Visitors to Kampot are often told they should rent a moto and head to Bokor Mountain. And while Southeast Asia has a reputation as being an easy place to learn the finer points of moto driving, not all of us have an inner Evel Knievel. Luckily, when Bokor is calling it’s possible to take a minivan tour of Bokor Mountain and let someone else do the driving!
Chan Rath Tours offers package tours starting at $13 and include a Bokor Mountain tour during the morning, and a sunset cruise on the Kampot river at dusk. There are other tours offering a similar itinerary in town, but I went with Chan Rath Tours. For this tour, called ‘The Bokor National Park Tour’ you’ll meet in Kampot town at 8 a.m., or you can request a pickup from any guesthouse out of town for a small per-person fee. As the tour leaves quite early, be certain to arrange any transportation to the pickup location the night before.
Preah Monivong Bokor National Park was established in 1993 as one of two ASEAN Heritage parks in Cambodia. On the 20 minute-or-so ride from town to the entrance to the National Park, be sure to watch out the window at the shops lining the street. Kampot is growing in every direction and the quick glimpse you get passing by can yield some entertaining results. On a recent trip I saw toddlers trying to put kittens into a box and a group of ladies at a salon sporting matching hair towels posing for a picture. Just when you start to consider that the still-bumpy road from Kampot town to the entrance to the National Park might have been constructed by sadists, you’ll turn onto the best road in Cambodia (a statement which will be quickly confirmed by anyone you ask in Kampot).
Passing under the welcome arch that announces your arrival in Bokor National Park, the southeastern end of the Cardamom Mountains rise before you. Sarath, the head minivan tour guide, provides excellent commentary on the history of Bokor Mountain, Kampot, and tidbits of information on Cambodia throughout the drive. As the road winds upward, the air-conditioning is shut off and everyone is directed to open the windows on the van to help save horsepower for the engine and provides a wonderful breeze. By the time you stop at the King’s former holiday home known as The Black Palace, you’ll be convinced that you know what to expect, but hold onto your hats!
Art lovers will be amazed at the graffiti art covering the walls of The Black Palace, although historians might feel differently. All of the timber was taken from the home during the war and now the walls are covered in a mix of moss and street art, including stunning Khmer portraits in black and grey spray paint. Walking around the grounds, the size of the ferns and other foliage that is left to grow undisturbed is impressive. There’s nothing like the feeling of walking in the shade of plants that started reaching for the sky before you were born.
Across the street from The Black Palace is the massive monument to Lok Yeay Mao. Often mistaken as one of the many large scale Buddha monuments, Yeay Mao is the protector of travelers, the mountains, and the sea. Travelling through the coastal areas of Cambodia, you will see many monuments to her, including one in Kep where she is also known as the Lady of the Sea. However, the monument to her on Bokor Mountain is the largest in Cambodia.
Continuing up and up, you arrive at the clifftop Sampov Pram Pagoda, also known as the “Temple of Five Boats.” Words don’t do justice the view from the cliff nor the beauty of both the restored and untouched areas of the temple. On one side of the parking area, you will find several smaller temples and shrines. If you would like some extra blessing for your travels, be sure to follow the flashing lights to the most fabulous shrine this side of Vegas. While not a requirement to do so, there are small boxes to leave a few thousand riel tribute to ensure that your requests are heard loud and clear. The other side of the car park has the larger restored temple where you may be lucky enough to hear some chanting from the monks during prayers.
Insect lovers will delight in the stop at the Bokor Hill Station and Catholic church, which was built by the French in 1928. Services stopped being held there around 1972, but you’ll see some signs of continued maintenance in the form of new statues in the garden and alter. Beyond that, the only signs of life are the butterflies. Walking up the path to the left of the church takes you to a little overlook and past tree after tree swarming with gorgeous black, blue, and orange butterflies. If you stand close to one of the trees and you might just be mistaken for one of the delicious flowers the insects are feasting on.
At lunchtime, Sarath and crew hand over lunch boxes and water bottles so you can pick your favorite spot to eat and lounge a bit at the newly renovated Bokor Palace Hotel. Just be sure to avoid walking on the grass lest you hear the shrill whistle of correction from the guard at the entrance to the casino. Take some time to walk around behind the hotel to see the cliff where many unlucky gamblers spent time contemplating their next move…or making it!
In dry season, the waterfalls are not flowing so after exploring around the Bokor Palace Hotel, the guides will come up with an alternate activity, such as a trip to Try Koh, or Fish Island. However, if you’re lucky enough to be on Bokor during rainy season, be prepared for the full-on beauty of Povokvil Waterfalls.
Next, you’ll head back to Kampot to prepare for the sunset cruise of the Kampot river. Once in town, the minivans stop at the riverside in front of the Vibola Boat which is the meeting point for the sunset cruise portion of the tour. The guides will give you a voucher for the boat, and let you know what time to be there in the evening. Vibola Boat is one of the more popular sunset cruises, so don’t be shy about arriving right on time or even a few minutes early so you can pick the perfect spot on the deck, as there may be more people joining the evening cruise than just the ones on your day tour.
A few things to consider for your day (and night) with Chan Rath Tours are the weather and your hydration needs. Bokor Mountain is just that, a mountain! That means the weather up there is different than the weather in town. Take a jumper or jacket as temperatures at the top can be quite a bit cooler than in town. You’ll also want to apply your sunscreen and bug repellent at least 20 minutes before getting in the van as it takes time for the sunscreen to absorb (and for the bug spray smell to dissipate). The same goes for the boat tour as the river can be a bit windy. If you had a long night before the tour, bring some extra water or buy some when you stop at the Yeay Mao car park. Restrooms can be found in the Yeay Mao car park and at the Bokor Hill Station/abandoned church.