The sky was still dark when we got up to prepare for our day-long journey. It was mid-June, so rains could be expected almost every day, especially in coastal areas like Kampot. But despite the odds, the trip was much worth the try. So with snacks, water, scarves, hats, and PONCHOS in our bag, we headed west along National Road 3 on our first motorbike trip, to Bokor Mountain.
Bokor Mountain is situated in southwestern Cambodia, sitting on the coastline, some 17 km west of Kampot city. The entrance to the mountain area, which was designated Preah Monivong National Park in 1993, is 10 km from the Durian Roundabout. It takes another 30 km up the mountain road to reach the main tourist area.
JOURNEY TO BOKOR
By 6 a.m., the sky had turned visibly bright. We began our journey, crossing Prek Teuk Chhu (aka. Kampot River) over the new bridge, and headed west. After a while, we stopped for a typical Cambodian breakfast of bay srob (steamed rice with pork) before continuing the ride. The odds were on our side that morning; there was not a single drop of rain. The sky gradually illuminated the country houses on both sides of the road. The sun was never ablaze, the road was quiet, and the morning air was cool and comforting. It was a dream ride.
Eventually, we arrived at the entrance gateway, behind which was a road leading to the foot of the mountain. The plain, gravel-paved road belied the vast and varied landscapes lying ahead, but we got more excited the closer we moved to the mountain. Before long, we began the ascent.
DRIVING UP BOKOR
Very quickly, we found ourselves surrounded by green mountain foliage. Flanking the road on both sides, the trees were short and sparse at first, but got taller and denser the further we went. They worked together like a gigantic air-conditioning system, keeping the air along the road cool and moisturized, energizing visitors for the activities ahead. At times, we could also peek at the surrounding plains through the gaps among the trees.
Along the way…
As the road was mostly gently sloped, it was effortless for our rented Air Blade to climb Bokor. Nonetheless, we wanted to generously give it rest. Thankfully, the Bokor’s road has plenty of flat turnouts for parking and rest. A few are even “recommended” viewing sites with beautiful mountain sceneries. You just have to look out for road signs or signs of people taking a break.
We made our first stop at a quiet, open grass field that was quite refreshing unto itself. There was no other visitors when we arrived, so we had the peaceful atmosphere and view all to ourselves.
After 15 minutes, a group of visitors arrived in two vans. Having had enough rest, we left the place and continued the journey.
The higher we went, the better we could see the surrounding plains. This is especially true as we reached a well-known spot one-third of the way up. It is a mini turn-out area called Thmor Muk Yak (which means “giant-faced rock”; aka. “Guardian of the Forest”). Out of the limestone wall on one side of the road protrudes a figure that resembles a giant face, hence the Khmer name. Even better, on the other side is a panoramic view of the part of Kampot province east of Bokor, including a distant view of Kampot town itself. Many tourists stop here for the view and a few selfies before continuing their journey.
You can find the turnout here on Google Maps.
We left the place, and went on for 10 km before reaching another well-known landmark. We parked our motorbike at the foot of a hill, and walked up to where a tremendous statue of Yeay Mao was situated. Yeay Mao (meaning “Grandma Mao”) is a legendary character whose dark power is believed by many to have an influence over traveler safety in the coastal regions and inland southwestern Cambodia. The most famous Yeay Mao shrine is along National Road 4, near Pich Nil cliff.
You can find Yeay Mao monument on Bokor here.
Yeay Mao in Context
According to a well-respected Khmer anthropologist, Dr. ANG Chouléan, belief in Yeay Mao originated from the communities living near the seashore, especially the sea-fishing communities. These communities believed and some still believe that appeasing Yeay Mao can protect them. The fishermen would perform a simple symbolic rite before a challenging departure or even on the fishing boat in the face of a looming turbulent weather. As such, Dr. Chouléan explains, Yeay Mao represents the danger of the sea–emphasizing danger as the underpinning concept. To appease Yeay Mao, therefore, is to thwart navigation dangers, to ask for travel safety.
Thus, Yeay Mao’s “territory” was extended in the 1960’s when Cambodia extended its national road construction to the southwest. People at the time quickly identified certain spots along the roads that were accident-prone, including sections requiring sharp turns and those surrounding high cliffs–such as the Pich Nil area. Perhaps adapting the coastal communities’ concept, Yeay Mao shrines were built near those spots providing for people to pray for a safe passage. Similarly, when Bokor was developed in the early 2010s, the developer commissioned the statue of Yeay Mao that we saw.
Naturally, we joined the crowd, prayed for safety, then proceeded further… but not without taking some photos.
At this point, we had traveled for 21 km from the gateway and had essentially finished ascending. When you are at Yeay Mao, you can jump with joy because the mountaintop doesn’t go much higher from this point onward. Yeay Mao and most of the tourist sites remain within a range of altitude approximately 1000 m above sea level.
This also means that in the rainy season, you can expect it to be foggy any minute starting from Yeay Mao. Indeed, we drove another 9 km through misty cold air before reaching the first tourist area. There, Thansur Bokor Hotel (Sokha) stood firm despite the paint looking worn off by the mountain weather. From the distance, we saw a few of hotel’s security guards waiting to guide visitors to their appropriate parking lots. We drove past the hotel’s coach gate. Two porters in their suits flanked the entrance, ready to welcome visitors. We didn’t go inside.
We came back on the road and went down the left road at the intersection, heading towards the Old Catholic Church. The fogs were getting thicker and thicker as if it were going to rain anytime soon. We couldn’t see more than 20 meters ahead of us, so we had to drive more slowly and carefully.
After a 2-km ride from Sokha, we found the church to our right. The church stood on a small hill, so we had to park our motorbike and walk up a flight of stairs to reach its compound.
Here is the church on the map.
The weather wasn’t as cooperative anymore. When we arrived, the church was clearly visible from the road. But by the time we made it up the flight of stairs, our surrounding, including the church, were covered by thick fogs. And before we could have a closer look at the 1920-era French colonial heritage, it was starting to rain. We knew we had to return to the hotel.
Luckily, we made it back to Sokha before the pouring rain started at 11 a.m. Since we were tired from the long ride and racing against the cold air and fog, we decided to have lunch at the hotel’s Champa Café. We ordered a plate of fried chicken wings, a banana muffin, a small fruit plate and a latte, which cost $16 in total. After the lunch, we rested there, waiting for the rain to stop.
By 2 p.m., it was still showering and foggy with bouts of wind outside. We couldn’t continue our journey to visit places we had planned for, so we decided to head back once it got a bit calm outside.
On the way back, we stopped near Yeay Mao monument and strolled around the compound of Damnak Sla Kmao. The Black Palace, as the place is called in English, was constructed in 1936 as the former King Norodom Sihanouk’s residence.
Damnak Sla Kmao is located here.
From there, we rode back down along the same routes we came up. The weather and the view were as splendid then as it had been when we drove up in the morning. If anything, after the rain, the air smelled earthier and the greens seemed livelier. We arrived at the foot of the mountain at around 4:30 p.m. The whole journey was so pleasant that by that time, we couldn’t remember being tired at all.
Weather on Bokor: Pick your season of preference.
As explained earlier, the top of Bokor Mountain lies at an altitude of around 1,000 m. This means that the weather never gets very hot. The weather is around 22 degree celcius during rainy season (May-October), and 27 during the dry season (November-April). Fogs and rains are to be expected in the rainy season. The people at Sokha Hotel confirmed that during that time, there are heavy fogs on most days, starting from Yeay Mao monument onward. Our trip was in June, so the weather prevented us from visiting many attractions, but if you want to “catch the cloud”, this would be the right time of the year. It is less foggy in the dry season, so you can travel more conveniently and get to see the coastline and enjoy mountaintop’s view of the surroundings better.
Tips for visiting Bokor on a motorbike
Of course local families and big groups need the convenience of the cars, but for tourists and the free-spirits, why seek shelter from the refreshing mountain atmosphere? So for those planning to visit Bokor Mountain on a motorbike, we have some tips for you:
+ Do fill a full tank as there is no gas station on the mountain. You can find the closest one by the gateway.
+ Pack ponchos, especially if you are visiting during the rainy season as the weather is unpredictable.
+ Choose your motorbike wisely. Although the roads are neatly paved, you also need to make sure the motorbike has enough capacity to ride uphill. We rented a 125 cc Honda Air Blade from the place we stayed for $5/day. It was in a very decent condition. We only needed to pump the tires before the journey, just to make sure.