Sunday, January 25, 2015


Deserted French colonial resort community atop Bokor Mountain
I'm standing in the middle of a ghost town. A very empty, very eerie, ghost town. It's a French ghost town at that. I may be in Cambodia, but all these dark old buildings were built by the French colonials. 

It’s very eerie up here. I look around at the old buildings, and decide this 'hill station' was poorly named. This was once much more; a glorious colonial hill top resort. But no any longer, it's been abandoned for decades. 

Old concrete colonial buildings in various states of decay lie by a small mountain lake. By the placid waters, a two story hotel waits to receive guests that will never come. A larger building beside it housed a restaurant and night club. Beyond the lake are even more derelict buildings, including an old police station. Between them all, uncut green grasses are swaying in the cold mountain wind. 

After a strenuous seven hour hike up the mountain, I'm here to explore this place. The Bokor Mountain Hill Station was first constructed back in the 1920's. Given the tropical heat and lack of air conditioning in Cambodia then, this cool highland spot was built as a weekend getaway for French colonists. It later expanded, to include a casino. The decaying French architecture that I see everywhere, has an air reminiscent of the long gone roaring 20's. 

One of the few colonial era churches left in all of Cambodia
Closest to me is a Catholic church, with a cross reaching from the tower steeple. Heading up the hill, I enter. More chapel than church, this is one of the few old Christian places of worship left in Cambodia that was not destroyed by the Khmer Rouge communists. (Even the historical Notre Dame cathedral in the capital was leveled by the radicals.) Catholic priests that were found by the Khmer Rouge were executed, as were many Buddhist monks. After the communists' fall, the Buddhist faith recovered, but Christianity has not. The % of Christians left in Cambodia is now lower than before the Pol Pot years. 

Surprisingly, the church is relatively intact, save for graffiiti on the yellowish interior, and a hole in the wall used for a gun slit during the war. The old altar still remains. I wonder how many happy couples were married here. Since the main attraction at Bokor was the casino, I wonder if this chapel was used to marry young couples, much like the chapels in Las Vegas. 

Exiting and descending the hill, I look back up at the old church. My view is clear until moments later, a smoky mist comes across the sky behind the church. The mist parts around it and passes over it, giving an impression of spirits flying out from the church. An eerie feeling, an eerie sight. 

Ruins of the French colonial post office (click to enlarge)
There's much more to explore, so I follow the ridgeline road towards the cliff, rising up the hill to the resort’s peak. I find a shell casing on the road; it’s small in size, probably from a pistol. There is more evidence of violence on the building right in front of me. 

The Bokor Post Office is a reddish two story building, curiously large for such a small mountaintop community. It won't be handling any mail anymore. One whole corner of the building has been blown away, due to fighting that took place here between the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese Army. Bullet holes dot the exterior. The fighting here was fierce. 

Not all of the destruction here was from the Vietnamese fighting to dislodge the Khmer Rouge. The first conflict up here took place way back in the late 1940s. Back then anti-colonial Khmers known as the Khmer Issarak, (Free Khmer) charged up the mountain to oust the French colonists. 

Bokor Casino during colonial days

Passing the post office, I continue up. There were many landmines buried here during the war, and they've been cleared, (so they say.) Not taking chances, I stay on the road, and head for the largest building on the mountain. The once majestic, Bokor Palace Casino. This is nothing like a Vegas casino, but the abandoned palace is an intimidating structure. 

Approaching, it has a very forboding look. Four floors high, the wind is blowing mountain mist over it. Patches of dark orange paint have fallen away, revealing dark cement beneath. Dark green moss creeps across the exterior, looking for sunlight in this gloomy place. Grass and weeds grow from ledges. Even darker are the empty open windows, all broken or looted long ago. Their great black vacant spaces stare out at me like ghostly eyes. 

The spooky old abandoned casino today
I climb the staircase, and walk through the front doorway. I can almost hear the doorman from the casino's glory years: “Bon soir monsieur, bienvenue.”

Passing the vacant reception desk, I enter the largest room in the building. This was the casino. I can almost feel it: A luxurious weekend during the roaring 1920’s. French colonists in tuxedos, smoke cigarettes, and talk politics with the rich elite of Cambodian society. The roulette wheel whirrs, as gamblers try their luck at the tables. Their wives and girlfriends in the latest Paris fashions look on and gossip. Smartly dressed Khmer waiters bring around trays of champagne.The opulence, the luxury; this was the glory of French colonialism, an apt example of the decadence0 and opression of the time. 

Now the gaming tables are gone, along with every other bit of furniture. The casino is bare. The paint is faded or stained. I can hear the sound of running water, and looking up I see water lightly pouring in through the ceiling, leaving puddles dotted on the floor. The air is cold and damp, but there will be no heat coming from the empty fire place. The lavish lifestyle, gourmet French cooking, and high rollers are gone. The party’s over; the celebration of colonial life here is but a dim memory. 

Now looted, fortunes were made in the casino
I climb the casino's marble staircase to the top floor verandah. Looking out, just steps beyond this old ruin is a sheer cliff. The view up here is incredible. The drop is practically vertical, revealing a commanding view of the surrounding landscape. The plain far below the mountain is covered in a blanket of jungle, reaching the Gulf of Thailand beyond. Now I see why the Khmer Rouge fought so hard for this place. From this vantage point you can see any movement along the coast, whether by road or by sea. Well, at least they could see everything when the view was still clear. As I watch, a cloud of fog moves across my view, totally obscuring the scenery down below the cliff. 

With the wind and weather up here, visibility changes in seconds. These passing clouds are even more impressive outside the casino.You can be a hundred feet outside the front door, and watch the fog roll in. The mist grows thick and in seconds, the casino disappears completely from view. A minute later, the mist fades away, revealing the old palace again. It’s better than any TV magic trick. 

Walking the roof to the building’s west side, I find walls peppered with bullet pockmarks. Glass block windows are full of bullet holes from rifle fire. These are reminders of when the Vietnamese Army were here, blasting away at the Khmer Rouge. Fighting was heavy, until the radicals finally gave up and fled into the jungle. The Bokor hill station has been quiet and mostly abandoned ever since. Nature has gradually reinvaded the mountain top. Manicured lawns and landscaping have given way to lush green foliage and wildflowers. 

Rear view of casino, with young explorers sitting on railing
Nearby is a  rare sign of modernity up here in this ghost town; two new mobile phone towers. The mountain's altitude is appealing to cell phone companies. Phone towers aren't the only recent construction here. Just west of here, laborers are busy working today on a foundation. They plan to build a new '5 star' hotel and casino here, although there isn't a 5 star hotel in all of Cambodia. It’s an ambitious project that will take years.

It's beginning to darken, so I head to the only semi-modern building here that is actually inhabitable. The sign out front says: “National Protected Area Training Center”, the defacto hotel and ranger station, built with foreign aid money. It's where I'm sleeping tonight. 

My guide Tri leads our group in, and unfortunately for us, all guest rooms are taken by a Chinese construction crew. So our entire group is forced to bunk together in the ranger’s bedroom. I let out a groan; seven people will be packed into bunkbeds, in a small room with little ventilation. 

Casino looks over cliff to jungle below and Gulf of Thailand
After dinner, I lie down on my bunk bed. There’s no sheet, and the stench from the mattress is unbearable. I recall the words of the travel company clerk that sold me this trip. “Oh yes, first class accommodation. You have your own bedroom,” she promised me. I shouldn't be surprised, many third world travel agents, will say anything to make a sale. I politely explain my displeasure to my guide Tri, who apologizes. He can’t find me a sheet, but he does bring me a large clean towel. I lay it down on the offending mattress, and the stench is contained. 

Before going to sleep, our luck improves. Tri speaks to one of the monks from the monastery, and they have a truck leaving to drive down the mountain at 6am. We are welcome to ride along on the back if we want. Thankfully, my fellow trekkers vote to avoid the long sweaty hike back down the mountain. 

I lay down in the darkness, and slowly drift off to sleep. Tomorrow I'll leave Bokor, and I'll learn more of the compelling story of my guide Tri, a former soldier and survivor. 

The old chapel rises over the surrounding scenery.
Sunset on Bokor. Tomorrow I head down the mountain.

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