Travel Report: Bokor National Park, Cambodia.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There is literally nothing to stop you entering and even climbing it. I got nearly halfway up when my uneasiness with heights kicked in.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The temple’s name translates as Five Sailing Boats Monastery, a reference to five strange, (allegedly) boat like rocks found within the compound.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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