty years.

Among its many clientele were the French elite, wealthy Khmer families, English lords and the occasional European princess and American movie star.

Bokor Palace Hotel.

Ruin of Bokor Palace hotel 2015.

The abandoned Bokor Palace Hotel, December 2015.

But all the glitz and glamour came to an abrupt end in 1946 when the First Indochina War broke out. The hotel closed and found itself turned into a military hospital, until the hill station was abandoned altogether.

It wasn’t until the early 1960s that French investors whipped the hotel back into shape. Moreover, this restored Bokor Palace came fitted with a large casino!

Abandoned Bokor Palace Hotel.

Who needs windows?

Sadly, the hotel fell again during the genocide years of The Khmer Rouge. Having gained control of the mountain in 1972, Pol Pot and his men used the building for military meetings.

After the Khmer Rouge eventually fell, the entire hill station sat rotting for decades. In 2002 Hollywood star Matt Dillon shot several scenes here for his 2002 crime thriller City of Ghosts, starring James Caan and Gérard Depardieu.

Derelict Garden Bokor Palace Hotel.

The hotel garden, December 2015.

When I first came to Bokor National Park with Wonderboy in 2015, Bokor Palace Hotel was still an empty shell. Amazingly, we were able to explore the deserted interior independently. There wasn’t much to discover as such, but boy was it a spooky experience.

Not least in the garden, with its wondrous views over the jungle and coast. According to local stories, this is where gamblers would throw themselves off the cliff when they’d bankrupted themselves in the casino.

Le Bokor Palace.

Le Bokor Palace Kampot Cambodia.

Le Bokor Palace, August 2020.

I must admit it was very cool to see the hotel in its third and current incarnation with Sladja and San. Unveiled in mid 2018, Le Bokor Palace bills itself as a six star hotel. Keen to go inside for a drink, imagine my disappointment when the snippy attendant at the front door informed us that they don’t allow non-guests inside.

Le Bokor Palace Hotel.

Bokor National Park.

Thus we had to make do with a walk around the side of the building. This gave me an opportunity to see what they’ve done with that huge garden terrace. A definite improvement on the 2015 version, though I’m not sure I’d award it six stars.

Private tuk tuk driver Bokor National Park.

San, our tuk tuk driver and mountain guide.

Thanks to San, I also got to tick off several weird spots near the hotel that I’d missed the first time around. Firstly, we stopped by the bizarre Mushroom Sunshade. Apparently, back in the 1960s, the hotel added it as an outdoor picnic area for guests.

Whatever tables and chairs there had once been are long gone. San seems to think the mushroom design is a tribute to the once glorious mushroom fields that stood here hundreds of years ago.

Mushroom sunshade Bokor Mountain.

Bokor National Park.

From The Mushroom, San led us down a wild country path towards an abandoned water tower. This is one of several towers installed by the French in the 1920s. It is quite the eyesore, visible across Bokor National Park for miles.

Bokor National Park.

Water Tower Bokor National Park.

Not a drop of water.

There is literally nothing to stop you entering and even climbing it. I got nearly halfway up when my uneasiness with heights kicked in.

Water Tower Bokor Mountain.

Mm, I better come down.

From the water tower there’s a rocky platform with views over the ruins of an old hospital. Virtually zero information exists online about the compound and all San could tell us was that The Khmer Rouge most likely destroyed it. I really wanted to go and poke around, but the clock was ticking and we had so much more to see.

Abandoned hospital Bokor National Park.

Abandoned hospital.

Another key part of The French 1920s empire was this nameless Catholic Church. Accessed via a steep set of stone steps, it enjoys an idyllic elevated location overlooking much of the park. Simultaneously handsome and sinister, this is one of my favourite Bokor sights.

Old Catholic Church.

Old Catholic Church Bokor National Park

Old Catholic Church.

I recall Wonderboy and I having the place to ourselves in 2015. However, on this occasion we arrived to find a Khmer family picnicking in the entrance hall. An unlikely lunch spot perhaps, but hey, each to their own.

Ruined Catholic Church Bokor Mountain.

Bokor National Park.

Inside, the main hall has bags of personality, with a simple but well kept altar that continues to receive floral tributes. There were also patches of graffiti (not the pretty kind), a tatty old Christmas tree and broken statuettes of Jesus and his disciples.

Catholic Church Bokor Mountain Cambodia.

Inside The Catholic Church.

In the mid 1970s the church was the scene of a fiercely fought battle between The Khmer Rouge and invading Vietnamese soldiers. As the story goes, the men from Vietnam sought refuge within the church as they exchanged gunfire with Pol Pot’s men. Try as I might, I’ve been unable to shed any light on their fate that day.

Abandoned Catholic Church Kampot Cambodia

Bokor National Park.

In late 2017 the Cambodian government transferred the building back to the local Catholic community. Ever since, the word on the street has been that the old structure is due a renovation. Watch this space…

Bokor Mountain visit 2015.

Church viewpoint, 2015.

From the back end of the church I was keen to take a further set of steps to one of Bokor’s best viewpoints. In 2015 Wonderboy and I had our photo taken here on a large boulder, precariously placed right on the edge of the cliff.

Bokor Mountain visit 2020.

Church viewpoint, 2020.

Needless to say I made sure to grab a 2020 shot from the same spot. Sladja and I initially tried to get a selfie of both of us, but the results were unsatisfactory.

The Black Palace.

The Black Palace Bokor National Park.

The Black Palace.

By the 1930s the French had made Bokor Mountain such a desirable area, even King Sisowath Monivong wanted to move in. And that’s what he did in 1937 following the completion of this residence, The Black Palace.

The king ended up spending the last five years of his life on the mountain, while today many Khmer people refer to the region as Preah Monivong National Park.

The Black Palace Bokor Mountain.

Inside The Black Palace.

His successor, King Norodom Sihanouk, subsequently used the palace as his summer residence until the mountain station’s eventual decline. It’s certainly a weird experience wandering around the derelict, windowless interior. Immediately, both Sladja and I were struck by how small the place is. It really is more of a cottage than a palace.

The Black Palace Cambodia.

Bokor National Park.

There’s nothing to actually see, besides all the graffiti. Rather, one drinks in the atmosphere and tries to imagine what unfolded within these walls inhabited by two Cambodian kings.

Private tour Bokor Mountain.

Our guide San in The Black Palace.

A number of curious buildings surround the so-called palace. Leading the way, San took us to a larger house that served as the kings’ dining hall when guests came to stay. Here, the artwork on the exterior and inside is much more impressive.

Bokor National Park

Visit Bokor National Park.

Bokor National Park.

The sound of buzzing cicadas was almost deafening as we made our way through the empty hall. We discovered a number of small side kitchens, before arriving at an open terrace. I guess the king wanted to eat al fresco from time to time.

San told us how artists from all over Cambodia come to The Black Palace complex to add their murals to the walls. Some consider it disrespectful, but both Sladja and I wholly approved. Especially as without these artistic flourishes you’d just be left with a giant brick wall.

Wall art The Black Palace Bokor Mountain.

Black Palace art.

“Let me show you the guesthouse!” cooed San. Before exiting, we paused at this open doorway, which provides a  tantalising glimpse of The Gulf of Thailand through the dense undergrowth.

Abandoned buildings Bokor National Park.

The King’s Dining Hall.

The guesthouse, as San put it, turned out to be a number of residences scattered across an overgrown compound. To tour them, you have to fight your way through tall grass, wild bushes and sprawling trees.

The King’s Guesthouses.

Ruined palace buildings Kampot Cambodia

Bokor National Park.

There are three buildings in total, including a small cottage used for the king’s concubines! The last and largest of the structures was impassable. So overgrown that we could only walk around it on a narrow ledge.

Gaze inside the windows and you’ll see all kinds of crazy plants and flowers, not to mention bugs and unidentified flying objects. Sorry folks, but I didn’t want to get closer and find out what they were.

Abandoned palace buildings Kampot.

One of the king’s guesthouses.

From the king’s palace complex we proceeded on foot to Bokor’s giant Buddha, Lok Yeay Mao. Unveiled in 2012, this towering 1075 meter statue stands as a mountain spirit and goddess of the sea. While the king’s houses had all stood empty, here we saw a number of Khmer tourists. All of whom bowed down and lit incense sticks before her.

The Bokor Buddha.

Buddha statue Bokor National Park.

Lok Yeay Mao.

King Sisowath Monivong didn’t completely idle away his years on Bokor Mountain. During his stay he oversaw the construction of a beautiful temple, Wat Sampov Pram. And he picked one of the most elevated spots in the whole park, which makes it Cambodia’s highest pagoda.

Wat Sampov Pram Temple Bokor National Park.

Wat Sampov Pram.

The temple’s name translates as Five Sailing Boats Monastery, a reference to five strange, (allegedly) boat like rocks found within the compound.

Boat rock sculptures Wat Sampov Pram Temple.

Boats?

The rocks are connected to the legend of Preah Thong and The Naga Princess, who use five boats to transport people from the realm of Naga to the human world. So that they can create a new spiritual city. Right?

Wat Sampov Pram Temple.

Wat Sampov Pram Temple Kampot Cambodia.

Wat Sampov Pram Temple.

The tiny interior meanwhile is exceptionally charming with its shuttered windows, floor to ceiling wall murals and collection of stone and wooden buddhas. Really beautiful, even to a grizzled old Asian temple veteran like me.

Buddhist Temple Bokor Mountain Cambodia.

Bokor National Park.

Over the past decade there’s been a huge amount of investment across Bokor National Park, including a $1 billion development project from the Sokimex Investment Group. The bad news? Their plans for the mountain include a 16-floor five star hotel, a casino and a golf course.

On the other hand, they have committed to the maintenance and restoration of the mountain’s historical sights and have been building a road that connects them all.

Chinese development, Bokor Mountain.

Diggedy dig.

Chinese investment is growing too, with holiday homes and a KTV karaoke centre. San took us to see the massive, exceptionally ugly Thansur Sokha Hotel, mainly aimed at Chinese tourists. It’s equally soulless inside too, where Sladja and I grabbed some lattes from the bar. Coffeed up, we jumped back into the tuk tuk and motored away to our final stop.

Thansur Sokha Hotel.

Thansur Sokha Hotel Bokor National Park.

Thansur Sokha Hotel.

I had actually forgotten all about Popokvil Waterfall, a scenic reserve Wonderboy and I briefly stopped at on that first visit. In Khmer it’s called Swirling Cloud Falls due to the fact that the river often finds itself shrouded in a thick, mountainous mist.

Popokvil Waterfall.

Popokvil Waterfall Bokor National Park.

Bokor National Park.

The waterfall itself was alright, nothing to write home about. What’s more, the vantage point and section of river that leads to the falls was really touristy, the most amount of people we’d seen in one place that day. I was just about to tell San that we were ready to go when he beckoned me over, a mischievous glint in his eyes.

River crossing Bokor Mountain Cambodia

“Come with me!”

“There is secret waterfall” he whispered. “Much better than this one, but a little difficult to go”. As soon as it became clear that we had to jump across a section of the river, Sladja ruled herself out and San and I pressed on.

Waving at me from a large boulder, she called a hundred be carefuls as we jumped and clambered to the other side. Then disappeared into a thick section of jungle.

What to see and do Bokor National Park

Bokor National Park.

I’ll never forget that thrilling trek through the jungle with San. We scrambled up slippery rock paths and, single handedly, he hauled me up a seemingly impassable rock. Then we were virtually falling down a muddy slope, as the sound of gushing water filled the air.

Bokor National Park.

Secret Waterfall Bokor National Park.

The Secret Waterfall.

Arriving at a leafy clearing, I caught my breath as the secret waterfall came into view. It was gorgeous and perfectly hidden, the flowing water crashing into a small, brown-white lagoon. Best of all we had it all to ourselves. “Go, go swim!” laughed San, mopping his sweaty brow with his hand.

Secret Waterfall Bokor Mountain.

Bokor National Park.

It really was the perfect end to our day on Bokor Mountain. Sladja and I will always be grateful to our guide, San. He was friendly, patient and conscientious throughout the day. And, as seen with the waterfall, wanted us to get that extra kick out of the experience.

You can hire him for yourself by contacting KKS Travel. You’ll find them in Kampot’s Old Market next to Simon’s Indian Restaurant.

Private tuk tuk driver KKS Travel Kampot

Our fantastic guide and driver, San.

Like this? Read more of my travel reports from Kampot.

Or go further afield with my many articles from across Cambodia.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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27 Comments

  • Lookoom

    This is not the first post I read about Bokor, usually it comes with the words “spooky” and “eerie”; but I don’t remember seeing the palace, let alone the second fall. Good work!

    January 28, 2021 - 9:46 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers! Glad to have given you an alternative perspective.

      January 28, 2021 - 9:51 am Reply
  • nickreeves

    Wow, Boker National Park! The abandoned buildings are really atmospheric. Looks like a great trip.
    I agree about the water tower climb – ‘…and when he was only half way up he was neither up nor down’

    January 28, 2021 - 9:49 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha, you know I think the one thing my article was missing was a bit of The Grand Old Duke of York. Thanks for reading Nick!

      January 28, 2021 - 9:50 am Reply
      • nickreeves

        Not at all! It’s a great article – photos like this trigger my own fear of heights and with it comes the rhyme! (I must try and work on this issue!)

        January 28, 2021 - 11:08 am
  • Little Miss Traveller

    Interesting to read about Bokor. A bit mean that you weren’t allowed into the swish hotel. Incidentally that tiny one track railway you featured recently was on the Sky Travel Show a couple of days ago too so great to see it in action.

    January 28, 2021 - 12:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ohhh so it is still in use! That’s great news, thanks for letting me know.

      January 28, 2021 - 12:27 pm Reply
  • 100 Country Trek

    That’s a great way to go around to see the sites with your Tuk Tuk driver. Some of those places you have been to we haven’t seen. Thanks for sharing.

    January 28, 2021 - 12:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      That’s great, glad you liked it. Thanks for getting in touch!

      January 28, 2021 - 12:28 pm Reply
  • chalkandcheesetravels

    Bokor looks amazing place to visit. This kills me reading this i had a opportunity to go to Cambodia a few years back and put it off and reading your Cambodia stuff makes me regret that choice every time.
    Love the buildings especially the abandoned ones and any ruins i love to sit back and look and just imagine it in all its glory.
    As always love the work

    January 28, 2021 - 2:39 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you so much, really kind words. You can definitely put that regret behind you with a visit to Cambodia. If not late this year, maybe next? Knowing how into the Cambodia stuff you are, I think you’ll enjoy the coming articles from Kampot. As ever, I appreciate the support!

      January 28, 2021 - 2:54 pm Reply
      • chalkandcheesetravels

        Fingers crossed for next year maybe. Ill look forward to seeing more coming our way cant wait to have a read. Its great research for us when we get there

        January 28, 2021 - 10:26 pm
  • Monkey's Tale

    I love the comparisons between the two trips and seeing what has changed and what hasn’t. That secret waterfall is awesome! It’s so beautiful, it’s hard to believe it’s not more popular, but I guess the slippery jungle trek keeps people away.

    January 28, 2021 - 5:10 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, San really came through for us with the waterfall. A huge surprise at the end of the trip. Thanks for the feedback!

      January 28, 2021 - 5:16 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Fascinating before and after shots of the Bokor Palace Hotel and an interesting comparison the new Chinese Hotel. I would have enjoyed wandering through the abandoned ghost town ruins of the Kings palace. Glad you took the time for a swim after the hike to the hidden waterfall. Gotta be a great memory – too bad Sladja missed it.

    January 28, 2021 - 5:16 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I knew you’d like this one Memo. The before and after side of it was amazing to experience but tricky to arrange in terms of the write up.

      January 28, 2021 - 5:18 pm Reply
  • Christie

    A wonderful trip, fascinating places, and history, thank you for sharing with us!
    Christie

    January 28, 2021 - 11:05 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hi Christie. Thanks so much for reading and leaving a comment. I hope you enjoy the rest of the Kampot series.

      January 28, 2021 - 11:07 pm Reply
  • Alison

    Very interesting post ..and it’s somewhere I’ve never heard of
    It’s very hard to get a complete true history of Cambodia as so much was destroyed
    We found when we went that many of the young people are not taught their history and some don’t even believe it!

    January 29, 2021 - 12:45 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hi Alison, glad you enjoyed the post. That’s interesting about the people. I’ve met a few people who weren’t very clued up about The Khmer Rouge years, but not someone in full on denial. Thanks for reading!

      January 29, 2021 - 8:26 am Reply
      • Alison

        Yes that’s what our driver told us in Phnom Penh

        January 29, 2021 - 10:13 am
  • Rebecca

    A thorough recount of Bokor National Park; I can imagine that one could spend DAYS there, if not weeks or months, just trying to see all there is to see there! The Secret Waterfall certainly looks stunning, and a great reward for the arduous trek over. It’s fascinating to visit countries that’d been colonized by European powers, to see the blend of local and outsider history and how they’ve influenced the country today. 🙂

    January 29, 2021 - 5:27 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely, the whole park has a very “lost” feel to it. Often wild and overgrown with scattered fragments of surviving cultural relics.

      January 29, 2021 - 8:31 am Reply
  • Diana

    Wow, looks like a neat place! The temple and the palace especially caught my eye.

    January 29, 2021 - 5:11 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Diana, appreciate you taking the time to comment.

      January 29, 2021 - 5:13 pm Reply
  • Anonymous

    Wonderful photos. I am interested to hear that you went up Bokor in a tuk tuk. We have been living in Kampot on and off for 9 years (returning to Australia in Feb 2020 due to Covid) . Tuk tuks were never allowed up Bokor in all that time.
    I look forward to reading your other blogs.

    February 7, 2021 - 1:06 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey! Thanks for reading and getting in touch. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

      February 7, 2021 - 1:27 pm Reply

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