"You can go up the mountain, some friends of mine have been, and their pictures are really pretty… but I can't be bothered." Our new friend Matt from NFO said in our Kampot briefing before we left Takeo. After our little adventure up the mountain that holds the ghost town of Bokhor within the Preah Moivong National Park, I can kinda see why he can't be bothered. We should have known better when our mini-bus picked us up at 8:30 in the morning only to drive us 3 minutes to the tour guide agency, where the owner of the agency opened the mini-bus door and greeted us with a big smile asking us to come inside so she could tell us something. This is when you know you're probably not going to have the day you planned (and paid) for.
Sure enough, she told us our tour was canceled. We could go on the tour tomorrow (not possible, we are leaving tomorrow, we explained) or go up to the hill station on motorbikes, or get our money back. There's not much to do in Kampot itself, and as much as I love hanging out at a cafe for hours on end (really, I do!) I was starting to feel like we were in a weird cycle of bus-hotel-cafe that I wanted to break. We decided to go, if we could each have our own motorbike. Which was agreed to, until one of the motorbikes was manual and neither of us are super confident with a manual bike yet. James, if you're reading this: we must practice more in England over Easter.
The ride up to the hill station of Bokhor (established by the French in the 1920's) was nice. I'm not usually one for riding on the back of a motorbike (I prefer my own) but it was nice to be able to rest against Andrew and gaze out over the sprawling scenery as we climbed (and climbed and climbed) the mountain. It took about 40 minutes or so to get there, and in retrospect, we could have easily found the park- and the hill station on our own. We had anticipated our "guides" telling us about the site, but instead, he would walk us to one place, and then take us through the (muddy) shortcut to get to the other, where he sat outside eating his lunch while we explored.
The view from the top. (These were taken directly behind the old casino.) Everything you see that's green (jungle) is part of the National Park. There's a lot of illegal logging done however, if caught and you don't have money, you go to jail. Otherwise, you can get off by slipping the officers some money. We heard lots of monkey calls and were told elephants roamed freely. According to Wikipedia: The town was built as a resort by the colonial French settlers to offer an escape from the heat, humidity and general insalubrity of Phnom Penh.Nine hundred lives were lost in nine months during the construction of the resort in this remote mountain location. The centrepiece of the resort was the grand Bokor Palace Hotel & Casino, complemented by shops, a post office (now demolished), a church and the Royal Apartments. It is also an important cultural site, showing how the colonial settlers spent their free time. Bokor Hill was abandoned first by the French in late 1940s, during the First Indochina War, because of local insurrections guided by the Khmer Issarak, and then for good in 1972, as Khmer Rouge took over the area. During the Vietnamese invasion in 1979, Khmer Rouge entrenched themselves and held on tightly for months. In earlier 1990s Bokor Hill was still one of the last strongholds of Khmer Rouge.
The old casino. Lots of workers were inside putting it back together again, otherwise we would have been able to go in.
Part of the rear of the casino.
This guard sat across the street from a nondescript building where our guide told us the casino owner lived. That's why the guard was there, not for the run down Bokhor ghost town. Unfortunately I have no idea what the other buildings were that we went under an arch to explore.
The red reads: I love Cambodia. I had to request to stop in the church, and then the brand new casino. This huge monstrosity of a casino and hotel has recently been completed. It's fairly ridiculous, in my opinion, as it was virtually empty (but our guide did assure us that it gets many visitors every night) and especially considering all of Bokhor takes less than an hour to walk around and take in. We almost went onto the very empty casino floor, until the doormen asked us to check our bags and cameras. I felt silly taking the time to hand over everything before walking in just to see, and not gamble, on the floor. Curious, I asked one of the five front deskmen (in the empty lobby) how much it cost to stay the night. $65.00 for a weekday night, $75.00 for a weekend night. Not bad at all, for Western prices, right? But we're in Cambodia, our room tonight is $6.00 for a no frills private room and bathroom. We left the casino shortly after I got reprimanded for taking a picture of the nearly empty lobby.
On our way out the drive, our guides began to worry about their rear bike tire. It was losing air. Not more than 3 km later, one of them began asking workers for directions to where he could find some air for his tire, and then he dropped off the other guide (we're not really sure what his role was on the trip actually, as we found out he was Vietnamese and just recently moved to Cambodia, and couldn't speak a lot of either Cambodian or English) with us and didn't exactly tell us what to do. So we waited. For an hour. Under a tree that a Khmer guard pointed out to help shield us from the bright sun.
We thought the plan was to see the big lady statue (that's all our guide told us about her) and then the waterfall before heading back into town for the sunset river cruise. We saw the big lady statue, and started descending the mountain.
We passed signs to the waterfall, but kept going down the mountain. Then the fog rolled in, and then it started to rain. At first only a sprinkle, and then it poured. We scooted down the mountain slower than we made it up, got to the bottom without seeing the waterfall, and I wondered if it was because of the rain. I figured we were driving back to the agency, until we turned off of the main road and started heading in another direction. We stopped at a small rushing river with hammocks strung up on the surrounding trees, and Khmer vendors walking up to us with trays of food held carefully under umbrellas. Our "guides" walked us to the riverbank and told us a dam was further upstream if we would like to see it. It was still pouring. Andrew and I shook our heads, completely uninterested. "Where's the waterfall?" I asked tentatively, wondering exactly how far we'd have to trek in the downpour to see it. "Here! Here is what we in Cambodia call waterfall!" Our "guide" said pointing at the horizontal rush of water. "Really?" I asked. "Yes! You can see the rapids!" He replied as I looked up at Andrew's "you've got to be $!*%ing kidding me" face. We climbed back on the bike, and rode for 30 minutes or so back to the agency, arriving wet. and cold. and in no mood for a sunset cruise on the river.
When we arrived, we asked if we could cancel, and get a refund for the cruise. The owner said "Of course! I can give you $2.00 back." The cruise cost $5.00. "The entire tour was a disaster…" Andrew tried to reason with her to get the full price back, while I opened up the pamphlet listing off what would be included in the tour. She argued that the weather and motorbike problem wasn't her fault. She's right, obviously the weather wasn't her fault. But, we were supposed to go in a mini-bus, and when we agreed to go on motorbikes, we assumed they would function properly for the day we had them. And, we thought we were going to see a proper waterfall, one that falls from top to bottom. There was a real waterfall in the pamphlet and I told her that we didn't see this. Furthermore, we didn't trek anywhere, and there was no "Black Palace" (as was listed in the pamphlet) in our day either. I pointed to the pictures, and screamed "This is a house of lies!" (ok, maybe I didn't quote Almost Famous, but I certainly got the same message across. She staunchly stood by her terrible customer service (ok, complete lack of) skills that nothing was her fault. She gave us $4.00 instead of the $10.00 we should have received, and even though she tried to get the last word in that nothing was her fault, I did not give her the immature victory she did not deserve. That immature victory was MINE as I shouted "BUT IT IS YOUR FAULT! THAT IS NOT A WATERFALL AND I WILL GET THE LAST WORD!" as we walked out of the agency.
Bottom line: do not, under any circumstances agree to take a tour with the Kampot – Hatien Travel & Transportation Agency. Even if you do go via mini-bus (or motor-cycle that does not break) it's simply not worth it. You can rent a motorbike on your own for $3.00-$5.00 for the day, spend $1.00-$3.00 on gas and easily find the park without a guide, especially when the guide doesn't tell you anything once you're walking through the Bokhor hill station itself. There are signs. There are other tourists you can ask directions from if you need to. (Furthermore, if you need a bus, they will also over-charge you on this. She quoted us $20.00 for a bus from Kampot to Battambang when our guesthouse only charged us $13.00)
Where we slept:
What I spent:
Bokhor National Park (officially called Preah Monivong National Park)
If you cross the river on the bridge in between the seafood restaurant and the row of riverfront cafes, you simply need to go straight (perhaps 3-5km) until you see the large park entrance on the right.
$5.00 entry fee (we were not stopped however, and did not pay anything upon our arrival)
Kampot-Hatien Travel & Transportation : I do not advise arranging a tour with them! Stay away!
unofficially: it's a few doors down from and on the same side of the street as The Rusty Keyhole, someone will inevitably try to give you a pamphlet (full of lies!) when you walk by.
officially: Road no. 701 House no. 05 1 Ousaphea Village Sang Kat Kampong Kandal, Kampot Town, Kampot Province