When Jen and I set off to become digital nomads a few months ago, I didn’t have too many ideas about where exactly I wanted to travel in Southeast Asia – other than to indulge in some Thai street food and enjoy relaxing on the beach – but one specific place I had on my list was Bokor Hill Station, just outside the riverside town of Kampot in southern Cambodia.
Built in 1921 as a hill station for French colonists to escape the heat of Phnom Penh, Bokor is now one of the world’s great urban exploration sites. With the remains of a dozen buildings and other sights spread over an area of eight square miles in the mountains, tourists flock to see not only Bokor Palace but also abandoned villas, places of worship, and other natural sights.
It used to take hours to climb the 3,000-plus feet to the top of the hill. But due to the development of a new resort at its summit, the road has been improved, making it possible to drive the 20 miles from Kampot to the top in under an hour.For a unique adventure in southern Cambodia, take a motorcycle ride up to Bokor Hill Station. Click To Tweet
Getting to Bokor Hill Station
Visitors have a few options for getting up the hill. The first is taking one of the affordable minibus tours, which are offered by many companies in town. For $10-$15, you’ll get a ride to all of the sights of Bokor Hill, some time to walk around and explore, lunch, and (with some of them) a sunset boat cruise back in Kampot. Not a bad deal, but we don’t love being told where to go and when or having to stick to a pre-set itinerary.
The second option is to take an organized cycling tour. Since only the most masochistic would consider riding up the hill, a vehicle transports you and a bike to the summit to ride around the sights and then back downhill to Kampot. This usually costs about twice as much as the minibus tour.
The last option is to rent a motorbike like we did and make your way up the mountain on your own. You won’t have the chance to meet other travelers, but visiting independently allows you to spend as much or as little time as you want at each sight, head to spots the tours don’t cover, and avoid some of the crowds.
Renting a Motorbike in Kampot
Scooters are readily available around Kampot, and you can likely rent one from your hotel for $5-$7 for the day (renting from the hotel means you won’t need to hand over your passport as collateral). If not, plenty of shops along the riverside road also rent them (multiple city guides suggest not renting from a company called KSS Travel, as they’re known to inflate damage costs). Scooters of the 125cc variety are ubiquitous, but 250cc and above motorbikes are also available from a few agents farther back from the river, though they will cost more.
In any case, make sure your rental includes a helmet; it’s illegal to ride without one in Cambodia, and the law is selectively enforced on foreigners (and, you know, it’s good to be safe). It’s also a good idea to snap a few photos of the bike before you take it, noting any damage that’s already present (you’ll need to pay for any damage you cause).
While you may not be an expert motorcycle mechanic, you should do your best to ensure you don’t get a lemon of a bike. Check the tires for obvious wear, and ride around for a mile or so before you head out. If something doesn’t feel right, take it back and ask for a different one. We blew out a tire coming down the hill, although I’m not sure it could have been prevented. Thankfully a Russian couple was kind enough to stop and help us get back to where we could contact a mechanic.
The Trip to Bokor Hill Station
The highway from Kampot to the base of Bokor is the most challenging part of the ride and can be nerve-racking for riders who aren’t that comfortable in traffic. Buses, motorcycles, and large cargo trucks will be whirring by; keep calm and stay as far to the right of your lane as possible.
The turn-off to Bokor Hill Station is five miles from town, and you’ll need to pay a toll of $0.50 (aka, 2,000 riel) before beginning the beautiful, windy ascent to the summit. Don’t get too distracted by the scenery while you’re riding, though; there are plenty of pullouts to stop and take photos (though they might be mobbed with people on the minibus tours if you hit them at the wrong time).
As you approach the top of the hill, you’ll see a large parking area with what appears to be deserted shop fronts (though there’s a functioning bathroom here), along with a nearly 100-foot-tall statue of the goddess Lok Yeay Moy. She’s considered the protector of travelers and hunters, and is venerated by residents of coastal Cambodia. Built in 2012, the statue represents the renewal of the Bokor region after decades of neglect.
Just across from Lok Yeay Moy is something called the Black Palace. Don’t ask me why it’s called a palace, as it’s the size of a relatively small Western home and actually kind of looks like a 1970s ranch house from the front. However, it was a summer home of King Sihanouk during his first tenure as the ruler of Cambodia.
Despite its simple exterior, the main room has a really ornate ceiling, and its floor was once covered in black marble. The rear is more interesting, with a terrace that would have spectacular views if it weren’t for the overgrowth obscuring them. Unfortunately, there’s little explanation of what the palace once was, and Mother Nature is quickly reclaiming it.
A few miles farther up the hill is a crossroad. Take the left, and you’ll quickly see the reason the road up here was revamped, the Thansur Resort and Casino. Opened in 2012, it’s a symbol of garish opulence that betrays the historical value of the rest of Bokor Hill Station.
The grounds of the casino were eerily quiet, and we saw almost no customers coming in or out of the building. With seemingly little business, we have to wonder if it’s likely to succeed (though we did visit in the low season, so it may be different at other times of year). Sokimex, the company that owns it, intends to develop more of the Bokor Hill area, but I don’t think it can be argued that this development is really helping the local economy. And sadly, we can expect the area to continue to lose its charm in the near future.
The next stop is one we didn’t see any other tourists making, the old police station. It’s only half a mile from the resort on the left side, and it’s a pretty cool place to poke around in. The holding cells were on the bottom floor, and they’re boarded up tightly. However, you can climb the rickety spiral staircase to the second floor where the offices were, and there are great views from the balcony, looking towards the old Catholic Church.
Across the street is a bizarre field of concrete footings, apparently meant for buildings that never came to fruition. From a distance, it looks like a graveyard, filled with rows of tombstones.
The nearby Catholic Church is the second-most visited site at Bokor – once a place of worship for French colonists but later co-opted by the Khmer Rouge as a base of operations in their fight against invading Vietnamese forces (who fortified their position inside Bokor Palace a mile down the road). You can still see bullet holes from these firefights in the church’s exterior walls.
Visitors are free to enter the church, and when we were there, the alter was decorated with a white tablecloth and flowers. The bright red crucifix above it stands out against the graffiti-covered walls. Behind the alter is a small prayer room, and off to the side, a kitchen. It’s a simple church, but it’s nice to be able to witness the building in a semi-natural state. Unlike many other sites on the hill, this one is not being cleaned up for redevelopment (yet).
Just beyond the church lies the hill’s namesake Bokor Palace, the main attraction. Now a concrete shell of a hotel, it was once the height of luxury for French colonists who wanted to escape the oppressive heat of Cambodia’s cities. They abandoned the resort in 1940 during the French-Indochina War, and it was never used as a hotel again.
Bokor Palace is the busiest site on the hill, and just across the street is a horde of food vendors waiting to serve the hungry crowds. In a way, I wished we could have visited before all the new developments, when it was still a challenge and an all-day adventure to get up there.
Sokimex has also closed off access to the remains of the hotel, so no urban exploration is allowed now. They might want to restore it to its former glory (or make it a museum), so they don’t want tourists going inside and mucking it up. In their attempt to clean it up, they’ve eliminated some of the history, though. In old photographs of the palace, you can see it covered in red lichen, while it’s all smooth, gray concrete now.
I made a rather feeble attempt to take some photos inside the building by entering through the large opening of the basement car park. Before I could snap a single a photo, a smiling security guard (Khmers seem to smile even when you’re in trouble) informed me I was not allowed to be in there or even take photos from the outside looking in.
The rules must have been different not that long ago, as you can find dozens of photos of its interior online. I consoled myself by photographing the views of the Cambodian coast from behind the hotel, with the sapphire blue waters splashing against it.
Afterwards, we ventured down to the end of the paved road, where we spotted a couple of abandoned buildings out in the tall grass. They were once the Royal Villas, where the Cambodian Royal Family stayed during their visits.
They ended up being my favorite part of this adventure because there was only one other person there, so I was free to take photographs without disruption. The villas haven’t been touched as part of the redevelopment effort either, and have all of their old tiles and crumbling window fixtures still in place. They’ve retained the beauty I assume the palace once had.
We got back on the scooter and traveled to the other side of Bokor Hill, to the place known as the 100 Rice Fields. It is definitely not actual rice fields, and at first, we weren’t sure what to make of it.
It looked like a field of rock cairn, and there were no signs explaining its purpose, though it had an air of spirituality. We took a moment to quietly observe it, and then moved on. I’m still not entirely sure of the field’s meaning, and haven’t found much explanation online either.
The last stop on our motorcycle tour was Popokvil waterfall, about three miles from Thansur Resort, and it seemed to be the favored attraction for Khmers visiting Bokor Hill Station. It’s just a couple steps down to the falls, and depending on the time of year, there will either be a torrent of water flowing over it or a trickle. We visited during the trickle season.
It was a fun place to end our tour of the hill station though, and wading in the river above the falls was a nice break from the motorcycle seat. If you’re in need of some food, there’s a lunch counter serving curry for a few dollars inside a huge building next to the waterfall.
When visiting Bokor Hill Station, give yourself plenty of time – feeling rushed will ruin the experience and prevent you from taking in the beauty of this historical place. You probably won’t want to leave, anyway; even the 10-degree or so drop in temperature will be a welcome respite from the sweat-inducing weather of Kampot.
Have you visited any hill stations in Southeast Asia?