For the last forty years Bokor Hill Station in southern Cambodia has been slowly falling into ruin.
Built by French settlers in the 1920’s as a respite from the brutal heat of Phnom Penh, the mountain-top retreat had a hotel and casino, church, post office, shops and apartments. Death was a constant companion from the beginning, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of workers losing their lives during construction, and has stalked the town ever since.
Uprisings in the 1940’s sent the settlers packing, and the Khmer Rouge took the area over from the country’s elite in 1972. What was left of the town remained a stronghold during the Vietnamese invasion seven years later, bullets and bombs accelerating the decline that nature had started.
And then, a few years ago, Sokimex turned up to finish the job.
According to its website, this local conglomerate foresees a very different picture from eerie ruins and cloud-filled forests. Because if there is one thing Cambodia needs more of in its national parks, it is apparently golf courses, entertainment complexes and five star hotels with a design that requires suppression of the gag reflex.
In the interests of trying to see what was left before the bulldozers completely took over, we rented a scooter and headed for Bokor.
If the development of Bokor is good for one thing, mind you, it is the ease of getting there. Long known as a terrible road in a country renowned for them, the 32 kilometre route from the highway is now arguably the highlight of the trip.
Smooth, wide tarmac winds up and round the mountain, with regular spots to pull off and admire the coastal views. I saw one pothole the entire way. One. It’s hard to complain about the 2000 riel (50 cent) fee to use it, given that it used to take an hour and a half to crawl up to the top. That you can now do it in thirty minutes is impressive.
Unfortunately that is the only impressive thing that has come out of Sokimex’s involvement.
After pristine forest views and a side trip to a slightly-interesting waterfall, rounding the corner to a monstrously ugly resort development was less than thrilling. I was too busy avoiding tour buses to stop for a photo, but if you’d like to see the complex in all its banal glory, be my guest.
It’s even worse than those pictures suggest.
Fortunately it is possible to continue driving straight past the complex and on to some things that are actually worth visiting. Honestly, I’m surprised the road doesn’t go straight through the middle of the casino with a compulsory stop at the roulette table.
I had seen photos of the ruined church in the past, a thick fog usually adding to the eerie charm. While there was plenty of cloud in the valley below, bright sunlight lit the rocky trail up to the building. Apparently the Vietnamese fought it out with Khmer Rouge troops from this spot, and the bullet holes are still visible.
Graffiti, Khmer and English, covers the walls. Glass and tiles lie shattered on the floor, the rubble of broken walls lying alongside more recently discarded garbage. Dark and foreboding, it wasn’t the kind of place you linger inside.
On a clear day the hill above the church apparently boasts remarkable views as far as Phu Quoc, the Vietnamese island that perhaps shouldn’t be. On the day we were there, however, cloud blanketed the side of the mountain and we could barely see more than a few metres in front of us. It was like the world just ended, right there.
Walking past the bored-looking tour group beside their minivan, we jumped back on the scooter and rode a few hundred metres to the old hotel and casino. Until recently it had fallen largely into disrepair, but a recent reconstruction project has made the building more accessible, if far less interesting.
Squealing kids pushed past monks while running around the rebuilt rooms, tour groups spilling in chattering groups from floor to floor. With all of the ruined charm concreted over, we soon headed for the door and down the road towards abandoned villas. Only a few minutes from the parking lot, they apparently didn’t form part of the standard itinerary – we were quickly alone with the dragonflies.
We didn’t explore for long, but the quiet buzz of insects was a nice change of pace from the shouting crowds we had left. Heading back down the mountain, though, the day held one last surprise. Well, two, actually.
One was the quite exceptional ugliness of the giant Buddha-esque statue that we had breezed past on the way up. I heard a rumour from my guesthouse owner that it was actually the image of the resort developer’s wife. If that’s true, I can only hope that the sculptor’s rendering did her a grave disservice.
The Black Palace, down a track on the other side of the road, was completely deserted. While it didn’t resemble any palace I’d seen in the past, it was interesting in a tiny-overgrown-and-ruined kind of way. Jungle had almost reclaimed the fish pond, and only a few scraps of floor tile hinted at a former glory.
So that was Bokor Hill Station, More a tour of a construction site than a trip back in time, it was only the ride there and back on the scooter that made it worthwhile. Judging by the miserable faces of those on organised tours, I wasn’t the only one that thought so. Bland, boring development had replaced an other-worldly ruined charm. Another little piece of history largely consigned to the garbage can.