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
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
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.
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.
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.
probably wouldn't have stopped in Kampot if I'd known Bokor was closed. I was
heading to Sihanoukville," she said.
loss of travelers like Rule has long-time local tour operator Sok Lim worried.
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
"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
However, according to Lim, it
is the old, dilapidated buildings that Western tourists have been coming to
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."