(This article appeared in Khaleej Times, UAE)
You don’t need any particular excuse to visit Bokor Palace and Hotel, sitting high in the Bokor Hills in Kampot, Cambodia. Therefore any reason, anything as quirky as wanting to dine on the terrace of the dilapidated Bokor Palace and Hotel will do. Naturally, if you aren’t excited about trekking through the humid, leech-infested jungles of Bokor National Park nor eager to find ghosts of the war-ravaged nation believed to be lurking in the ruined buildings, your sudden sixteen-dollar-desire to see the place will seem like sheer insanity.
And that is exactly what it was — for me and for the handful of people that made up my group consisting strictly of curiosity-driven backpackers passing through the small town of Kampot with its strong French influence, from or on the way to Sihanoukville.
And the result of that expedition was like a cocktail party gone horribly wrong.
The now abandoned Church which miraculously survived the Khmer attack
I had been told that Bokor Palace and Hotel perched on top of the Elephant Mountain in Southern Cambodia a thousand meters ASL was a haunt for spirits of soldiers who lost their lives during the battle between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese and that it was unsafe to go up the Hill by oneself.
Fortunately no tales of ghosts deterred me and from the looks of it, it didn’t the other backpackers bundled into the back of the truck and swaying their way uphill the next morning.
Moss covered interiors definitely gives it a spooky look.
Blood-red lichen covers the walls. No wonder this place is considered spooky.
Till we reached the park gate, there was much rejoicing in the mini-van, with Italians, Russians, Japanese, an Indian (me) and a South African pooling in our collective knowledge of Bokor, which was very little. The animated chatter that was punctuated with words like ‘Indo China War’ and ‘Khmer Rouge’ explained everything. The infamy of Pol Pot was pretty common knowledge.
One had to believe the coffee-shop talk, or why should it be that the Rangers who accompanied us carried guns that looked like AK 47s, complete with bayonet and banana clips? No one explained the guns but at least it made us feel safe from perceived threat. (We were later told about the poachers and the wild animals in the jungle).
We were driven part of the way (now under construction) and unloaded some distance uphill to trek up for two and half hours before being picked up and driven to the top. I didn’t quite see the sense in that, but perhaps it was necessary to drive home the importance of Bokor.
In some twisted sort of way, it did put us in touch with, even partly, of what the Cambodians endured nearly a century ago when Bokor Hill was being built as a summer retreat for the rich.
Needless to say, walking through the heavy forest cover was tough. Humidity, mosquitoes and leeches didn’t help much but the mention of snakes caused sudden panic. There was no path to speak of, but the Ranger by some divine sight picked out narrow paths through decaying branches, rocks and vicious vines that appeared everywhere. Few of us were tempted to try the Tarzan-style swings but the Ranger looked disapproving and urged us on. Except for a sprained ankle (mine), and the Italians who attracted a fair number of leeches, we arrived in one piece for the second-half of the journey on the back of the truck right up to the Hill.
(Checkout this video below)
Sitting on the wooden boards loosely fixed to the back of trucks hurtling over moon-sized craters would have been extremely funny if it weren’t for the dangers involved. None of us, with the exception of Steve, the South African, had any experience in hanging out of trucks, therefore we resorted to singing to cover up our embarrassment and our inability to stay firm when the truck went over.
The first thing we saw on the Hill was The Church, standing forlorn, a little distance away on an incline. While the gun-wielding Ranger, now restored to his full importance explained the history of Bokor to the tired group, I rapidly walked to the Church to photograph it without getting someone’s face in the pictures!
I also wanted to fulfill a childish desire to shout and hear my voice reverberate like in any other church.
The Catholic Church itself commanded an important position though quite broken. A flower grew from the cracked altar, the windows broken and walls covered in graffiti, but the acoustics were still intact. Like the ghosts had returned.
A pretty lake surrounded by burnt-out colonial buildings did much to improve the view, although it didn’t quite prepare me for what was to come. The Bokor Palace Hotel, standing a little distance from the Church was every bit as the coffee shop-talk with the locals at Kampot had described.
Standing in front of the Bokor Palace Hotel in the mid-morning haze that comes with the wet season was plain creepy. I suppose Matt Dillon felt the same when he fought mercenaries on the patchy lawns outside it for his rather forgettable film City of Ghosts (2002).
In the place of windows were gaping holes, staring out of walls covered with ghostly red lichen that instantly conjured up an image of congealed blood, the broken turrets, and sinister-looking water tanks all added to atmosphere of the place.
The swanky getaway on the hill top had been the haunt of the rich but the destructive swathe of Khmer Rouge put an end to its grandeur and today it stands an eerie reminder of the French’s vainglory. I shook myself free of the mental cobwebs for it was essential to dissociate the past from the present and see it without getting over-romantic.
Bokor Palace Hotel suddenly took on a different meaning. The wide staircase at the entrance didn’t quite look like a stairway to hell and beyond it the corridors and narrow stairways that branched off into darkness didn’t feel quite so threatening.
I picked my way through the labyrinthine corridors and found myself in what was left of the ballroom. The ornate fireplace had been smashed to pieces but I couldn’t help but smile at the picture my mind invented — that of ladies in white gloves dancing with men in tuxedos in a room lit by torches while the tigers roared in the surrounding forests!
The building was covered with lichen and graffiti, some of them explicitly vulgar and commonplace with the exception of one which read; “Everyone died.”
My blood froze.
I ran to the terrace through narrow and decaying staircase, wildly hoping that some member of the group had followed. None had. The pale sun felt good on the skin, it took away some of the chill I had felt down there. From the broken terrace, the views were fantastic. Despite the overcast sky, the island of Phu Quoc, Vietnam was visible in the distance.
I stayed on the terrace for the others to catch up. Well, I couldn’t bring myself to walk the damp halls alone.
A wind picked up and in a matter of minutes the hill was covered in mist. An unknown hand herded us together and none of us uttered a word.
Was it the wind whistling through the halls that caused that curious sound? A faint howl greeted us… it was suddenly very dark. Stephen stepped into something and all of us were spattered with something cold and wet. Someone screamed.
The Ranger held his gun in position, ready to fire, till he saw what it was that caused alarm.
Rainwater had formed tiny pools inside the halls and thanks to poor lighting, Stephen hadn’t seen the water pool.
No one in the group regretted going back downhill to the warmth of Kampot. Bokor had been more than satisfactory.
The only regret was that whatever is left of the old historical building may soon lose to commercialisation. The road construction and the proposed building of a golf course and a casino will have a huge impact on this wilderness area.
Perhaps the ghosts of war may soon make way for black jack and roulette and once again ladies in evening dresses may dance to music without the accompanying roars of the tigers.
Things to do in Kampot
1. Visit to the zoo, pepper plantations and caves
2. Take a day trip to Kep or visit the Rabbit Island
3. Experience the Kampot River (Prek Thom) rapids or simply enjoy the sunset cruise
How to get there
1. Kampot is about 5 hours by road from Phnom Penh
2. Local tour operators take you on a guided one-day tour to Bokor National Park. Its impossible to get up there otherwise.
2. The day trip costs about USD 15-18 depending on how many go with you in the group
4. From Kampot, towards Sihanoukville, turn right after 8kms. On the right you will see a large plaque welcoming you to Bokor National Park.