Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Neon Lichens and French Ghosts

When we set off to Kampot last weekend to trek up Bokor Mountain, the footage in my head played back a gently sloping dirt path through luscious (but just-so neatly pruned) jungle -- the occasional whoop of a monkey, the busy chirp of cicadas, the far-off trickling of a waterfall. The word "trek," in fact, seemed to be a romanticized overstatement, for marketing purposes only. Though it wasn't the soul-scraping, test-of-will adventure of the kind I imagine you get in Nepal or those other countries where rosy-cheeked sherpas laugh behind your back at you and your shiny Patagonia gear, it required more sweat than I anticipated.

We set off from Sen Monorom guest house at 7am, bellies full of pork rice, doused in 97% DEET, hanging on for dear life as we perched on the sides in the back of the pick-up truck. The core crew consisted of

1) Lauren - lover of trees and of the French and my first friend in Cambodia;
2) Tom - Lauren's new boyfriend, a younger man, interested in knowing things about current events;
3) Chris - Lauren's easy-going ex-high school boyfriend, randomly in Cambodia;
4) Matt - a pescatarian designer who likes beer and is training for a marathon with Lauren;
5) moi

L&T were nearest the cabin and Chris and I were directly across. Matt hung precariously off the left-back corner next to Lauren.First we stopped to collect Alps Man, a solitary, broody, slightly greasy figure, who (despite our well meaning attempts at friendliness) sat down next to me, then got busy ignoring everyone and focusing his dark energies on strategies to conquer the mountain. At the next stop, a couple hopped up into the cab, an attractive Puma employee and a very German German Finance man, who I only later realized were emphatically just friends. Next, at a guesthouse called Orchid (or something similarly tropical) some familiar faces from drinks the night before -- Ricky and Mandy -- a cheery, young and thin British pair, clean and pretty like a soap ad. Last in were our Khmer guides and so we were off.

The ranger and his gun who were scheduled to accompany us up the mountain had apparently had too much to drink the night before, so after waiting 30 minutes, we decided to brave the wilderness sans automatic rifle and headed towards the trailhead.

At first the going was easy. Then, we began to hit sections where the trail wound up and up so that I often bent my smallish legs at 90-degree angles to take the next step and found myself flailing at smooth saplings to pull myself up and over the next slippery obstacle. We stopped at a waterfall and sighed at the hugeish multicolored pile of plastic & styrofoam (miraculously absent previously on the trail) and did our best to snap artsy shots of the huge and diverse lepidoptera. While some folks showered off the sweat, our camo-clad ranger and his gun snuck up on us, his posture an awkward mix of sheepish and don't-give-a-damn.

It's not clear whether everyone else was simply a powerhouse, or if they, too, were shamed by our wiry nearing-50 guide who leapt blithely up the hill; a man in comparison to whom we (graceful Mandy included) could be nothing but large clunky white folks. But despite the slight shame, I felt good. I'm sure any and all toxins that lurked in me oozed out with all that sweat; the rests were sufficient, and I had an extra bottle of water. And best of all, two hours in, we met a group coming down who exclaimed (not a little jealously) over our breakneck speed.

So we put our chins down and puffed our chests out and continued up the hill, and at the point where our jungle trail intersected dirt road, we refused the offer to wait awhile for a lift from a truck.

Eventually, we hit the summit and the King's Concubines' retreat. (In fact, it only took about 3.5 hours for the 3000ft ascent -- not bad at all). We rested and at lunch -- a sort of potato, veggie fried rice concoction with an egg a-top that made all of the boys ill later that evening. Then we started off on the last 8 or so miles of mercifully flat dirt road.

Unmercifully, the flat dirt road turned out to be nothing much more than advertised -- and flat dirt gets a bit boring after awhile, so around mile 6, I flailed my arms at a huge yellow dump truck, and to my great delight, I saw that the guide's son had beat us to it and already made arrangements and motioned for us to clamber on in.

Hair blowing in the wind, feet sinking in construction clay, we made our way over the last few miles to the ranger station where we'd spend the night.

The sky was clear around the town, despite previous reports and expectations, so after a brief sit-down on the steps of the ranger station, a few of us broke off and went to explore the concrete ruins up on the cliff's edge. We skirted the massive hole where construction of the new casino was underway. Scampering up between two buildings, past a huge concrete umbrella (or mushroom?) we headed towards the old casino. As we made our way up, the mist dropped silently in around us.

The hotel-casino was covered in moss and emergency-orange lichen, dripping and disintegrating and now shrouded in dense grey.

We explored the building basement to rooftop ceiling, thoroughly spooking ourselves considering the ghosts of the lavish parties of the haute monde that must have boogied down in the decaying ballroom.

We walked over to the edge where cloud dripped off the high plateau onto the thick forest cover below. Up beyond the construction site, the compound was completely silent, but approaching the edge of the cliff, the sounds of the jungle rushed up to envelop us in a sort of acrophobic, one-with-nature trance.

We tucked into bed by 9pm, only that late by extreme exercise of will. I got lost for an hour or two with a German, but the hike down the next morning was otherwise uneventful. By 1pm, we were in Kampot eating fried rotis and drinking piping hot masala tea.


  1. that's so exciting! i loved reading your rendition of these events. and i'm very impressed, given the i regularly die even when attempting to climb the dish.

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