Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Three on a bike to Bokor

Phalla and Bunly on the balcony overlooking the Gulf of Thailand in 2000
My recent post on the future of Bokor led me back to my first visit to Bokor in December 2000, which I repeat here for posterity and a glimpse into days now long gone.
Three on a Bike to Bokor
The lure of Bokor's ghost town-like appearance was a key reason for my trip to the south coast. The French had originally opted to build a hill station on this 1,000 metre high outcrop of the Elephant mountain range in the 1920s, to take advantage of the panoramic views over the Gulf of Thailand and the cool climate. It remained the retreat of the wealthy until 1972 when the Khmer Rouge took control and the mountain-top resort became a strategic military prize for the next thirty or so years. It's only in the last couple of years that Phnom Bokor has been regarded as safe enough for visitors to return, although landmines are still considered a minor threat if you step off the main pathways. The derelict buildings on the mountain edge, often shrouded in mist, and forest walks and waterfalls are what now attracts increasing numbers of tourists to this area which has been designated as a national park.
At 8am, Phalla and Lim Bunly arrived on the 250cc motorbike to pick me up from my hotel and we headed out of town on Route 3 and over the main road bridge, a narrow and dilapidated structure of steel girders and wooden planks, across the Prek Thom river. Bunly, at the controls of the motorbike and a friend of uncle Kong, was to act as our guide, having visited Bokor on half a dozen previous occasions. After a fuel and water stop opposite the turn-off to the Tek Chhou rapids, we quickly left the city limits behind us and raced along the highway in open countryside with Bokor mountain, cloaked in low cloud, looming large on our right-hand side. Twenty minutes later, we turned off towards the foot of the mountain range, crossing the single-gauge railway track and arrived at a newly-erected ticket booth and barrier, where the entry fee for a foreigner had recently been increased to 20,000 riel (US$5).
Our long and winding ascent wasn't easy with three on one motorbike and the road surface reduced to rubble and small craters, with overhanging vegetation making it even trickier. One sharp branch even penetrated Phalla's training shoe and left a nasty gash on the side of his foot. We passed by a solitary drinks stall and encountered low-lying cloud about an hour into our climb. The clingy cloud cover was cold and damp and caused parts of the track to be wet and slippery, causing us to take even more care. By 10am, we left the tree cover behind and levelled out, reaching a trio of derelict but sturdy buildings known as 'Sala Khmou' (or 'Black Tiger') villas, which Bunly explained were former residences of the royal family. Their location, on the edge of the mountain, would normally offer a spectacular view if the whole area hadn't been completely blanketed in mist. The villas are now mere shells with walls covered in graffiti, while broken floor and wall tiles just hint at their former grandeur. After a brief stop, we carried on towards the highest point of Bokor, passing a handful of overgrown and neglected villas and the fork leading to the two-tiered waterfall at Popokvil. However, I was keen to get to the deserted plateau with its atmospheric ruined church and hotel and the road-sign informed us, 'Casino 3kms'.
Half an hour later, we caught our first sight of the church and hotel in the distance between the drifting clouds, which at times obscured the whole area. The wind howled across the flat ground and the cold chill gave me goosebumps. It was reminiscent of an early black and white horror movie but without the distant cry of a wailing wolf. To our right were a couple of blackened buildings, leading onto the disused church with its reddish brickwork, on a slight incline. To the left and at the bottom of a dip in the plateau, was the distinctive green roofs of the park's conservation centre and a handful of other abandoned villas including the old casino. Our first port of call though was the mysterious and haunting Bokor Palace Hotel, which was still partly hidden by the mist and cloud until we were up close. It too is covered in a rusty red-coloured crust of lichen clinging to its walls. The windows on the ground floor are bricked-up, the glass in all other windows is broken and bullet holes scar the walls. We explored every nook and cranny from the hotel's graffiti-daubed ballroom with its broken ornate fireplace, through the corridors to the kitchens below and the trashed bedrooms and tiled bathrooms above. The wind whistled through the structure and as we reached the top balcony, it finally swept away the last of the cloud revealing a dramatic view of the coast and sea - the Gulf of Thailand - and across to Vietnam's Phu Quoc island (which Bunly assured me actually belonged to Cambodia and was called Koh Tral). It also re-affirmed the precarious vantage point the hotel possessed, with the cliff-face dropping 1,000 metres just beyond the wall that signalled the end of its rear terrace. In addition, it also afforded us a clearer view of the plateau itself with more ruined buildings, an old water-tower and a modern weather research facility nearby.
After an hour spent exploring the hotel and soaking up the gorgeous view from the overgrown terrace balcony, we called in at a few more derelict villas on our way back to the Catholic church. Like the hotel, anything that wasn't bolted down had been removed and the walls were again plastered in graffiti including an artistic impression of a Khmer Rouge guerrilla. At noon, as the cloud drifted back, we left the mountain-top and took the track towards Popokvil Falls. Leaving the motorbike, we crossed over a stream by a branch bridge, passed by another abandoned villa and walked through the scrub to the head of the river, just above the waterfalls. Our stomachs were rumbling at this point, so we settled down on large boulders to eat our packed lunch of chicken and rice, which Phalla had brought from Kampot. A tricky descent got us to the bottom of the upper 15-metre waterfall, where we kicked off our shoes and paddled in the ice-cold water, but decided against risking our necks on the slippery rocks to get to the foot of the lower tier. Retracing our steps to the bike, we returned to the Black Tiger villas, where the commanding view was a lot clearer than before and within an hour, we'd reached the ticket-booth at the foot of the mountain. Our descent had been a bit scary though. Phalla had taken over the driving responsibilities and his preference to get to the bottom as quickly as possible didn't sit well with my more cautious approach. The track was treacherous in places with loose rubble and a wet surface making it somewhat hazardous. It didn't help matters, when Phalla ducked without warning and the overhanging branch of a tree hit me squarely in the face. I was not amused, but my companions found it hilarious, so it was only moments before I joined in the laughter, my injured pride quickly forgotten.
Returning to Kampot, just before the road bridge over the Prek Thom river, we took a left fork and sped along the eight kilometres of highway to the Tek Chhou rapids, arriving just after 3pm. This was a typical Khmer riverside spot with low wooden picnic platforms and a host of food stalls nearby. Behind the trees, lay the fast-moving river which flowed over a series of rapids and boulders and is a magnet for Khmer families to swim and bathe, especially at weekends. Young girls were on hand with mats to rest on, sarongs to cover you while changing or swimming and large black rubber tyres, tied together for safety, to float on. Despite it being midweek, there were a few families eating and milling around before a group of eight teenage schoolboys appeared, chatted to me in faltering English and then lined up to have their picture taken, individually shaking my hand and smiling broadly. We polished off some noodle broth at one of the stalls before starting our trip back to Kampot. That's when we ran out of fuel and had to walk, much to the amusement of hordes of children who were leaving the school grounds opposite us. About a kilometre down the road, we took on some petrol, administered by an old woman, who poured a couple of 'coke' bottles into the fuel tank, before rolling back into Kampot.



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