Until recently, there was only one flight from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville, and it wasn’t cheap. Recently, a newish airline has started offering flights twice a week between Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. It’s an all-around winner: Sky Angkor Air’s planes are new, the prices are incredibly low, and I didn’t crash on my recent flight.
Sky Angkor Airlines flights Siem Reap to Sihanoukville for cheap.
Sky Angkor Airlines, formerly SkyWings Asia Airlines, is a joint Korean and Cambodian venture and is flying the first international flights in and out of Sihanoukville Airport, to Korea, Japan, and China. Their fleet consists of three full-size Airbus A320-200s, which is reassuring to the passenger who might be skittish about flying domestic flights in Cambodia on smaller propeller planes.
The Siem Reap to Sihanoukville flight is part of a triangle route to allow Korean passengers to hit the temples of Angkor and the beach. As such, it hasn’t been advertised at all, and on both of my flights last week fewer than 20 of the 200 seats had passengers. That might be why the tickets are between $55 and $110 for a round-trip flight, which is incredibly low compared to the dominant player on the route, Cambodia Angkor Air, who charges between $230 and $300 for a return flight.
Sky Angkor Airlines flies roomy A320-200’s from Sihanoukville to Siem Reap.
On my flights, because there were so few passengers and they were all already at the airport, the flights began boarding 45 minutes before the scheduled departure and took off 30 minutes early. They say that check-in closes 30 minutes before boarding, but it might be worth showing up 45 minutes early so they can leave early. The planes have 180 economy class seats, and no business class. On my flights, the flight attendants were Korean and Cambodian, and the pilots were Cambodian and Ukrainian.
Sky Angkor Air schedule:
Siem Reap to Sihanoukville: Thursdays and Sundays, 10:30 a.m.
Sihanoukville to Siem Reap: Thursdays and Sundays, 10:30 p.m.
Round trip tickets with their promo fares cost between $55 and $110 for a return ticket and $30-55 for a one-way ticket. Here is the secret — like most local airlines, Sky Angkor Airlines has one price for Cambodians and a much higher price for foreigners. However, on their website everyone is charged the same price, regardless of nationality, so you’ll save money if you book online.
Get ready for take-off with Sky Angkor Airlines!
Despite being such a technologically advanced country, Korean airline websites seem to be some of the most complicated and hard to navigate in the world, and Sky Angkor Airlines’s site is no exception. You’ll need to go to their sister site to make a booking, pay in Korean won, and in my case, I had no idea if the ticket was booked until we called to confirm. If it’s too much of a headwreck for you, you can use a local travel agent, which adds about $25 in either direction that includes the “foreigner tax” and agent surcharge (usually $5 each way). Mingliang Group in Phnom Penh, Sopheak Na Travel in Siem Reap, and Ana Travel in Sihanoukville (no website, T: 012 915 301) are all travel agents that we have used.
It’s worth noting that many airlines based elsewhere in Asia start a domestic flight in Cambodia so they can get their Airline Operating Certificate (AOC) in Cambodia, which unsurprisingly has laxer standards than many of its neighbors. Then, once licensed later down the down, they stop the domestic routes. For this reason, don’t book too far in advance on Sky Angkor Air. They only allow bookings for two months in advance anyway, and because this is part of a package from Korea that goes to both Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, I think that it will actually stick around for a while.
With When Clouds Fell From the Sky, a book released earlier this year, journalist Robert Carmichael gives a compelling account of a Cambodian diplomat who disappeared in Democratic Kampuchea, and his family’s decades-long search to find out what happened to him during the reign of the Khmer Rouge. If you haven’t read it yet, read our full review of When Clouds Fell From the Sky. I caught up with author Robert Carmichael and talked to him about the book.
Author Robert Carmichael in Phnom Penh. Photo by Anna Clare Spelman.
MTC: How did you come to write When Clouds Fell From the Sky?
RC: I didn’t write the first draft until 2012, more than a decade after I first lived in Cambodia. I’d worked here between 2001-2003 as the managing editor of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper. I then left Cambodia — for good, I thought at the time — but ended up returning in early 2009 to cover the war crimes trial of Comrade Duch, the commandant of the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious prison code-named S-21. I met the two women, Martine Lefeuvre and her daughter Neary Ouk, whose life stories are at the center of my book quite by accident over breakfast along the riverside in Phnom Penh just days before Duch’s trial began in 2009. The idea for a book that would encompass Duch’s trial, Neary’s and Martine’s stories, and Cambodia’s history took shape over the following year.
MTC: In the book, you explore the idea of ambiguous loss, and how much pain this lack of closure has caused family members of Khmer Rouge victims. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
RC: “Ambiguous loss” is a term used to describe how people cope with the disappearance (and presumed death, rather than the provable death) of a loved one — and that was an all-too-common occurrence under the Khmer Rouge. With no proof of death, no body, relatives typically cling to the hope that their loved one is still alive, and that in turn prevents them from being able to mourn properly. Ambiguous loss has been described as “the most devastating [of all losses in personal relationships] because it remains unclear, indeterminate.” It took years before Neary found out what had happened to her father, Ket.
The damage done by ambiguous loss is compounded — as Neary told me of her father’s disappearance into Duch’s prison S-21 — by continually running through in one’s mind all of the horrors to which the victim might have been subjected. In a place like S-21, the list of potential horrors was long indeed.
Martine and Neary, whose story When Clouds Fell From the Sky revolves around. Photo courtesy of Neary Ouk.
MTC: Do you think the Khmer Rouge tribunal has been successful in providing closure to victims? What lessons can we learn from the tribunal?
RC: That depends on the person assessing it. For some victims and survivors, it has been a useful, even vital, part of coming to terms with what happened to them or to their loved ones. For others it has varied from less useful to being of no use at all.
For Neary and Martine the tribunal, while imperfect, was helpful on certain levels. But it can never undo what was done, and that impossible task really is the only perfect solution.
As for lessons learned: it’s important to acknowledge that tribunals (or truth and reconciliation commissions, as my country, South Africa, had) are a poor solution for failure to have acted in the first place. And so ultimately what I draw from this tribunal is that we all have a moral obligation to act in order to prevent or minimize crimes against humanity, and it’s far better to do take action at the time than it is to create judicial processes that try a handful of the guilty years later. That’s an argument that I make towards the end of the book.
MTC: In your opinion, does Duch have a true understanding of his own culpability for the crimes that took place at S-21?
RC: During his trial Duch sought to convince the bench and the rest of us that he recognized his culpability, that he would not try to evade responsibility, and that he was truly sorry for what he’d done. But his actions in the final hours of his trial showed that was in some degree bogus, although only Duch knows how much of it was fabricated. Duch’s psychological profile made for interesting reading, and provides a helpful assessment of the man who ran S-21 and the man on trial decades later, which I address in the book.
I do subscribe to the thoughts of witness (and one of Duch’s former prisoners) Francois Bizot, who said that it doesn’t help to look at Duch as a monster, because to do so is to evade important truths about our common humanity. Duch, who is not a sociopath, is no more of a monster than you or me, even though his actions clearly mark him out as someone who went far beyond what most of us think we would do. My feeling is that we shouldn’t be too smug about where we sit and where Duch sits. Had we been in his situation I suspect many of us would have made choices that would have compromised our humanity as his compromised his humanity.
Trying to work out Duch’s motivations at trial is no easy task, and in trying to do so I was helped by two people who know a lot about Duch. The first was academic and writer David Chandler, who told me that he believed Duch did regret what he’d done as a younger man, but that he didn’t see himself as guilty “and there’s a difference.”
Filmmaker Rithy Panh, who spent hundreds of hours interviewing Duch prior to trial, was deeply disappointed at Duch’s switch of defense. Rithy summarized it by saying Duch had “had an opportunity to get back his humanity [during his trial], and he failed.”
S-21, the Khmer Rouge prison, has been turned into a museum (of sorts).
MTC: Reading your book, I got the the distinct sense that his conversion to Christianity was a way to avoid spiritual punishment. Do you think this is the case?
As for the sincerity or otherwise of Duch’s conversion to Christianity: again, that’s a tough one. Duch surely believes it’s genuine, though he clearly doesn’t understand (or conveniently refused to practice) some key Christian concepts such as truth-telling. Frankly it’s hard not to have some cynicism about his conversion given that being baptized and having his sins washed away represented a profound benefit that simply isn’t possible under Buddhism. Duch has always been the most practical of men, and that surely would have appealed to him.
Like most people, Duch has always needed to believe in something bigger than himself — at first that was the purity of mathematics, then the purity of the Khmer Rouge’s revolution, and most recently the purity of Christianity, which he sees as a more potent force than communism because the church in Poland helped drive the demise of the Soviet Union.
MTC: How do you think that the legacy of the Khmer Rouge continues to affect the people of Cambodia and is anything being done to help young people in Cambodia understand what happened?
RC: Some work is being done: the school curriculum in Cambodia now has an excellent textbook — courtesy of DC-Cam and foreign donors — that accurately and fairly explains the causes and consequences of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power. But there is far more that could and should be done, particularly in areas such as reconciliation, a topic I discuss towards the end of the book.
As for inherited PTSD symptoms: in recent years there has been some fascinating research on atrocity survivors (and their offspring) from a number of countries, and it seems clear that psychological damage is passed on down the generations. That’s easy enough to comprehend with, for example, children learning bad coping mechanisms from PTSD-afflicted parents. But there is another, linked, strand of research that suggests — and this study is very much in its infancy — that traumatic external factors could cause certain genes to mutate, and that this mutation can be passed on to new generations. If that is the case, then the situation of atrocities and their impact on the living is far more complex and damaging than we’ve thought to date.
Inside S-21, the former high school turned Khmer Rouge torture camp.
MTC: How do you feel about the term genocide being used for the Khmer Rouge atrocities?
RC: That’s a good question because what happened here is so often referred to as genocide that it’s become a truism. But genocide has a specific legal meaning, namely targeting a distinct religious, ethnic, etc group for elimination, and legally that’s not what the Khmer Rouge did, at least as regards the majority ethnic Khmer population.
Cambodia’s population, though, is made up of other groups too, and the trial of the two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders currently underway is assessing whether genocide was committed against ethnic Vietnamese and against Cham Muslims. So it’s likely that at some future date — should either or both of the two defendants live that long — the tribunal will hand down a ruling as to whether elements of Pol Pot’s rule did indeed constitute genocide against those two specific groups.
It’s worth stressing that the tribunal is not considering whether the Khmer Rouge practiced genocide against ethnic Khmers, because the assumption is that you can’t commit genocide against your own kind. Whether the term “genocide” needs an update (perhaps to reflect the Khmer Rouge’s practice of destroying a political class who happened to be composed largely of ethnic Khmers) is another debate, but I can’t see it happening in the near future. Some experts, though, do believe the term ought to be updated to include the act of targeting identifiable political groups, in which case what the Khmer Rouge did in Cambodia surely would qualify as genocide.
When Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal is available in Cambodia at Monument Books, and for Kindle onAmazon and Amazon UK. For more information, check out whencloudsfell.com.
In 1977, Cambodian diplomat Ouk Ket received a letter from the government of Democratic Kampuchea requesting that he return home from his post in Senegal to help rebuild his country. Like many other Khmer intellectuals who were unaware of the horrors taking place behind the country’s closed borders, he returned to Cambodia and was never heard from again. When Clouds Fell From the Sky, a book released this year by journalist Robert Carmichael, is a compelling account of Ket’s family’s decades-long search to find out what happened to him.
Author Robert Carmichael. Photo by Anna Clare Spelman.
The book masterfully weaves together the stories of Ket’s French wife, Martine, their daughter, Neary; and his executioner, Comrade Duch. By combining Ket’s family’s travails with historical accounts and coverage of the recent Khmer Rouge tribunal, Carmichael has created a riveting portrait of the Khmer Rouge’s rule and now the tribunal’s attempts to reckon with its legacy.
When Clouds Fell From the Sky draws on a daunting array of historical sources and interviews, offering the reader a surprisingly complete view of the Khmer Rouge era. It is the human element, though, that makes the book a page-turner. For example, Neary tells how Martine prepared to travel from France to Switzerland to meet Ket’s former boss at the embassy, now an ambassador for the Khmer Rouge government, in an effort to find out the fate of her husband, who had been missing for two years. Before their meeting, Martine cut her hair in the prescribed Khmer Rouge bob, put on a traditional Cambodian ankle-length silk sampot, and dressed her children in black pajamas and checkered kramas. Stories of Khmer Rouge atrocities can easily overwhelm readers, but this small glimpse of a desperate Frenchwoman cutting her hair and dressing her children as communists in an attempt to get any information about her missing husband is heart-wrenching. All the more so because, despite her efforts, her questions were met with evasions and lies and she had to return home with no news about her husband.
Inside S-21, the high school turned Khmer Rouge prison.
It is in the small details that When Clouds Fell From the Sky comes alive. In addition to Martine and Neary’s story, the book deals with what happened at the S-21 prison and the first Khmer Rouge Tribunal trial of Comrade Duch, which began in 2007. The head of internal security for the Khmer Rouge, Duch’s actions and psychology are described in fascinating detail, as Carmichael tries to understand how this outwardly mundane man came to become the regime’s most notorious executioner.
The portrait that Carmichael paints of Duch and the horrors of the infamous S-21 prison will make your skin crawl. Yet by portraying Ket and his life before S-21 so vividly, the book makes the monstrosities that took place there that much more vivid and horrifying. Duch apparently saw himself not as a vicious killer, but as a highly educated bureaucrat, one so obsessed with numbers and paperwork that he was able to ignore his own culpability and the enormity of his crimes. By the end of the regime, it is believed that more than 10,000 people were killed at S-21, all under Duch’s authority. Yet Duch fervently believes that he was just carrying out orders, doing what needed to be done.
Photos of just a few of the victims of the Khmer Rouge that passed through S-21.
When Ket left for Democratic Kampuchea, his wife said to him, “If one day I were to learn that you are dead, I will never believe you died a natural death. You will have been murdered.” Ket turned to his wife and said with a smile, “But, honey, Cambodians are not savages.”
Most of us, hearing of the barbarities that took place in Democratic Kampuchea, might be tempted to believe just the opposite. But Carmichael, while not downplaying the atrocities of S-21, deftly makes the case that although Duch committed monstrous acts, he was not a sociopath or a monster. Rather, he was a man who sought a higher calling, and found that calling in his obedience to the Khmer Rouge regime.
When Clouds Fell from the Sky: A Disappearance, A Daughter’s Search and Cambodia’s First War Criminal is available in Cambodia at Monument Books, and for Kindle on Amazon and Amazon UK. I would highly recommend the book to those who might find other historical texts about the period dull or lifeless; I found it hard to put down! For more information, check out whencloudsfell.com. Later this week, we’ll have an interview with author Robert Carmichael on the Move to Cambodia blog.
Kampot has no shortage of nice places to stay, especially with large estate-like set-ups on the river like Champa Lodge, Villa Vedici, Les Manguiers, The Greenhouse, and Ganesha Eco-Lodge.
Southern Cambodia meets Southern Europe at bARACA.
But with the recent swell of restaurants in Kampot town (not to mention long-time favorites like caffeination station Cafe Espresso), the $4+ bumpy tuktuk rides from these lush compounds along dusty country roads are not something we fancy doing a few times a day during a relaxing Kampot get-away. So we find ourselves more frequently making the choice to staying in town, especially now that we can look forward to staying at bARACA Rooms just as much as to going to our favorite restaurants and watering holes.
Many of the guesthouses in Kampot are decent but unremarkable. But bARACA is great value, simple and stylish. A converted shophouse, the ground floor is a bar that features a changing assortment of homemade tapas from 5 to 11 p.m. every day except Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
bARACA rooms are simple, stylish, and budget.
The three double rooms and one family room are on the first floor, and guests can exit through a back door during the day when the bar is closed. The style is easy-going but creative and brings together local and international elements through bright mediterranean blues, yellows and reds, vintage floor tiles, and upcycled cooking oil cans for lamp shades.
The smaller double rooms are $12, the larger double room with hot water is $16 and the family room (two double beds) is $20. There is no air-conditioning, but rooms are all equipped with fans, mosquito nets, en suite bathrooms and WiFi. Be warned that rooms can be a bit noisy, so bring a pair of earplugs if you are a light sleeper.
No frills, but cute as a button.
The bright rooms, combined with the tapas menu downstairs, makes you feel like you’ve entered a wormhole connecting southern Cambodia with southern Europe in the best way. The balcony on the back is just big enough for the folding chair or to lean on the railing and look out over the neighborhood rooftops. Being a block away from the river and two blocks from the Old Market is perfect for exploration of Kampot’s dining establishments new and old.
The four rooms fill up quickly, so book well ahead of your trip.
I’m going to preface this review by saying that I’m not particularly interested in eating vegan, “paleo,” gluten-free, or raw foods. I’m more interested in fat, meat, and carbs (which is probably readily apparent). But when I heard that ARTillery, the cafe that started the organics and health food craze in Phnom Penh was opening a branch in Siem Reap, I figured I should check it out.
ARTillery cafe: focused on organic ingredients, environmental consciousness, and a commitment to local artists and makers.
ARTillery has three branches in Phnom Penh, and are known for their vegetarian selection, gluten-free choices, and raw desserts. They’ve spawned imitators in the Charming City, but until now, they’ve stayed clear of Siem Reap. But last month saw the soft opening of the cafe, and they’re fully up and running now. “What we hope to offer to the Siem Reap community is a wholesome menu inside the cafe, as well as the convenience of healthy products that you can takeaway,” Brittany Sims, the owner of the cafe, says. “We will have detox programs, grab and go, and a range of wholefood products along with fun events and gatherings to connect people who are passionate like we are about these topics.”
The menu’s top section says “Choose your lifestyle” and gives menu designations for those who follow vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo, raw, and tree nut-free diets. Yes, there is a section for superfoods. There’s also a range of delicious smoothies and cold-pressed fruit and vegetable juices, served with environmentally friendly bamboo straws. Plus, ARTillery have 5-day juice and raw food cleanse programs for those in need of a Siem Reap detox…so just about every expat in town.
Whole foods, raw foods, organic foods…we tried them all.
I went with a few people and we ended up trying several things, including a few that I probably wouldn’t have ordered if I were on my own. The raw pizza was made with a flax and almond crust with a sun-dried tomato sauce, greens, and nut “cheese.” It wasn’t anything like a “real” pizza, and was closer to a salad. It was nice and fresh, but if I had only ordered this for lunch I would have left hungry — I’m guessing it was probably around 300 calories, at most.
We also tried the macro bowl, with brown rice, roasted and pickled veg, and goddess dressing. Again, maybe not something I would have ordered, but it was very tasty and felt like a complete meal. My favorite was the falafel plate, probably because it was one of the few items on the menu with honest-to-goodness carbohydrates. It came with herbed falafel, hummus, babaganoush, salad, and pita bread. This was the only dish that we tried that made me resentful to be sharing; I wanted it all to myself.
This cheesecake is both raw and vegan, and it still tastes good.
They’ve got three desserts: sorbet, a raw cheesecake, and raw energy “bliss balls” made from raw cacao, goji berries, nuts, and seeds. The passion fruit topped cheesecake was pretty good — not as good as a New York cheesecake, but surprisingly nice for a raw, vegan dessert. The bliss balls were anything but, and tasted more like a treat I would have fed my parakeet. But I suppose that some people might like that sort of thing, so I’ll withhold judgement.
I thought it would make sense to talk to an actual healthy person about the menu, so I asked Brittany for her favorite dishes. “From the drinks menu, the almond buttercup smoothie is practically a breakfast ritual for me, and then the turmeric tonic is my go-to choice in the afternoon,” she says. “Favorite light lunch would have to be zucchini noodles with basil cashew pesto…but if I’m craving something a bit heartier, I always go for the macro bowl with extra avocado!”
ARTillery Cafe in Siem Reap is where the healthy people hang out.
ARTillery clearly fills a niche in the market in Siem Reap. Sister Srey and Hive may be frolicking in the surf, but ARTillery is swimming out past the breakers when it comes to juicing and catering to those with specific dietary needs. The open cafe space is light and airy, with local artwork on the walls and custom-made old-fashioned Khmer times. I have no doubt the cafe will be a success with both expats and visitors to Siem Reap.
It was only after we finished our lunch that I looked at the breakfast section of the menu, and saw an incongruously listed smoked salmon bagel, taunting me with it’s fatty, carby, cream cheesy goodness. Next time, ARTillery, next time.
In this series we talk to Cambodia expats about what they know now that they wish they had known when they first moved to Cambodia. This week we talk with Ashley Patton, who moved to Phnom Penh for an internship with the United Nations Assistance to the Khmer Rouge Trials (UNAKRT) program.
Rolling by the temples, tuk tuk style.
MTC: Ashley, how did you end up an expat and what do you wish you had known before you moved to Cambodia?
“First of all, I wish that I had brought flip-flops, or thongs for you Aussies. I never, ever wear them back in the States but this became my cheapest purchase (Central Market flips on Day 5 for a couple bucks) that I used just about everyday. I wish I had brought cuter, better quality ones from home.
Next, Netflix does not work — cancel your subscription before you leave home. Yes, you can probably find a way to circumvent the restriction but it was not worth it for me, so I ended up paying $10 a month (the equivalent of two meals with drinks in Cambo!) for the five months I was there.
Bring those little pleasures from your home that you might not be able to get, or if you can find you will certainly pay the price for – gum, almonds, dark chocolate, Vegemite, any sort of hair or skin product that doesn’t include bleach for whitening purposes, etc. Obviously not a necessity (and a rather First World Problems suggestion) but for me, having my favorite 5® Wrigley’s gum was crucial.
Next, as a runner, this was important for me. You can keep up an exercise routine while in Cambodia without paying more than you would in your own country…cough, The Place. Yes, it’s easy to move there and gain 10 pounds (or kilos, whatever metric floats — or sinks — your boat) on the yummy, cheap food and drank. However, you don’t have to. My favorite outdoor running route was around the Independence Monument early in the morning. Saw some of my best sunrises there. I’ve also heard great things about the Olympic Stadium in the evenings. Beyond running, I enjoyed yoga at Nataraj Yoga Studio and boot camp at Crossfit Amatak. A lot of my friends also got into Muay Thai boxing.
Related note: if your favorite running shoes are almost on the outs, buy new ones before leaving home. The training shoes you’ll find in Cambo are either crazy expensive or fake.
On an important and more serious note, do research on the history of Cambodia. It’s a very recent and quite sad history, one that has greatly influenced the way the nation has developed today. Cambodians are very happy and proud people, but the majority of those over the age of 40 have had a dark chapter in their life. Be an informed expat and educate yourself before moving. You’ll be a better temporary citizen for it.
Last — enjoy Cambo! Take weekend trips throughout the country when you can. It’s easy and cheap, and absolutely beautiful. While international travel is also easy, there are some gems in Cambodia that will make you fall in love even more with the country. Beyond the obvious Siem Reap, check out Kampot, Preah Vihear, Koh Rong Sanloem, Mondulkiri, and Kep, just to name a few.
P.S. ‘Cheers’ is chul moi, not choy moi. Remember that.”
Bokor Mountain remains one of the main tourist sights around Kampot. Formerly a French colonial hill station resort and site of a royal summer vacation home, modern Bokor has made itself much easier to access and has more “attractions.” While many claim that Bokor has lost all appeal to tourists, just scratching the surface one can see a picture of past and present Cambodia.
Even on sunny days the Bokor Hill Station ghost town is covered in a gloomy mist.
As with many historic areas around Cambodia, Bokor Mountain and many of the old buildings on it have been restored rather than preserved, and rights to develop the land nearby have been sold to foreign business owners. However, the new road means that visiting Bokor is possible not only during the Water Festival, but year round.
Bokor Mountain is about 37km from Kampot. A taxi will set you back around $40 and minivan tours can be had for $10 per person, but the easiest way to get there is by moto. To get there from Kampot town center, go across the New Bridge and go straight through the roundabout (second right-hand turn for those unfamiliar with roundabout orientation). It is a straight shot on National Road 3 until you reach the checkpoint and park entrance. On a moto, you’ll pay 2,000 riel per vehicle to enter. Make sure to keep the stub for the checkpoint at the top of the hill!
The new road means that Bokor Hill Station is accessible year-round.
If you are on a moto and didn’t fill up in Kampot, we recommend getting a liter or two at the fuel station just outside of the gate — we saw prices jump 50% on the mountain and places to fuel up can be a bit far between. It is about 29km from the base of the mountain to the old Casino (the 60km round trip is about a liter and a half on your typical 2011 100cc Honda Wave), plus another 12km or so each way if you are visiting the waterfall as well.
Beware of reckless drivers, slick wet sections of road, and pockets of fog and rain that can cluster on the side of the mountain on your ride up. Even if the day is clear down in Kampot, weather going up and on top of Bokor Mountain is unpredictable. After taking on the seven or so hairpin turns on Road 32 up the mountain, you will know you’ve hit smoother riding when you see a giant statue on a small hill close to the road on your right. Lok Yeay Mao is a deity to protect travelers, and this is the biggest and highest shrine to her. On the opposite side of the road, there is a small pull-off area and an old brick and concrete structure. This is the remains of King Norodom Sihanouk’s modest “Black Palace.”
The new Bokor Mountain casino is an architectural curiosity in its own right.
When you get to the checkpoint at the top, there is a traffic circle — take a right to the Popokvil Waterfall, the Japanese Farm, and the field of One Hundred Rice Fields; and left to the new casino, the ghostly Bokor Palace Hotel, the Catholic Church and Wat Sampov Pram. Google Maps is not particularly helpful on Bokor Mountain, but there are signs pointing to many of the main points of interest, and Thansur Bokor Resort has a helpful map.
Popokvil Waterfall is literally the end of the road (OK, you can go about 50m further to an empty guard shack where you realize you need to turn around). Oddly, the parking area is dominated by a billboard for Thansur Bokor Highland Resort, but if you walk in, past the large mint green food area on the left, you will see the river hitting wide, flat blocks of rock that make up the two-tiered falls. There are no official paths here, hike around at your own risk. The falls are most impressive during rainy season.
The waterfalls at Bokor Mountain are most impressive during rainy season.
Coming back towards the roundabout from the waterfall, if you take a right at the big turnoff for Japanese Farm (private, no visitors) and carry on for about 5km you will see the 100 Rice Fields on your left. We didn’t see any official sign marking the site, although we were staring through rain and thick fog (apologies for lack of photo). The 100 Rice Fields are not really rice fields of course. You can see those anywhere in Cambodia. They are a rock formation with grass growing in between the straight-line crevices, allegedly making it look like an aerial view of a bunch of rice fields. If you have time to kill on the mountain or want to take this road as a back way to Wat Sampov Pram and/or the 500 Rice Fields Meditation Area.
Wat Sampov Pram is named for five rounded rocks that are said to resemble boats (sampov) that stand near the path between the buddha statue and the main wat. During our visit, the lower parts of the compound were being renovated, but we had great views around the small pagoda covered in colorful lichens (remember to take your shoes off if you want to go inside) and down the escarpment to the ocean. If you took a left at the roundabout, you can also get to Wat Sampov Pram by turning right just before the Chinese pagoda after the New Casino and following the road past several rows of new shophouse/apartment construction.
The old Catholic Church is a reminder of Bokor Hill Station’s French colonial past.
Further down this left arm of the road, you will find the Old Catholic Church on the righthand side. The building is striking and although now mostly empty save some modern offerings, has a stillness that can be serene or creepy depending on the weather. Off to the left and behind the church is a path up a small hill; there are some large rocks to climb back here so be careful if knees, ankles or general mobility is an issue. At the top is the remains of the floor of a structure and fragments of old tiles, but on a clear day the view down to the coast is beautiful.
The old Bokor Palace Hotel figured prominently in the Matt Dillon movie City of Ghosts.
A few more kilometers brings you to the Bokor Palace Hotel, also known as the old casino (right side, parking on the left). You can wander through the old corridors, grand halls and winding stairs and imagine what it must have looked like with chandeliers, huge windows and ornate furnishings. Some of the walls (interior and exterior) have been patched up, but it retains that sense that “things happened here.” Off of the courtyard behind the old casino is a low wall and, yes, more great views down the steep side of the mountain to the plains and rice flats below and out to sea.
The top of Bokor Mountain is often misty and much cooler than the area below, so we recommend taking a raincoat or at least long sleeves, even if it is not rainy season.