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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - On the road to Bokor, a bump before the boom

On the road to Bokor, a bump before the boom

 

GEMMA DEAVIN (pic)

The last word: With the road up Bokor Mountain now closed, tourists are being encouraged to take a five-hour hike to the summit or see some of the Kampot area’s lesser-known attractions.

Abandoned twice since its founding by the French as a high

altitude resort in 1922, Bokor hill station, is set for its most dramatic

facelift yet. But for the people and tourists of Kampot, this means regular

access to the popular attraction is two-and-a-half years away. Gemma Deavin talks

to tour guides and travelers about what lies around the corner.

 

With the tourist season now in

full swing, Kampot tour operators are scrambling to come up with alternatives

to the nearby Bokor hill station amid concerns tourists will shun the area while

road access to the region's biggest drawcard is closed.

The Bokor project, announced

late last month, will see the refurbishment of mountain's casino, hotel and

other infrastructure, as well as the development of a new hotel complex at the

summit. The development is tipped to cost Sokimex Group, parent company of

Sokha Hotel Co., $1 billion over 15 years.

"Our mission is to develop Bokor

into a first class hotel," said Sok Kong, Sokimex founder and chairman of Sokha

Hotel Group.

However, the restoration and

construction process at the site cannot begin until the existing 33km road to

the top, originally built by French authorities in 1917, is rehabilitated and

expanded.

With the predicted 30-month,

$21-million road works now underway, the usual flow of tourists up and down the

mountain has come to a virtual standstill.

Visitors

arriving in Kampot the week after Prime Minister Samdech Hun Sen announced the

development on January 19 complained about the lack of prior warning and said

they were disappointed to learn the road to the hill station was closed.

Briton

Samantha Rule, who has been backpacking through Asia for a year, said she had

read about Bokor hill station and was interested in seeing the casino and

taking in the views of the coast from the summit's vantage point, some 1079 meters above sea level.  

"I

probably wouldn't have stopped in Kampot if I'd known Bokor was closed. I was

heading to Sihanoukville," she said.

The

loss of travelers like Rule has long-time local tour operator Sok Lim worried.

"If

the road is closed there are definitely going to be fewer tourists in Kampot,"

said Lim, of Sok Lim Tours. "For Western tourists, Bokor is the most important

attraction in Kampot. ... I'm worried it's going to be a ghost town again."

Such concerns do not faze the

director of tourism in Kampot, Nem Sinoun, however. "Tourist numbers increased by 42 percent from 2006 to

2007 and are now higher than ever before," he told the Post, without addressing the impact of the road

closure.

"On average, foreign tourists

spend $45 and locals spend $10 on a visit to Kampot," he said.

Lim, meanwhile, insisted that

the closure of the road up Bokor

Mountain - determined

visitors can still make a five-hour trek up to the hill station - will dent

Kampot's recent tourism boom.

"We normally charge backpackers

$10 for transport to Bokor, a short trek and a sunset river cruise. Now all

those jobs - the driver, guide and boat captain - will be lost," he said.

Local Kampot guide Samon said

his family relied on the $15 to $20 a day he earned taking people to Bokor.

Samon, who has seen the number

or tourists visiting Bokor grow steadily since 1997, said he is now worried

about what will happen without road access.

"Bokor is famous right now but I

am worried that in two years people will have forgotten it," he said.

Lim estimated the number of

visitors to Kampot dropped from nearly 100 a day to 20 in the week following

the announcement of the project, but said he was determined to find new

solutions to encourage visitors to stay in the Kampot area.

GEMMA DEAVIN (pic)

A group of tourists rest after walking up to the old casino on Bokor Mountain, January 27. The casino is set for a grand makeover as part of Sokimex Group’s plans to transform Bokor’s rundown hill station into a high-end attraction over the next 15 years.

His company has organized four

new tours to offset the loss of the Bokor route, including sightseeing trips in

the countryside, cycling tours, daytrips to the beach and the option to hike to

Bokor and stay overnight at the ranger station.

Lim Pagnia, who has worked

for Marco Polo Tours in Kampot since 1995, said his company has also introduced

new packages that take advantage of trekking opportunities in the region and nearby

attractions like the Popokvil waterfalls, pepper plantations, caves, temples, Rabbit Island

and town of Kep.

Home stays are also available.

"We still have people booking,"

Pagnia said. "Right now we have 6-7 people hiking up to stay in the ranger station

at Bokor each day for $20."

Unlike Lim, Pagnia said he was

confident tourism in Kampot will continue to grow.

"Right now we have a good road,

good restaurants, a new bridge, new hospital and the beginning of the

development on top of the mountain," he said.

Bokor Mountain Lodge owner

Eric Karatua agreed. "It's not all doom and gloom. Kampot won't sit down during this time. We have a lot of other

attractions at our disposal," he said. "Things

like this do have to happen in order to further develop the region."

It is this long-term perspective

that Sok Kong and Nem Sinoun are hoping locals will adopt.

"In the future, the [Bokor] development

will attract more foreign tourists and even local tourists too," said Sinoun.

Kong added that "Kampot is a

poor province so the Bokor project will help it grow and bring more business to

the local community."

He said he would try to push

construction forward in an effort to finish the road in 18 months.

Stressing that the road is closed

solely for safety reasons, Kong said that once the dangerous process of

blasting is complete in a year from now, the company will consider compromises

over tourist entry.

Kong outlined two scenarios

that could allow tour companies access to the road: having tourists sign a

contract saying they take full responsibility for their own safety on the

mountain, or fly to Bokor hill station from Kampot by helicopter for $50.

He added that the road may be

opened for three or four days around Chinese New Year.

Meanwhile, with building and

restoration contracts yet to be finalized, concerns are brewing that Bokor

could lose some of its value as a heritage site.

"I only worry that Bokor will lose

its historical essence," said Karatau

of Bokor Mountain Lodge. "If anything is

going to be built it should be built beside the casino."

Kong said although the master

plan is not finished, the company will remove old structures unable to be

restored.

However, according to Lim, it

is the old, dilapidated buildings that Western tourists have been coming to

see.

Pagnia was more optimistic. "Some people won't like it and say ‘Oh, I want to see the old buildings,' but now everyone will be able to use them," he said.
"The most important thing is that tourists will be able

to stay two or three nights."

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