After weeks of trying to travel in the soggy Cambodian weather, we hunker down in Kampot to wait out the rain. It buckets for a week, thick and monsoonal as a heavy wet shroud over our lives. We live inside a greyscale world between quick sprints through the puddles for supplies. The roads flood, the river fills to bursting.
When the sun comes out it seems almost like a dream. Surely, I think in the morning as it filters through the windows, we’ve drowned in our sleep. But there it is, waiting, inviting. So we do the only thing that makes sense to us with this new sunny lease on our lives: we organise a trip.
Our destination: the old semi abandoned hill station amidst the Dâmrei Mountains (Elephant Mountains) just under 50km drive from our hideaway in Kampot. Built as a resort town by colonial French settlers at the start of the 1920s it became famous for its haunted reputation after a reported 900 builders and labourers died while it was being constructed.
Of course, nobody had told us this.
All we knew was it was an abandoned town at the top of the mountains, and after nearly a week cooped up inside we were up for just about anything. With the roads in the state they were in after the flooding, we vetoed the idea of hiring a motorcycle and instead booked a day trip with a local tour company out of Kampot. To be honest I can’t really say what we were expecting from them, but it certainly wasn’t the owner of the tour establishment driving us around in his own private car as the minibus was “very broken” (read: non-existent). This seemed fine at the time, it was low season after all, but things were actually about to get very interesting.
The drive up the mountain was a little like being in the middle of a fancy car advertisement. Scorching sunlight, lush greenery and superb sweeping bends in the mountainous road, each curve of which seemed to offer more intense and gorgeous scenery. But, instead of a shiny new car with the latest tech and gizmos, imagine a battered up Mercedes from god knows what era piloted by a man who could only be described as the world’s most unconfident driver. At every turn he slowed until almost stopping and crept around the bend, somehow managing at every interval to drift quite obviously into the other lane. An hour into the drive from Kampot I suddenly realised a possible reason for this: He had never driven this road before.
After some careful (and confusing thanks to a lack of English) questioning we were surprised to find that our tour guide had in face NEVER driven from Kampot to Bokor Hill Station, or even to the top of the mountain before. I have no idea who usually led the tours, but perhaps he was out sick. Still, it was definitely too late to turn back now, and we had paid for this after all. Stretching in front of us the bitumen snake wound it’s way around the mountain and we followed it, but to what I could not say.
There was a brief stop at a big buddha for a break from the car (for us) and two cigarettes (for him), but in just short of an hour and a half we were cresting what we had to assume was the top of the mountain. Certainly the air had changed. Thick, soupy warm and humid had become cool and fresh. I fished a scarf out of my bag, feeling the chill. Dean nestled back in the car seat and thought of an English summer. Our driver shivered.
Then the unthinkable happened.
Ever so slowly, the wind picked up on top of that mountain and ever so slowly a misty cloud enveloped us. Now, the last place I wanted to be with a nervous driver was in an opaque maze of fog. And the worst place to be if you already don’t where you’re going is in the middle of a white mass of nothing. We slow, falter and then stop. It now seemed very unlikely that we’re going to get where we’re going.
Over the next few hours we creep around at the top of the mountain, looking for sites of interest. What we find isn’t exactly what we were looking for, but it isn’t disappointing either. A creepy old church, a number of ancient buildings covered in oddly luminescent lichens in orange and green and a whole lot of ghostly vibes. The entire place seems like it’s caught between two times. Antique colonial architecture is offset by modern graffiti. Gorgeous decorative internals have crumbled under the sheer weight of time and lack of maintenance. Everything seems on the very edge of total collapse. It is unlike anything I have ever seen.
There’s a big buddhist temple, with monks floating around positively wraith-like on the edges of our peripheral vision. We wander through the haze, me fully expecting at any moment to find in front of me nothing but air and a long drop to the bottom of the mountain. Out of the mist emerges another monstrous buddha, as yet free of the suffocating blanket of lichen. I have never been in fog so thick before, and I find myself totally speechless in my explorations. It is haunting, beautiful and totally foreign to me. Certainly, it was not what I expected to find in the tropical warmth of Cambodia.
In the end, we don’t actually find the Bokor Hill Station, which was supposed to be the highlight of our trip. Perhaps we were never supposed to find it at all. Instead we spend the day walking around what can only be described as a ghost town, living shades in the fog.
Oh, and I fell down a flight of very slippery concrete steps, but that’s a painful story for another time.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.