Bokor National Park is an unmissable trip out from Kampot. Explore the romantic, highly atmospheric old casino — a legacy from Cambodia’s colonial days — as well as impressive waterfalls (during rainy season), plus a stunning, winding journey that takes you more than a kilometre above sea level. This is a full, thrilling day and we thoroughly recommend doing this under your own steam rather than with a group, so that you can take the time to explore at your leisure.
Established by the French as a hill station in 1925, Bokor has been abandoned twice, during World War II and the Khmer Rouge period. The area including Bokor ‘mountain’ was established as a national park in 1993, with its 1,500 square kilometres spanning four Cambodian provinces. Despite substantial illegal logging, it’s still home to leopard cats, gibbons, hornbills, civets and sunbears.
Recent development of a gaudy new casino, hotel and hangar-like convention centre may have affected the ghostly ambiance of the hill station, but they did add a wonderful curving road to the top of the hill, making Bokor much easier to access.
There were once plans for an international helicopter port with immigration control to be installed here so that guests could fly in from neighbouring countries and not have to let passing through Phnom Penh get between them and their gaming tables. We guess that’s still possible.
The original casino has been cleaned up, but long-ago plans to redevelop the unique building — which is a genuine architectural delight aside from the its romance — seem to have fallen by the wayside.
The entire Bokor region saw fierce fighting between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge — at one stage one side was holed up in the Catholic church and the other in the casino — all the while trying to shoot each other to pieces. Both buildings still bear the scars today. Further back, stories abound of bankrupt gamblers choosing between confession at the church and oblivion over the edge of the casino terrace.
Some buildings have disappeared or been repurposed during the new complex development, but walking through the crumbling casino/hotel and other buildings dotted across the Bokor ridge is still a little spooky, particularly if one of the frequent mists roll in. Views from the top of the casino across the sea to Phu Quoc Island are spectacular (so long as that mist keeps away). Smaller, overgrown villas provide a more intimate insight into life-that-was on the hill, and you’ll also find these days a concrete mushroom sunshade and post office.
At least one Vietnamese horror movie has been filmed on Bokor, along with the reasonably well-known Matt Dillon film City of Ghosts, which had its denouement here and we suspect more may be in the pipeline. Prince Norodom Sihanouk produced La Rose de Bokor here in 1969, one of several films he churned out as his country disintegrated around him.
Don’t miss a stop at the Black Palace, two-thirds of the way up. The surprisingly modest former holiday residence of King Sihanouk is covered in startlingly orange lichen. It’s close by the new and very large Buddha statue, and the cafe for refreshments before the top. Options at the summit are limited to drinks stalls by the old casino, the hotel restaurant and snacks by the waterfall.
The two-tier Popokvil (‘swirling clouds’) Waterfall is worth a trip to see, especially in rainy season, though as it’s about four or five kilometres from the casino, it’s best to have your own transport. We got there at the height of the dry season, to find little more than a trickle, but it’s an impressive sight later in the year. Entrance to the waterfall costs 2000 riel, though you’re allowed to redeem your ticket on a bottle of water in the soulless restaurant at the top of the waterfalls.
You’ll find a beautiful walk through the forest if you take a left on coming out of the waterfalls instead of turning right back towards the entrance. Follow the road as it loops around, past the sign indicating a dead-end, and park up at the dirt clearing at the end of the road. The path into the jungle is right in front of you.
There is supposedly a pagoda somewhere at the end of the trail. We followed it for about four kilometres through thick, green forest that rang with the sound of birds. The trail is very clearly marked, and the path kept admirably clear, but we never found the pagoda. Still, it was a beautiful way to get immersed in Cambodia’s natural environment without the need for a guide. If you’re feeling particularly energetic, you could follow the instructions for specific exercises that are dotted along the route.
We also took a tour off into a rather depressing “development” which leads up to the lake. Dotted with signs advertising Khmer-style, Bali-style, French-style villas, and so on, it seems rather more of a white elephant as unfinished villas sit quietly baking under the sun, with not a builder in sight. A large development near the lake itself did boast one lonely construction worker, and another two were spotted dozing beside the otherwise deserted lake. It all had the feel of being the product of an excess of ambition (and lack of foresight), an attitude that defines much Cambodian development.
The easiest way to get to Bokor is on a motorbike, either self-driving or hiring a motodop — the swooping curves and breathtaking vistas are a reward for riders. The upwards journey can take an hour and a half so be sure to check your fuel tank before you set off — petrol can be difficult to find and comes at a premium at the small village near the waterfall. Only determined cyclists should attempt the climb; mountain bikes are available to hire in Kampot town. Private taxis can also be arranged through guesthouses and tour desks.
We reckon we could cheerfully spend a year up at Bokor taking photographs and find something new and interesting to shoot every single day. Some might not be quite so dazzled by the mountain’s charms, but if you do want to stay for a night or two, you could check into the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort, a deeply unlovely edifice at the top of the hill. Inside, things don’t improve much, indeed they’re arguably worse. The architect clearly missed the seminars on subtlety, sophistication and style. The 550 rooms though are comfortable and clean, even if lacking in character. The stay is worth it for the sunsets, which are spectacular when viewed from the cliffs along here. Morning is also the loveliest time to visit the old casino, not just for the light, but also because you should get it to yourself.
The climate at the top can be very cool, especially when misty, so you may want to pack some sleeves.
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By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 11th September, 2016.