My trip up Bokor Mountain is breathtaking until the rains begin
Kampot, Cambodia – to the west of Kampot, the charming riverside town I’m using as a base camp to explore southern Cambodia, Bokor Mountain dominates the skyline. At 1,100 metres, it is one of the coolest, albeit eeriest, places in the country.
I drive at the top speed of 30km/hr on the road out of town, picking a path around the massive potholes dotting the national highway. Buses, trucks, minivans, cars and pickups roar past, blasting their horns as if hoping I will instantly vaporize and they can drive straight through the gaseous residue. I ignore them and they go around. Then, at the turnoff to Bokor Mountain National Park, I take my little 125 cc motorbike up the worst road in creation.
It has broken bitumen, a muddy trail, sandy stretches, countless hairpin bends and rocks strewn across a track that more closely resembles a creek bed – a dirt biker’s wet dream. On my little scooter, it’s a nightmare, 34 kilometres of hell. Lush jungle stretches over the long-neglected road. Leaves and branches slap and scratch at my face and hands. For three hours I tackle the bumpy route, struggling to stay atop my bike, and finally arrive in the clouds that shroud a deserted outpost known as Bokor Hill Station.
The ghosts of long-abandoned buildings rise out of the mist. Above a cliff, the shell of a casino sits forlorn and in ruins, a testament to Cambodia’s tortured past. The stark plateau is inhabited only by the wind whistling through the edifices, slinking around decaying walls, past dripping, mossy ceilings and back out through empty window frames. What’s left of the 1920s French colonial hideaway is cloaked in billowing clouds. The hotel’s faded glory has been sadly left to rot in the cool, misty shroud. Despite battle scars, the church looks as if it could have been in service on Sunday.
On clear days, you can see south to the Gulf of Thailand and east to Vietnam from here. As a storm approaches, I take what photos I can of the spooky ruins and head back down the mountain. A quarter of the way down, the rain begins. Within minutes, the road I ascended becomes a river. I can’t see through the dark jungle, and bump blindly down the track, hoping to get out before sundown.
Water cascades down the path. I ride in the middle of the what’s now a riverbed, hoping I won’t fall in a hole. At one point, the bike slides sideways down a slippery mudbank, throwing me to the ground. Bruised knee. A small cut. Grazed hands. Beyond cursing, I take a break, gather my wits and let the raindrops run down my face. Hauling the bike upright is a challenge. Sticky red mud sucks at the tires, and the rain pelts down overhead. I climb on and keep going, dreaming of a hot shower and a steaming bowl of noodle soup.
When darkness falls, I’m still on the mountain. Picking my way between bits of broken bitumen and huge rocks, bumping over a fallen tree, dropping into holes, slipping on the mud, then past the rock that looks like a man’s face.
At that point I know it’s not much farther. Crawling down the mountainside, riding by the dim headlight, I make my way back to the main road. I have never been so happy to see a badly maintained, potholed highway. Finally, exhausted, I drive into Kampot, sore, tired, wet, cold, hungry and numb.
Then, showered and dressed, I come downstairs to a bowl of hot broth, the best soup I have ever eaten in my life.
As I slurp, revelling in its warmth, a hotel staffer asks, “Did you see any tigers?”
“Tigers?” I ask, confused. “Why would I see tigers? I went to see ruins.”
“Oh,” he tells me, smiling, “Bokor has lots of tigers roaming around on it, as well as leopards, elephants and heaps of other wild animals. I see them up there all the time.”
I’m glad I didn’t know that before I went. As if it weren’t dangerous enough.