The atmospheric old French hill station of Bokor is once again open and accessible, but is it to everyone’s taste?
Thansur Bokor Highland Resort
Last weekend, we ventured up to the summit of Bokor, a former French hill station and now a national park. The area is now under development by the Sokimex Group and the new Thansur Bokor Highland Resort recently opened its doors over Khmer New Year. The first and dramatic change you notice when travelling to Bokor is the incredible new access road from Kampot. We first visited Bokor on trail bikes in April 1998 when the road was more an overgrown path with grasses and creepers obscuring the route. Fast forward 14 years and it is one of the best highways in Cambodia and it takes just 45 minutes to reach the summit. The road has been painstakingly built with professional drainage, new bridges and landslide protection.
Continuing along the plateau, the road eventually winds its way to the new Thansur Bokor Highland Resort which dominates its surrounds in the heart of the old French-era Bokor ruins. Modern Asian in style, it somehow feels at odds with the natural surrounds. The masterplan includes an eventual total of 412 rooms, so it can hardly be called intimate, and there is a large casino dominating the lobby building. Judging by the majority of customers, the hotel hopes to attract Cambodians, Vietnamese and other Asian customers but is not really aimed at the average Western visitor.
Following the road around to old Catholic church and the shell of the Bokor Palace Hotel, it still looks eerily abandoned on a quiet day, but at weekends it is very overcrowded and litter is everywhere. The old hotel is under renovation and it looks like the integrity of the old structure will be preserved. However, a nearby striking ruin that once looked like a Le Corbusier-influenced residence has been restored as a garish villa with little attention to detail. Other structures such as the old post office remain abandoned and derelict. The views from the plateau edge remain breathtaking when the mist is not rolling in, but with 1000 or more construction workers and busloads of local and regional tourists, it seems the atmosphere of old is forever gone.
So should visitors make the trip? It’s a difficult call. It’s more accessible than ever and the views are still as incredible as they always were, but the ghost town feel is history. It is certainly best avoided at the weekend, when it is extremely overcrowded, but it might be of interest to some on a quieter weekday. Until some eco-friendly treks are established far from the madding crowds that throng the new casino, it may be best avoided as there are so many other interesting sights in the Kampot area.
The Rose of Bokor is now a thorny issue for exclusive travel planners in Cambodia.