Thursday, January 15, 2015


Bokor Mountain, on Cambodia's southern coast
I've never climbed a mountain before.

Today I’m riding shotgun in a pickup truck. The windows are down, sun is out, and a few hearty souls riding with me are heading for Bokor Mountain in southern Cambodia. We've left the the town of Kampot to climb this mountain in one day, aiming to reach the old French hill station at the top.

We pull over, and a Cambodian park ranger climbs on, donned in a brand new khaki uniform and wide brimmed hat. He’s young; looks barely out of his teens, I wonder how long he’s been a ranger. Our destination: Preah Monivong Bokor National Park, a protected reserve (at least officially) so climbing groups must have a ranger accompany them. Our ranger isn’t armed; how will he protect us if a problem arises?

Our pickup turns off the highway, and onto a rutted dirt road, crossing railroad tracks from the old French built railway. There's no need for crossing gates; the trains haven't run for years. The dirt road narrows to a path, and the pickup halts. Climbing out, we grab our backpacks, and begin our trek. The wide dirt path soon narrows, and the greenery grows thick. The path steepens, and soon we are rising up the mountainside and into the jungle.

Grabbing our backpacks off the pickup, we start our trek
We stop for our first break by a creek, and I'm startled by two young Khmer men. They are walking back down the mountain path, each with a bicycle. It’s too steep to ride the bikes, and strangely, each bike has a long plank of newly cut wood strapped to it. I quickly realize who they are: wood poachers!

The ranger accompanying us stops them, and a long conversation in Khmer begins. Though they have been caught red handed, they don’t make any effort to run, which wouldn’t have been easy, since they both wear sandals.

Then our guide says it’s time to go. He takes us up out of sight of where the ranger and poachers are, and then we stop to wait for the ranger. When he finally rejoins us, we depart again. Hmmm.... Since the ranger dealt with the poachers out of our sight, I wonder if he had collected a bribe from them. Poaching of all kinds is a serious problem on Bokor Mountain.

We continue climbing, and we run into two more poachers! They're probably working with the others we saw earlier. Each carries a chopping tool, which looks like a cross between a machete and a meat cleaver. We walk up out of sight, and wait for the ranger again. When he rejoins us again, this time he's carrying the confiscated cleavers.

We encounter wood poachers on our way up the mountain path!
Although we are mostly in the jungle's shade, it’s still very hot and humid as we climb. Soon my shirt is soaked through, complete with a couple holes torn into it from a passing thorny vine. Six climbers have joined me on this ascent, including three Israelis, an Englishman, the park ranger, and our Khmer guide.

Continuing our jungle ascent, we reach a scenic waterfall. The wildlife is beginning to show itself. A lizard with a spiny back glares at me without moving, as I try to stare him down. He wins. He lives here on this tree branch, and I’m just passing through.

This mountain is a good choice for a national park. Along our journey I will see two pelicans, a hawk, and a large black monkey that ambled across our path. There are even elephants and tigers here too. Sadly, their numbers are very few, thanks to all of the poachers.

We find other wildlife here as well, but the unwanted kind: LEECHES! Our guide finds a leech on his neck. An Israeli spots one on his lower leg. I'm glad I'm wearing long pants; it’s not a good idea to wear shorts in the jungle. They remove the unwanted hitchhikers, and we continue on our way.

Dangerous White-Lipped Pit Viper by the path
Suddenly our guide stops our progress. Coiled in the brush right next to the path, is a bright green snake with yellow eyes. It’s not very long, it's no cobra, (of which Cambodia has many) but when it comes to venomous snakes, size isn’t everything. “Very dangerous,” our guide says. We've encountered a White-Lipped Pit Viper! Our guide pokes at it with a long stick, and it slowly slithers away into the jungle. Our climb continues.

As the day heats up, we rest again on a surprisingly wide dirt road that crosses our path. This road follows the tracks of the old original road up the mountain built in 1921. Supervised by the French, the heavy work was done by indentured Cambodian laborers. Some worked so hard, that they died from overwork. The new widening of this track today is being done by a Chinese construction company, and they've been troubled with labor disputes. Cambodian laborers working here now complain about being overworked for little pay. Exploitation of local labor continues.

Before this project began, visitors to the mountain top drove up the old road in pickup trucks, spent the day there, and were back down before dark. But now the Chinese construction company totally closed down the road to visitor traffic. So we're going up the only way we can: on foot. After spending the night up top, we'll go back down tomorrow morning.

Odd looking lizard stares me down
After hours of climbing steep trails, drinking two liters of water, and with muscles growing sore, we reach a dark stone building sitting on the edge of a cliff. It’s time for lunch, and we’re having it at the 'Black Palace'. I walk into this abandoned shell, and it's not much of a palace, it’s more of a ruined villa. Khmer naga heads sticking out from the rooftop corners let on to its royal ownership: this was once owned by the king. But since then the palace has been totally looted. There’s not only no furniture, but the windows are gone, bathroom fixtures are gone, even some of the floor tiles have been torn up.

Sitting on the window ledges looking out towards the cliff and the ocean, we dive into our lunches of vegetable fried rice. 'Black Palace' is an odd title for this place, as the inside walls are covered with bright orange paint!

With lunch in our bellies, we pick up our packs and move on. The rest of our hike up will be on the road, so it’s not so steep. Now that we are at higher altitude, the temperature is noticeably cooler.  I breathe a sigh of relief in the clean mountain air. From here on in, the climb will be easier.

Waterfall on the way up the mountain
A couple more hours into our trek, a light rain begins to fall. Fortunately we're prepared, and we all don rain gear. We pass a Buddhist shrine, and down a side road I make out a Buddhist monastery. This was built recently, after the departure of the brutal Khmer Rouge communists. Normally this would be worth a visit, but we're all anxious to reach the old hill station, so we press on.

Finally, after seven hours of hiking and climbing, we arrive. I've made it: the top of Bokor Mountain. I have to admit, I'm proud of myself. I've never climbed a mountain before, and having lost lots of energy in the climb, I'm relieved. The heat and humidity I suffered on the way up are forgotten, as up here at the top of the mountain, it’s very windy, even cold.

But even more, I'm amazed at the view. This is isn't just an old hill station, it's much, much more.  It's a French ghost town! I'm re-energized by this historic scenery, and I can't wait to explore what covers the peak of Bokor Mountain.


'Black Palace', once owned by King Sihanouk

French ghost town atop Bokor Mountain

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