A generous portion of good fortune and good timing meant that i was able to book a $10 full day tour to Bokor National Park for today. Margaret (a 51 year old Australian social worker who now lives in Montreal, Canada) informed me that the tour had been postponed for the past few days due to a lack of interested parties and bad weather.
Today there were 10 of us on the tour : Margaret, a young British couple called Emma and Tony, 2 more British guys (one called Paul who’s actually from Wellington, Shropshire) and 4 other Europeans whose nationality of which i’m unsure. We began the bumpy ride up to Bokor in our 4 x 4 convertible. There were 8 of us and a cool box bouncing around on the back seats as we were driven along a very rocky and unmaintained road full of large craters left by landmines that had been uncovered within the park. The original road was commissioned by the French and completed in 1921, and there are plans to rebuild the road sometime this year. For much of the journey we only caught brief glimpses of the surrounding scenery (which was a dense jungle of plants and the tallest coconut palms I’ve ever seen, with leaves stretching for several metres and creating a canopy for the vegetation beneath) due to the fact that we were constantly having to avoid the foliage which was in parts, trying to reclaim the road!
Shortly after the road was completed a small community was established at the old French hill station of Bokor, which included a grand colonial hotel – The Bokor Palace – inaugurated in 1925. Located at an altitude of 1000m are the first buildings which made up Sihanouk’s villa complex at Bokor, known as the Black Palace. Providing you arrive here before 11am you can see a fantasic view over the coast. After this time an eerie mist moves into the picture, and continues to come and go in a surreal and haunting manner, almost like something out of an old horror movie.
The hill station was twice abandoned, and since the early 1970’s it has remained uninhabited, save for the presence of either Vietnamese troups or Khmer Rouge Guerillas during much of the 1980’s and 90’s. The Bokor Palace is an imposing building and all the more atmospheric for the fact that it remains untouched since its abandonement. The exterior remains intact, save for the usual weathering of the stonework, but inside the walls are crumbling, broken tiles and glass from the windows lie loose on the floor and there is a mass of grafitti everywhere. Most of it is written in English and is the usual pointless, childish crap like “Baz was ‘ere”, but this one stood out :
“Live your dream; don’t dream your life.”
It is possible to wander through the kitchens, along the corridors, up and down the stairs and into the enormous ballroom downstairs, imagining the magnificance and grandeur of the hotel in its heyday.
We ate lunch in the ranger station and were joined by the Scotish guy from our guesthouse who’d made the corageous journey up to Bokor on a dirt bike. I got chatting to him over a very tasty vegetable curry with rice and subsequently discovered that he’s from my home town of Shrewsbury. He lives up by the army barracks at Copthorne, about a 5 minute walk from my parents’ house! It truly is a small world out here!
After lunch we undertook a two hour trek through the dense jungle. We walked along an escarpment and to a viewpoint where we could look down on the tightly packed mass of trees below us. Our guide spotted a poisoness blue spider guarding his web, Tony’s feet were attacked by biting ants and one of the european guys had his blood sucked by a couple of leeches he discovered on his legs. I’ve never seen a leech before : they look like skinny grey worms who move almost like a slinky (one of those silver springs you had as a kid) walking down the stairs.
Following our descent and exit from Bokor we stopped at Tek Chhouu Falls, a set of small rapids and a pleasant bathing spot. We watched as several of the local children jumped fearlessly into the rapids and floated downstream. As soon as they spotted that a few of us had cameras, they posed, pulled funny faces, performed acrobatics, and splashed around in the water.
The final part of our tour was a ‘sunset boat cruise’ on a little motorboat decorated with healthy green pot plants and a couple of pensive looking Cambodian children. The scenery was stunning and as the sun began to set the sky took on a beautiful purple and orange hue. The water, which appeared black like treacle, glimmered softly under the sun’s fading light. I sat on the deck chatting to Paul and Margaret and enjoying the free beer which had been provided as part of the tour. At the end of the cruise we were dropped off just across from The Rusty Keyhole, where we stopped for a drink and rested our weary sea legs.
Margaret volunteered to accomapny me to Ta Eou, a seafood restaurant right on the riverfront. We fought our way through a delicious meal of crab with pepper whilst chatting enthusiastically about each other’s travel experiences. Out of all the people on the tour Margaret was the one person I warmed to straight away. When we left the restaurant at around 10pm the streets were very poorly lit and deserted, save for a few street vendors, moto drivers and stray dogs. We picked up a few rocks to protect ourselves against attacks from the latter two and continued along our way.
I felt a little bit uneasy about a moto driver who seemed to be following us, but we made it back to the guesthouse safely and spent the remainder of the evening chatting to the Danish owner, Angela, the British guy who works there and the Scottish guy from Shrewsbury. We also watched the resident cat catch and taunt a defenseless little mouse. Just before we retired to our beds another storm arrived and the rain was pounding so hard on my bedroom window that it sounded as if it was trying to break into my room.
Photo is of some local children playing in the water at Tek Chhouu Falls, near Kampot.