Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Bokor National Park: Kampot, Cambodia

After spending an exhilarating day with the monkeys at Kampot Zoo, the four of us headed out in search of a travel agent to book a trip to Bokor National Park.

Initially we had intended to do the hike on our own, but currently it's virtually impossible to do so. Bokor National Park is home to an old French Colonial hill station that was left abandoned during the First Indochina War (late 1940s) and then later taken over by the Khmer Rouge. In addition to being a national park and historic site, these days the hill is one huge construction site. The area has been basically sold to private enterprise for development of a massive casino and resort.
Because of this, the road up the mountain is officially "closed" to the public. The only way to drive up to the top is to go with an organized trip - which we did for $15 / each.

 Although the weather was overcast and rainy, we woke up early in the morning and joined a troupe of  20 people for a trek up the mountain.
looks easy, doesn't it??

Over the last couple of months Nick and I have done several "treks" which have ended up being guided leisurely walks through mostly flat forests, but this hike was no joke. We spent three hours in the rain hiking up a mountain which was VERY steep and muddy.
Pretty early on in the hike, Nick and I noticed that there was an armed ranger hiking with us (in flip flops!) Not only was he armed, but he was carrying what looked like an AK-47 complete with bayonet and banana clip!
He was hired by the guides to protect us from thieves but also was on the lookout for poachers and illegal loggers. He looked pretty intimidating at first, but he turned out to be very friendly and didn't mind at all letting the crazy foreign tourists check out his gun.
watch out! Just before this picture was taken I lost my footing and almost fell down the mountain, gun in tow.

Finally, after a grueling three-hour hike, we got to the top of the mountain... kind of. Actually we were only about mid-way, but were able to climb into the bed of a truck and drive the rest of the way (about an hour drive).
By the time we reached the top the rain had stopped and the sky was clear. We quickly ate lunch and then went off to explore the hill.
The top of the hill had a small lake that was surrounded by old burnt-out colonial buildings. The French used the area as a vacation spot, retreating up to the hill when the heat became oppressive in town. Not only did they have a hotel and casino, but they also had a church, post office, and school up there.
This area was a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge up until the late 1980's. During their battle with the Vietnamese, the Khmer Rouge entrenched themselves here in this church while the Vietnamese troops were camping out less than a mile away in the Bokor Palace Hotel. (according to our guide)
The Bokor Palace Hotel

It was clear that all of the buildings had suffered from severe neglect.
As we walked through the small town, clouds would occasionally roll over the landscape, making the buildings almost invisible to us. The fog combined with the old decrepit buildings gave the whole hill a bit of an eerie feeling.
We spent a good hour or two exploring the area, and even walking through the old buildings, despite the warnings posted which advised against it.
moldy and rotting walls inside the Bokor Palace Hotel
Just as with everywhere else in Cambodia, there was trash strewn about the old buildings. From the looks of it, the rangers were taking the trash from tour groups like us (water bottles and foam containers for lunches of fried rice) and chucking them behind the buildings instead of transporting them back down the mountain.  Not that they have much of a choice. It seems that trash removal is severely limited in Cambodia and with a lack of public services and funding, the people either have to burn their own garbage or live among it. 
We were told that the view from the mountain was pretty fantastic, even reaching as far as Vietnam's Phu Quoc Island. Unfortunately we could barely see 2 feet in front of us because a huge clouds had rolled through blanketing the mountain during our visit.
Neil and Nick checking out the "view"

We were able to see some pretty fun little flowers though, and even the fruit of cashew trees.

After a couple of hours hanging out on the top of the mountain we made our way back down, first by truck and then on foot. (although Claire wasn't interested in the hike and took a ride all the way down for $1)

It was a pretty neat piece of history to check out. Even though the hike was quite rigorous, I'm really glad we took the time to go see it. I'm sure that once the new casino and resort goes in things will change dramatically up there. For now its an eerie reminder of Cambodia's colonial past.


  1. I am so behind in my reading! I have about 4 pages, but had to just comment on the picture with the fog, the people and the church in the background - I love it!

  2. 18 July 2010 - As this massive $1 billion development takes form, a visit to this national park becomes less about appreciating nature and more about witnessing its destruction. The 4 lane access road into the southern section of the park and the huge footprint of the development on Bokor Mountain will have a major impact on this park especially its larger rare and endangered animals. After years of campaigning by devoted Cambodians and the international conservation NGOs the battle to preserve this magnificent park has been lost, as has the ecotourism trade for the locals, only to be to be replaced by the big buisness of a 5 star hotel, golf course, casino and a plethora of villas.