When you drive out of Kampot on the road that connects with Sihanoukville along the coast, you come to a turn-off with a flower-strewn boulevard that marks the entrance to the Preah Monivong National Park, also known as Phnom Bokor National Park.
You may have heard about Bokor Mountain and seen the dramatic conclusion of the movie City of Ghosts, which was shot on top of the misty, rocky bluff and, as the expensively constructed road twists and turns up and up, you wonder where you’re headed. The road offers no clues to what lies ahead.
Suddenly, when you arrive at the summit, you’re astonished by the number and variety of activities under way at Bokor Mountain, from the construction of a huge convention and exhibition center to the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort.
There, general manager Gerd Beurich welcomes you to the 418-room hotel complex, which also houses a casino and a range of restaurants, at the top of the bluff.
On the last weekend in March, a group of motorcycle enthusiasts made the ride up the mountain, something Beurich wants to see more of in the future, both for motorcycles and bicycles.
The road to Bokor Mountain is probably one of the best bicycling “hill climbs” in Southeast Asia.
As you walk around the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort complex, you can see the Cloud Nine Kids’ Club, which has a playground, a library, arcade and other games, as well as a special restaurant with a kids’ menu.
“There’s plenty to do for everybody,” Beurich says.
Originally from Germany, Beurich trained as a chef and went to hotel management school before taking a job in New Zealand in 1983.
That’s where he met his wife, Lee-Anne, and both have enjoyed the life on top of Bokor Mountain since they arrived several months ago.
Beurich says Bokor Moun-tain’s main attraction is the cool mountaintop climate where people can escape the heat of places like Phnom Penh and enjoy cool breezes up in the clouds.
“This is much cooler. You can come up here and touch the clouds,” he says. “You’re in the middle of a national park with fantastic views of the coastline in Kampot province. You can see the Gulf of Thailand, Vietnam, and you can almost see Sihanoukville.
You have plants, rare trees, butterflies, monkeys, bird life and we have seen traces of wild cats around, but I haven’t seen any live ones yet.”
The spiritual resonance of Bokor Mountain crosses cultures and traditions, with lots of Khmer people arriving to see the big Buddha statue and other Buddhist sites.
Busloads of Vietnamese people regularly arrive to walk among the unusual rock formations, waterfalls and vegetation, stopping to pay respect at small shrines perched on top of big rocks.
The old French church just over the top of the hill held its first religious service on Good Friday last month, marking a resurgence in Christian spiritualism on the mountaintop - something Beurich is excited about.
He says the casino is a big attraction, but it’s only one of the many things to do at Bokor Mountain. There’s a KTV building and nightclub with karaoke rooms, a spa with foot massage, an indoor swimming pool, a soon-to-be-completed gymnasium and a jacuzzi.
“We have guided tuk tuk tours, bicycles for hire, jungle trekking, historic sites, a number of religious sites. Bokor Mountain is very important for both Cambodians and Vietnamese people,” Beurich says.
A group of Phnom Penh cyclists have just confirmed they will use the mountain for a hill-climb event in May.
“This is a good hill climb and it’s 30 kilometres to the top,” Beurich says.
Rising in the distance beyond the hotel complex is the skeletal structure of a huge convention, concert and exhibition centre to be opened in 2014, with seating for more than 4,000 people and a number of breakout rooms.
Looking at all the activities on top of Bokor Mountain, it’s hard to believe that every single item has to make the trip up that 30 kilometres of winding road.
The resort was opened in May last year, and Beurich says there’s a trial phase going on in which the new facilities are tested and feedback is given in order to improve the offerings to guests.
“There is no precedent. This is all new,” he says.
Thansur Bokor Highland Resort operates its own bus service for $10, departing downtown Phnom Penh twice daily, at 7:30am and another at 1:30pm. Departures from Bokor Mountain are at 8:30am and 3:30pm daily.
There are also packages including accommodation, transportation, meals and sightseeing.
“We have three bus packages with meal and sightseeing inclusions. The other thing we do a lot of is food and beverage promotions. I’m a big believer in giving choices and offering something different for return guests,” Beurich says.
Another attraction is the ice cream and cake counter at the Voir Lobby Lounge Bar, which offers a range of home-made ice-creams, cakes, pastries and breads, all made fresh daily on the premises.
Over the hill along the cliff is the old hotel and casino, which Beurich sees as a good place for special events.
The Thansur Bokor team hosted a group of international investment bankers there in December and lit the place up at night.
“It looked like a million dollars,” Beurich says.
“The beauty of this place is that people don’t just come here for the hotel.
“They come here for the things to do: spiritual, history, national park, casino, sporting exercise and family holidays. There’s a cool climate, and it’s a weekend retreat.”
By October, Beurich wants to use the lake for water-sport activities, paddle boating and fishing.
“The attraction of this resort is that you can do whatever is your heart’s content. The flora and fauna, the Cambodian history, jungle trekking, French history, the spiritual experience, meditation and yoga retreats are all things to do here.”
Just as of this writing, to prepare for a wave of Khmer New Year guests, 150 new rooms of five-star quality have been opened.
Another 150 rooms will be added, bringing the total to 600 new rooms, all named after traditional Khmer sites such as Bayon. A further 450 rooms will be added by the end of this year.
Beurich says that if Chinese New Year was any indication, with the accommodation fully booked for five days in February, Khmer New Year ought to be good too.
The existing Thansur Bokor Highland Resort hotel is a four-star, with the new one coming in at five-star level and yet another hotel (of three-star standard) now under consideration.
The mountaintop complex is owned by the Sokha Group, which also has the Sokha Beach Resort and the Sokha hotels in Siem Reap, as well as a big hotel under construction in Phnom Penh across the Tonle Sap from the Riverside at the confluence of the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap.
To the rear of the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort complex, there are buildings housing the six “Villa Suites”, which are lavishly furnished with big Jacuzzis, big television screens and tables for conferences and with a price tag of $600 a night. Beurich says the Villa Suites are ideal for high-end board meetings.
“You can have private dinners in there, and you are limited only by your imagination.”
There’s also an Asian Buffet restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as a 24-hour Casino-side noodle bar and Voir Lounge that operate continuously along with the Casino, day and night.
“If you want dinner at 2 am, you can have it; if you want a cappuccino at 3 am, you can have that too,” Beurich says.
There's a 24-hour room service menu, and the Skybar on the second level serves local and international dishes for lunch and dinner.
A weekend restaurant adjacent to the nearby Popokvile Waterfall serves a variety of local foods and refreshments.
A total of 1,100 people work at the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort, about 750 of them in the hotel and the remainder in the casino and other activities.
At the visitors’ centre, a model of the hilltop has been constructed showing the plans for big housing estates in a massive development including additional hotels. The scope of these plans is astonishing.