popokvil falls, Bokor National Park, Kampot Province – Local legend has it that a monk’s ancient elephant lives near this two-tiered mountain waterfall.
As the two played hide-and-seek beneath the waterfall one day, the elephant accidentally squashed his beloved master beneath a playful hoof. For 200 years, his chain rattling in the wind, the elephant has wandered the area, keeping up a lonely vigil for a master the world has long forgotten.
Until recently, the world had long forgotten this ancient waterfall as well.
Located near the top of Bokor Mountain, the natural beauty of Popokvil made it famous in the 1950s and 1960s, and its grandeur was a noted component of this alpine paradise which overlooks the Gulf of Thailand. Down the road just a few kilometers, then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk had a summer home built perched on a cliff. The stately casino of Bokor drew visitors from around the world.
But war long ago rendered Bokor unreachable, and for most this beautiful jungle waterfall became just another magical legend.
Now the visitors are back. Since Khmer New Year last year, their numbers have jumped from a handful to as many as a couple hundred a day on weekends, according to Chey Yuthearith, director of Bokor National Park. The end of the Khmer Rouge lay the groundwork. But road repairs earlier this year opened the mountain up to regular traffic, which allows visitors access to a 1-km hike that takes them to the aquatic wonder.
On a recent day, it was an elite commando unit, not Khmer Rouge, that trained near the site—drawn by the challenge of the mountain’s high altitude, temperate weather and jungle canopy.
A commander said they are showing Cambodians it is safe on Bokor now.
“I hope we are on all of television and all of radio so everyone will know it is safe and come here now,” he said, though he declined official comment, referring queries to RCAF headquarters.
At the waterfall, two Western backpackers were perched on a boulder watching a busload of monks arrive from Wat Botum in Phnom Penh. The monks hiked up their orange robes and stepped daintily toward the natural shower of water cascading over an overhanging rock ledge.
“Too cold,” said most, feet immersed in icy water well clear of the spray. Several tentatively approached anyway. They darted under the cascade, drenching themselves in the cold water amid smiles and hoots from their comrades. The monks recently heard of the famous waterfall through word of mouth and chartered a bus for a $40 day trip.
Popokvil, meaning “circling cloud,” can be a magical place well worth the trip.
Just above the top of the first 14-meter waterfall, low hanging clouds float by as the water cascades in streams down a granite wall. The water flows over a spacious platform dotted with boulders. Then the river dumps straight down a steep 18-meter drop into a small canyon, where broken rocks are strewn about like toy blocks, and lush vegetation hugs the granite walls.
Down the path toward the entrance, young couples and families stroll through rolling fields of chest high grass, past the green canopy of jungle—some stopping to eat picnic lunches.
‘‘There used to be no visitors here at all,” Poth Kloth, an environmental ranger on Bokor said of the waterfall. “Now it is increasing every day. People hear about it one by one….I myself usually go there. I like to see the waterfall. It is beautiful.”
The government is considering coming up with a master plan that would develop the park as an eco-tourism site and make still questionable roads dependable, according to Nuth Nin Doeurn, secretary of state for the Ministry of Tourism.
Chey Yuthearith, director of the park, said more repairs are needed, and a promised new road up Bokor price tagged at about $1 million has not materialized. Prime Minister Hun Sen has already approved a plan to repair some of the 62 old buildings located on the mountain and rebuild the casino, but details remain to be ironed out, he added.
“If the roads are smooth, the visitors will come,” Chey Yuthearith said.
The area is home to a rich array of wildlife. It is sometimes possible to see them, according to Davide Cattaneo, who manages the Marco Polo Guesthouse in nearby Kampot and has been offering excursions of Bokor in a four-wheel drive vehicle for several years now.
About 60 wild elephants live in the area. They are often elusive, but not always: a couple years ago, one charged Cattaneo’s off-road vehicle while he gave a French couple a tour. The elephant backed off before impact, and no one was injured.
Leopards, monkeys, pythons and even tigers are also thought to inhabit the jungles.
of Bokor and the jungle that stretches beyond Bokor National Park toward Kompong Speu.
Few have been in evidence near the waterfall recently, however, due to the commando training.
About 300 soldiers from the 911 Commando Unit of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces hiked to Bokor from Phnom Penh last month and set up camp. The training is the second phase in a three part mission that will take the soldiers next to an island off the coast of Sihanoukville for ocean training.
Gunshots could be heard coming from the jungle on recent days. And ropes hung from tall trees. Soldiers in face paint, wearing full camouflage, their heads covered with black bandannas hoofed by squealing children, and young couples strolling the grounds.