sodden sihanoukville, botched bokor

(or “jen and jonno’s national park misadventures: part 2″)

heading out of phnom penh, we decided to go south for a bit to the little coastal town of sihanoukville. there’s not much there except some beautiful beach, a relaxed backpacker vibe, and a few interesting day trips. unfortunately, the weather had other ideas – it rained solidly for the two days we mucked around there, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that in a town the size of sihanoukville, storms paly real havoc with the delicate power system. and after two days of no juice, you realise that there’s only so many games you can play and books you can read. we’d been interested in doing a day trip to bokor national park – an old abandoned colonial french retreat cum ghost town set in a big old swathe of highland jungle. but after asking around, we discovered that during the low season, there are no organised tours running from sihanoukville. our guesthouse proprietor suggested that we could do it as a day trip from kampot, the nearest town. since there wasn’t much point to sticking around sihanoukville, we decided to head for kampot early the next morning.

we arranged for a shared taxi for the two hour journey, but what arrived to pick us up can only be described as a clown car – 6 adults and a child already crammed into a toyota camry. after much ridiculous rearranging, there were 4 adults up front, 4 in back, and one kiddie across the laps. i began to wonder how we would all make it to kampot with our spleens intact, but what became truly alarming was when the driver began to operate the car from the middle of the front seat! yes, he was, in fact, driving the car as a passenger.

and so we headed off into the steady downpour – and soon enough the pavement disappeared and (like much of the road in cambodia) became little more than a well worn dirt path with two ruts, liberally pockmarked with potholes. after two days of rain, much of the slick red clay had washed away or was underwater – however this didn’t seem to trouble the driver in the least, and it certainly had no appreciable effect on our ridiculous speed. the axles creaked and groaned. heads hit the ceiling. windscreen visibility was nil. i involuntarily shrieked aloud several times. at one point a piece of the bumper came off – and yet we hurtled onward, hellbent for leather. it was terrifying.

through the miracle of some higher power, we arrived in kampot in one piece. so, after finding a guesthouse, we asked around about options for getting to bokor. group tours had already left for the day. hiring a private driver was a dead end. the guidebook indicated that the conditions of the park path would require either a 4wd vehicle, or a dirtbike with an experienced driver. since jonno has spent more than his fair share or time messing around with dirtbikes in south africa, we decided to rent one and chance it.

after making our way out of kampot (back through the ditches and lakes passing for “roadway”) we headed west on the main route, keeping our eyes peeled for the “clearly marked turnoff” promised by the guidebook. we kept going… and going… and going. we passed through spectacular countryside. children waved at us, and we waved back. we stopped for a drink at a tiny little roadside shack and all the neighbours and kiddies came out to gawk at the westerners and practice their “hellos”. we had a wonderful ride, but it was obvious we’d missed the turn for bokor and the bike was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, so we turned around and head back the way we’d come. as we neared kampot, we had to stop and wait for some steamrollers doing “construction”. as we sat there, i look left and – lo! there it was. (the sign had been removed for the roadworks.) it was getting into the afternoon, but we couldn’t not go now! we got a little hand-drwan map from the gate and headed up the mountain.

as promised, the path was indeed rough going – the park states upfront that it is not maintained, and that you undertake it at your own risk. still, under j’s experienced guidance, we made good progress. as we went further and furtherinto the hillside jungle, there was the eerie feeling of being the only humans around for miles. we kept heading up-up-up, certain that we couldn’t be too much further from the hill station buildings. after an hour, we were starting to hurt and tire, but the occasional jeep full of people passed us heading down, and so we pressed on, positive that it must be close by. it began to drizzle on and off, but still we persevered. after a further hour, the trees started to thin out so we were sure it had to be near! finally, 15 minutes later we reached the first building – an outlook station with a view that (i’m sure) is stunning, but was completely obscured by clouds. realising the day was growing late, (and knowing that we had a further two hours ahead going back down) we were trying to decide how much further to press on.

and then it began to rain.

and by rain, i mean our own private monsoon. bone-drenching sheets of water and howling winds. within minutes we were soaked and shivering. the dirt path, difficult coming up, had turned into a torrid stream of mud and wet rocks. light was fading fast. the bike became misery.

it’s times like this i am reminded that my husband is a truly amazing man. after nearly 4 hours on the bike, with more than two of those powering us up the mountain over punishing terrain, he then spent two more hours (in a freezing downpour, with the full weight of me on the back sliding into him) guiding us all the way back down without a word of complaint. his hands blistered, his fingers and shoulders seized up, his teeth chattered – and still he handled the bike like a pro.

about a quarter of the way back down, we got caught in some extended branches and the bike stalled. and wouldn’t start.

i was suddenly acutely aware that we were the last people on the mountain, soaked, cold, night falling… and a good 20 km from the park entrance. in an unmaintained park with genuine tigers and leopards. i began to think about the possibilities of hypothermia and wild animals and long hours of pushing a bike in the dark and rain. it was unsettling to say the least.

mercifully, after pushing it a bit further and another dozen kickstarts, the engine finally (praise the lord!) turned over. relief flooded through me and i instantly forgot about how cold and wet i was, how much my ass hurt from hours of dirt roads, how much my hands and shoulders ached from holding on to the back. i’ve never been so grateful for anything in my life. and when we finally made it to the front gate, i no longer cared that we’d spent almost 7 hours on our mission without even actually seeing the hill station. i just wanted to get home.

a shower and meal and beer have never been so good.

so, to recap the day:

hours spent trying to get to the abandoned bokor hill station: 9
kilometres off-road on dirtbike: 60
scary rides from hell: 2
thoughts of imminent peril: innumerable
prayers for safe deliverance: innumerable
praises for the world’s best husband: innumerable
mission: accomplished

oh yeah, baby. we’re hardcore now.

3 Responses to “sodden sihanoukville, botched bokor”

  1. daddio
    July 5th, 2006 01:20

    HARDCORE!!! My very best adventure pales next to yours….keep on trucking. stay safe

  2. Brett
    July 5th, 2006 19:19

    Yeah baby! I’m glad you and Jonno avoided being eaten and lived to tell (type?) the tale.

    Loving reading your updates Jen. Sounds like a fab fab trip so far! Keep the updates comin’!


  3. Jen
    July 6th, 2006 04:46

    well, at least it makes for a good story!! but my ass still hasn’t recovered…

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