The day-trip from Kampot offers an eerie history lesson and a refreshing break from the heat.
I’ve passed through Kampot many times over the years – but never managed to make it up on the Old Road to nearby Bokor Mountain.
After arriving at nearby Kampot on the special Khmer New Year train service recently, I decided it was time to have a look at this special little corner of Cambodia, the country’s only hill station.
From Kampot, getting to Bokor is fairly straightforward, made more so by the plethora of cheap scooters to rent for the day. I’m well-familiar with motorcycles, but this was the very first time I’d come across an automatic scooter. Would the engine be able to handle the long uphill haul? What – no gear-shift?! No clutch? No foot brake? Nothing for feet to do but be idly planted on the deck. It was a bit disconcerting; the only controls left were throttle, hand-brakes, and steering. Technology was catching up on me. Two dollars for fuel – plus 15,000 riels ($3.75) for the police at their check-point just outside of town for failing to wear a helmet, and I was on my way.
The road to Bokor turns off from the main coastal highway about 8 kilometers west of Kampot town. “A Long Winding Road” is the perfect description. In 32 kilometers of constant twists and turns, it climbs up through almost continuous jungle to an altitude just over 1,000 metres, or 3,300 feet. This new road was completed in 2012. The highway engineering is impressive – a fairly constant gradient, no sharp inclines, and only a few hairpin bends – and these well-rounded and easy to negotiate.
About three quarters of the way up, there is a huge roadside statue of Ya Mao, (‘Mother Yao’), the guardian deity of the Southern Coast. According to one version of the legend, she died at sea while seeking her husband, an army general, who had been invited to a parley with the Siamese. He didn’t came back.
Now, Yao Mao gazes forlornly out to sea, still awaiting his return.
Cambodian fishermen regularly pay homage to her by presenting her shrines along the coast with bananas and phallic images – although the symbolism of this attracts many different explanations, some of them bawdy.
Ma Yao pops up throughout the area, in the “Little Mermaid” statue on the seafront at Kep and on Route 4 from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, where Ma Yao presides over the pass through the Elephant Mountains.
Across the road on the way up Bokor Mountain, beneath Ma Yao’s gaze, is King Sihanouk’s former mountain retreat – a large bungalow called “The Black Palace”. It is now semi-derelict and graffiti – signs of modern times – cover many of the walls. Apart from this, the road is free of any buildings – just jungle on each side until the plateau is reached.
Then, incongruously, street lights appear, lining the road in regimented spacing with each adorned with identical advertising boards. It’s jarring, a clash of different worlds, nature being suburbanized! By now, the temperature had cooled drastically from the scorching heat of the lowlands. In fact, it had become quite chilly.
The old French church, in which statues and a simple altar remain. Flickr.com/ Petr & Bara Ruzicka
Finally, the road leveled out onto the rolling, open country of the plateau. Intermittent mist appeared, sometimes so dense that it reduced visibility to just a few meters. After passing by the massive, recently built Thansur Bokor Highland Resort & Casino complex and climbing a bit further, the old French church, a simple, solid and relatively well-preserved building, appeared just off the road. Inside, the place is empty, except for a few well-tended decorations and small Christian statues placed around a simple altar.
On top of the hill behind is a concrete stand for a former three-pole radio mast, which is now gone. Inscribed in Khmer script in the concrete, roughly translated, is: “Army Division 502” and “Cambodia democracy – 9-5-77”. Democracy?! A gross political mockery is made of the word, which had no meaning in the Cambodia of the late 1970s.
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Tourists clamber upper the stares of the Bokor Palace Hotel. Harry Lee
Then, a little further along the road, there it was: the old Bokor Palace Hotel itself, standing alone on open ground, starkly imposing but sad – a relic of a former age. Fast-drifting mist swirled around the structure, giving the impression of a haunted house in an old black-and-white ghost film. The solid mass of the palace would slide into the greyness, and disappear, completely. A few moments later it would suddenly re-appear. Coy exits and grand entrances, an architectural strip-tease.
Concrete Gothic? Maginot Line Chic? Gallic Romantic? My take: Primitive Art Deco with Cubist Tendencies.
After World War One, Art Deco became the international fashion design. It was the artistic reflection of the rapid industrialization of the West, and became the predominant international style in architecture, graphics, and general design during the 1920’s and 1930’s. In the mid-1920’s, with France’s colonial empire at its very height, and Art Deco being promoted at the big Paris Decorative Arts Exhibition in 1925, the style was the obvious design choice for Bokor Palace, which was built between 1921-1925.
Bold geometric patterns are one of the characteristics of Art Deco, yet there was minimal evidence of any at Bokor – only some straight-line motifs carved on either side of the main fireplace in the ballroom. I assume that when the hotel was in its prime, the furniture and fittings would have been à la mode, reflecting the fashions of the times and giving the place some grace and style.
Now the building has been stripped down to its stark basic structure. Decoratively, only one small area of colored floor tiling remains. Otherwise, nothing. Even the wooden window frames have gone. Photos from a few years ago show the louvered window shutters mostly intact – and even colored glass remaining in some of the windows. Also, the surfaces of outer walls were all covered by orange-colored lichen. Goodness knows what happened to the window shutters – but recently some authority has obviously organized a scrape-off of the lichen, thus leaving huge areas of stained bare concrete. A great pity – from the old photos, the lichen was actually giving some needed character to the old lady.
All around the plateau, in between matted undergrowth, the ground is of ultra-fine, purest-white sand. Alpine plants prevail in the sun-and-mist local micro-climate. I was reminded of wild country on mountainsides in the South of France – or maybe a tract of central Wales.
The plateau also features a range of historical oddities, with the remnants of buildings scattered around, some dating back to the French colonial days, others to the Sihanouk era of the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, when the area was designated “Cité de Bokor”, complete with a mayor.
Along a path through the undergrowth I found two isolated bungalow complexes, both in relatively good condition – but, again, also stripped of all fittings. It turns out that they had both been residences for the royal family.
When the mist cleared, the view through their frameless windows was spectacular – jungle-covered ridges cascading down to the wide coastal plain below. Beyond lay the sea – the Gulf of Siam – with several islands floating way out in the distance, including the Vietnamese-controlled resort island of Phu Quoc, where the last military actions of the American-Vietnam War were played out.
At the top of another nearby ridge, I found a lichen-covered concrete bunker – which, on inspection, turned out to be a former radio-station shack. Surprisingly, a French military unit returned up here in 1992. They patched up the old road, cleared some of the area of landmines and set up radio relay facilities for UNTAC, the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia.
Even more surprisingly, the arrival of the military of the former colonialists was welcomed by the Khmer Rouge, who still controlled the area. For many years, the Bokor area had been a battlefield between the besieged Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese and then, later, with Cambodian government troops. The Khmer Rouge – ragged, but still holding out – were now cut off from their main forces on the Thai border way up in the Northeast of the country. The neutral UN force provided them with some degree of protection from attacks by their opponents.
There is also evidence of human activity after the Khmer Rouge were ousted. I was bemused by an official notice-board in the middle of an open scrub area, pronouncing “No sleeping here at night” in Cambodian and English. According to a local musician, the story is that in past times open-air parties were held up here on the mountain – and he described surreal events set against the backdrop of jungle covered hills, with the Haunted Palace looming in and out of the mists.
Graffiti inside the Black Palace. Harry Lee
As the Old Road was in such bad condition, trying to get down it in the dark was too dangerous, so party-goers would have to rough it for the night, sleeping in the open. The notices were part of the authority’s attempts to curb the practice.
But those party days are now long past, and as the evening began to close in, it was time for me to retreat back down that long winding road to the sweltering heat of the plains again.
It had been an interesting day out. Bokor was definitely something different – Cambodia’s unique little mountain corner – complete with swirling atmospheric mists.
The real bonus: the whole site is air-conditioned.
As in the French days, Bokor Mountain gets full marks for providing an escape, albeit temporary, from the miasmic heat prevailing in the rest of Cambodia.