Our local villagers put their heads together and planned a Big Day Out for Pchum Ben this year, wat hopping from Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain (Phnom Bokor), near Kampot. It was a good plan, but we ran into some unexpected potholes. Here’s how to get from Sihanoukville to Bokor Mountain the hard way.
After an auspicious start to the day at Wat Krom, our two car, three motorbike caravan headed out Route 4 to Battrang village, near Sihanoukville Airport. The wat at Battrang was the first of four we stopped at before reaching the turnoff to National Highway 3. With four rest stops in just 50 kilometres, we were still in good spirits when we reached the turnoff. What wasn’t there to be cheerful about? Even the humblest Cambodian wats are beautiful and when Pchum Ben is on, everyone is in a festive mood.
Under normal circumstances, the 100 kilometre drive to Kampot takes a leisurely two hours. Since we were nearly at the halfway point when we reached the turnoff, we reckoned the rest of the trip to Bokor Mountain would be a cruise, so we decided to press on and have lunch on the rocks beside the waterfall on top of the mountain. Less than a kilometre after turning south on a bend in the road on Route 3, we ran into the first of a series of potholes created after torrential monsoon rains and that’s when our whole day turned south.
The last time I went to Bokor was in 2006. At that time, it was only accessible by 4WD. I’d heard about the new road to the top of the mountain, but still wasn’t prepared to be greeted by a world-class highway. Nevertheless, our party was too tired and hungry to press on to the top, so a less-than-idyllic spot about half way up the mountain was chosen as our picnic spot. The view to Kampot was great, but the rough gravel parking area we chose to lay our mats on left something to be desired.
Cambodians are nothing if not resilient and by the time everyone was fed, they were as keen as ever to get to the top of Bokor Mountain. As the only ones in our party who had been to Bokor before, our car took the lead. Big mistake. After searching for the narrow jungle path to the waterfall we remembered from years before, we ended up finding the falls just 100 metres or so from the first parking lot we had stopped at on top of the mountain an hour previously. Not to worry, though; along the way we re-discovered this magical little Chinese pagoda perched on the edge of a cliff. The pagoda was built in 1924 and seems to have just gotten better with age.
As serene as this looks, it’s only minutes away from the beginnings of what’s going to be Thansur Bokor Highland Resort. Whether building a massive resort/casino on top of this magical mountain is a good thing or not is a matter of opinion, but that’s what’s happening. Fortunately, Bokor National Park covers an area of some 140,000 hectares, so the city sized development centred around the casino isn’t likely to spoil it all for those of us whose idea of heaven (thansur means heaven in Khmer) isn’t Las Vegas.
Finally, after taking two or three accidental side trips on the new Bokor road system, we found the stream that feeds the waterfall. By then, everyone was hungry again, so they settled down on a big rock at the water’s edge for a second meal while I went on an exploratory mission. Unlike the last time, when I picked my way over fallen logs to reach the waterfall, this time a wide concrete path took me to the edge of the falls and my personal idea of thansur: cascading falls surrounded by untrammelled jungle.
Would I visit Bokor Mountain again? Probably not, unless it was on a day trip from Kampot. When we were there last time, the old buildings had a kind of magic to them. Whether it was black magic or white, I can’t say, since the ghosts who are said to haunt the old casino can’t be too happy. It is said many of them jumped to their deaths off the cliff after losing fortunes at the gaming tables. The waterfall and the old Chinese pagoda had white magic that you can still feel, but it’s hard to immerse yourself in their magic with all those imposing new structures breathing down your back.
I hate to leave on a negative note, so I’ll leave you with one last photograph. You tell me: Which is more beautiful — this or the new casino? Fortunately, views like this remain and they haven’t managed to cut down all the jungle yet. Now that I think about it, maybe I will go back to Bokor. Next time I’ll get away from the main road on motorbike and explore some of the undeveloped parts of Bokor National Park.