Wat Sampov Pram atop Preah Monivong Bokor National Park
Wat Sampov Pram perches at the very top of Phnom Bokor in Bokor National Park. Like many of our history, Phnom Bokor is as fascinating as it is unfortunate. A major tourist attraction, and the historical site of the dramatic showdown between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese in 1979, Bokor National Park was sold in its entirety by the Hun Sen’s government to the Sokimex Group for $100m. Now, the hauntingly beautiful 1920 French colonial hill station, often swathed in thick fog, is the home of many large hotels and a casino. The extravagant development project for this site includes many villas, golf courses, water parks, a cable car and many more luxuries, however, at the moment, the area near the hotel/casino looks nothing more than a large construction site.
Exploring Wat Sampov Pram on Phnom Bokor
Typical 2014 Cambodian construction, the new resort and casino are, pardon my language, a tacky piece of crap cheaply constructed, and an abomination to the historically rich and beautiful mountain. Sadly, as new development across the mountain gains pace, the opportunity to explore the mountain’s old relics, and its natural beauty unperturbed by modern structures may soon be a thing of the past. Having said that, I am a bit disappointed I wasn’t able to fully explore Phnom Bokor during the wet season. The beautiful waterfall, a grand sight to behold during the wet season was completely dry under the blistering April heat during my visit. However, even during the dry season, there are some sites worth exploring.
Wat Sampov Pram, considered the highest Buddha pagoda in Cambodia, is a rustic temple (wat) one should definitely not miss out on regardless of weather condition. The name Wat Sampov Pram means Temple of the Five Boats, a reference to the large, and flat rock formations nearby, 10 meters long by 10 meters high, these natural formations convey the images of boats, giving the wat its name. The local also tells of a legend associated with the unusual rock formation:
“Once upon a time there was a prince named Preah Thong. The young man’s father favoured his younger brother and asked him to give everything over to his sibling, so Preah Thong decided to leave his own land and travel the world, taking a handful of loyal followers with him.
One day, Preah Thong docked his sailing boat at a large beach and spied a very tall Tlork tree. Tlork trees produce nuts which are both edible and can be used for waterproofing a boat, which was something he sorely needed to do, so he ordered his men to make camp near the tree. The next morning at dawn the prince was wandering the beach alone when he saw a group amusing themselves by the water, including a beautiful Nagini, or Naga princess. It was love at first sight for both.
Soon, the prince was proposing the Nagani introduce him to her father. “Hold my tail,” she commanded and dived deep to the seabed to call on her royal father. The Naga king was delighted and granted a wedding for his daughter and the prince. But after staying in the country of the Naga for just seven days, the prince knew he wanted to claim a kingdom of his own and had to move on and explore the world with his new wife. Again, the Naga King gave his blessing. In fact, far from objecting, the king gave the couple five huge sailing boats laden with treasures fit for such a noble couple. Together with their now 500 followers, the couple sailed to a high peak and built a city there. Time passed, the water receded and mud and silt buried the boats, but time turned their masts and sails to stone. And they may still be seen today, reminding visitors of how people first came to Bokor Mountain. And that is the story of Wat Sampeouv Pram, the Five Sailing Boats Pagoda a story not known by many who visit Phnom Bokor.” -Leisure Cambodia
Entering the wat was a bit anticlimactic, it looks small in comparison to many others in the area. As I explored it in more details, I realised it is particularly more ornate than other small wats, with dragon-tail ornaments extending at the roof. The area is often moist and foggy, so the walls of the wat are discoloured with age, but instead of diminishing its beauty, it gives the wat a mysterious vibe, creating a fascinating texture that seems to weave its own legend. I was infatuated with this small wat, but what really stole my heart, was the breath-taking view of jungle and sapphire sea from the small pagoda on the opposite side of the dragon-tail ornated wat.
Although the newly built hotel and casino were a structural eyesore, there were some newly constructed “items” that I did appreciate while exploring Wat Sampov Pram, namely, the large buddha statues that couldn’t have been more than a few years old.
Direction to Phnom Bokor from Kampot
Bokor Mountain is approximately 37km from Kampot. Choosing to take a taxi will cost you $20-30, a minivan tour bus can be had for $10 per person, shared taxi will be $5, but the easiest, and cheapest way to get there is by moto. To get there from Kampot town centre, go across the New Bridge and go straight through the roundabout (second right-hand turn). From there, it is a straight ride on National Road 3 until you reach the checkpoint and park entrance, where you will need to pay $0.50 to $1 per vehicle to enter. Don`t throw away the stub, you will need it for the checkpoint at the top of the hill. If you decided on a moto, get a litre or two at the fuel station just outside the gate, as fuel station on the mountain is far between, and incredibly pricey.
If you want to explore more fully, walking is sometimes an option, but plan for a few days trip with lots of gear. But first, you’ll need to check in at the ranger station at the bottom of the mountain, to see if they’ll let you walk. You can hire the rangers there to give you a tour for $10 or more per day (price is always negotiable). There are walking trails on top to explore ranging from a couple hours walk, to a full day hike. You may want to bring some warm clothes and a raincoat, as the temperatures, especially at night are much cooler, and there is often fog or rain at the top.
How to get to Kampot from Phnom Penh
Taxi drivers in Cambodia live a fast and furious life, so choosing to take the taxi will cut your journey short by at least half an hour. If you enjoy a fast 2 – 3 hrs drive, this is the option. You can get a taxi from Phnom Penh to Kampot for $35 – $65, which fits 4 passengers. During holidays, prices tend to rise. Taxis are generally very clean, however, they have very little room for baggage, so if you looking for more luggage space, you may want to consider getting a van. Before jumping into a taxi, it is important to inquire with your taxi driver whether they are taking a straight path to your stop, or making deliveries along the way, which of course will add more time to your drive. You can book a taxi online in advance, or at any travel agent or guesthouse, but there will be a surcharge.
If you are travelling alone, or with one partner, and doesn’t need much luggage space, you can travel between Kampot and Phnom Penh by shared taxi. Shared taxis can be found at Psar Dang kor in Phnom Penh. The cost is approximately $5 per person, and the drivers wait until they have enough customers to fill up the taxi as uncomfortable as possible. Although the cars are 5-seater Toyota Camry, they will wait for at least six passengers, before departing. If you are by yourself and want more space, you could offer to pay for two spots to take the front passenger side seat, otherwise, you’ll be squeezed in with three or four others in the backseat.
How to get to Kampot by Van Taxi
If you are travelling with a large family, or is bringing a lot of luggage, or just want a more comfortable ride with foot space, a van Taxi’s may be more suitable. They, however, comes with a higher price tag, $100. Road time will be similar to any taxi option above.
How to get to Kampot by Bus
There are several bus companies that go from Phnom Penh to Kampot, but most of them are not a direct route, many will make their stop in Kep first, extending the trip to 5hrs, instead of three. If you’d like to travel by bus, stop at a travel agent or guesthouse to book your ticket, as they will have more reliable information on times and whether or not the bus will take a straight route to Kampot, or detour first, which can add or subtract two hours to your journey.
The newest, and also the safest bus option for this journey of 2.5 – 3 hours is Giant Ibis. Giant Ibis runs two scheduled bus trips from Phnom Penh to Kampot per day, one at 8 am, and the later one at 2:45 pm for $9. They run a direct route to Kampot. If you wish to go to Kep, you can catch a taxi for around $0, or tuk-tuk for $10-$15. This bus company offers comfortable reclining seats with seat belts and power outlets to keep your electronics charged up. They widely advertise their WiFi services but do not expect reliability. You can purchase tickets easily from any tour company around the city, your guesthouse can also make arrangements for you, or you may buy your ticket online.
Paramount Angkor Express recently rebranded as Rith Mony Express and is another bus company that travel directly from Phnom Penh to Kampot without stopping in Kep first. They have two buses a day, one at 7:39 am, and a later one at 1:30 pm for $6. Paramount Angkor Express tend to get into a lot of accident, so in the interest so safety, try to avoid them if possible.
There are several other tour buses and options at BookMeBus.
How to Get to Kampot by Mini-bus
Mini-buses are another great option for the trip between Kampot and Phnom Penh. There are several companies that do this route, but the main players are Giant Ibis and Kampot Express.
Giant Ibis is a tourist-oriented bus company that places a huge priority on safety, and comfort. They use 21-seat minibuses, with tickets costing $9. The trip between Phnom Penh, and Kampot takes about 2.5 – 3hrs. For bus schedule, and booking, check out giantibis.com
Kampot Express is another popular mini-bus, with tickets going for $8 for foreigners and $6 for locals. Kampot Express uses 15-seat vans, has a short ten minute stop along the way, and takes about 2.5 – 3hrs. You can purchase tickets and reserve seats online with BookMeBus.
How to Get to Kampot by Train
Cambodia has resurrected some of their old train lines, and it’s now possible to travel by train from Phnom Penh to Kampot on weekends. The trip takes between four and five hours and costs $6.
The ticket office at Phnom Penh station is open 8 am until 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday, and 6 am to 12 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. The easiest way to purchase train tickets is in person at the station, from Sihanoukville, Takeo, or Kampot, but you can also reach them at 078 888 583 during their business hours.
The Friday train is generally less busy than the Saturday and Sunday journeys, but it’s best to buy your ticket a couple of days in advance. For public holidays, earlier is better, as trains only carry around 100 passengers each, and unlike buses and taxis, they adhere to a strict schedule.
Check out these other Cambodian travel guides:
A Comprehensive Guide to Cambodian Angkor Wat
Cambodian New Year: The Biggest Celebration in Cambodia
Phnom Chisor Temple: Ascending the Mountain of the Sun God
Sustainable Travel in Cambodia
Beng Mealea: Exploring Angkor’s Most Secluded Temple