Located in Cambodia’s largest national park, is a city of ghosts. Buildings – churches, hill stations, a palace turned casino – were built by the French in the 1920’s in Bokor as a place of retreat from the humidity below. Abandoned during the Khmer rouge in the 1970’s, the buildings were left empty, no longer used and left to the elements…
When we decided to visit the town of Kampot, we just knew we had to spend a day exploring Bokor National Park. Whilst still largely untouched, with extensive views over the coast, apparently still home to the few remaining wild animals of Cambodia, and a city of ghosts – who would pass up such a unique opportunity?
After speaking with the local expat community, it was apparent that the best way to explore Bokor National Park was to do so with your own set of wheels, and hire a motorbike. With its close proximity to Kampot, new roads and the affordability of the bikes, Alecia and I set out to explore further.
Unfortunately after visiting all the hire shops suggested, no one had any automatic motorbikes or mopeds for hire – only manual motorcycles. With my limited experience on bikes (i.e. – NONE) I was super hesitant to hire a bike that I’d never ridden before, especially up a mountain, even though I have both a licence and insurance. We decided against it, and opted to go on a tour instead where at least we wouldn’t get lost and have the ease of transport to and from Kampot.
Mike and I usually avoid ‘group tours’ like the plague, only doing so when there is absolutely no other option for us to venture out solo. We like the freedom of being able to see what we want to see, moving along quickly from the less interesting sights and spend longer exploring those that we love.
Even though we’d come to the conclusion that exploring Bokor National Park solo was not an option and that we had to take a tour, how I WISH we’d done it ourselves anyway. Our tour was a bit of a shemozzle – as I’ll proceed to tell you…
Scheduled from 8.30AM through to 2PM, our tour included transport to and from Bokor National Park, stopping at all the abandoned sights and included lunch. Picked up at 8.45AM from our guesthouse we then proceeded to do the usual collecting of guests for the next half an hour, where we then stopped on the side of the road for ten minutes, and then made to transfer vehicles. It was after 9.30AM before we finally got going on the new road to Bokor National Park.
The entrance to the park is hard to miss – a new road ascending the mountains has a large gate just opposite a service station. It was here, in the hot, boiling sun that we stopped again – for over 40 minutes without any explanation other than ‘more guests’… apparently there were some latecomers to the tour travelling from Sihanoukville who hadn’t made the start time, and we were made to wait for them. It was ridiculously hot and frustrating, as it was now 10.30AM and we hadn’t even started making our way up to the National Park.
When we finally took off, Alecia and I looked at each other when we saw the roads – whilst winding, were in perfect condition having only recently been laid. We would have had no issue taking bikes up the mountain – there wasn’t a lot of traffic, and it would have been completely safe! Our mini-van climbed the mountain at a painstakingly low speed of 30 km/hr for over half an hour, when it finally reached our first stop….
Ferried out of the van, they announced we’d have 40 minutes to enjoy the stop – which was a single, lone Buddha statue, the Lok Yeay Mao Monument. It was cool to see and the views were ok – but 40 minutes? The stop needed 10 minutes or less but we had no choice but to sit in the sun and wait until our allotted time was up before moving on.
On our way to our second stop, we passed the new 5 star resort and casino that has been built as part of a development plan for Bokor National Park, as the land has been purchased by a large multi-million dollar company. There are plans to expand to include a golf course, water park and luxury shops. The bright yellow building is an incredible eyesore – so out of place in this otherwise lush green environment. The other hard part to swallow is that millions have been spent on these developments, but nothing has been done to improve the facilities around the existing sights – rubbish is strewn everywhere and basic requirements like toilets are no more than holes in the ground…
Around 12.45PM we finally made our way to one of the first iconic buildings that form part of the ‘city of ghosts’ – an old church that played a huge part in the Vietnamese invasion – there are bullet holes still in the building as a result of battles between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge.
We were hurried along again after just 15 minutes as we were now ‘behind schedule’ – with a bus leaving Kampot at 3.30PM, we started to worry – not only about missing our bus but having barely spent time exploring what we’d set out to see.
Arriving at the abandoned palace, we were provided with lunch – fried rice in a container that had been sitting in the back of the hot van the entire day. Having just gotten over a bout of food poisoning the day before, we politely declined their lunch offering – another disappointment.
The abandoned palace however, was not, and was one of the standouts in Bokor National Park. It absolutely baffled me that something that must have had plans to be so grand once upon a time, was left completely abandoned. The palace was built over three levels, with spiralled staircases, a grand lounge area with a fireplace, and terraces looking out over the sea. There was even a Cambodian couple were having their wedding photos taken in the building.
After a short 30 minutes, we had to leave, stopping at a dam before making our way down the mountain and back to Kampot at around 3PM. Whilst we loved exploring Bokor National Park, we absolutely didn’t get to see enough of it. Even though we shopped around for tours, it became apparent that everyone in Kampot is just an agent selling tours for the same company. Bokor National Park is BEST explored solo. With motorbikes at around $4 USD to hire for a day plus fuel, and the road up into the mountains is in amazing condition – this is THE way to explore the park at your own pace and on your own terms.
- Getting to Bokor National Park
Bokor National Park is best explored from the nearby town of Kampot, which we LOVED – it had a great little vibe, in a beautiful spot by the river with some great restaurants, bakeries and cafes. The entrance to Bokor National Park is about a 15 minute drive out of town.
- How much does it cost to visit Bokor National Park?
The sights around Bokor National Park are free, with an entrance fee of 2000 Riel ($0.50 AUD) paid per motorbike at the entry gates.
Motorbikes cost as little as $4 USD to hire for the day from Kampot, plus fuel.
Tours (which I strongly advise against) are $10 USD per person including pickup, transport, entry fee and guaranteed disappointment….
Have you been to Bokor National Park? How did you enjoy it? Or did you take a tour – and had a better experience than us? If you did, please share your stories below!