27 January 2013

The ghosts of Bokor Hill


 
Just as India had its hill stations for the British colonials to escape the heat and humidity of the Indian plains, so did Cambodia, and we visited the now-deserted and rather sad-looking remains of the Bokor Hill Station en route from Kampot to Sihanoukville.

Thanks to an academic article I located (Kitagawa Takako, ‘Kampot of the Belle Époque: From the Outlet of Cambodia to a Colonial Resort’, Southeast Asian Studies, vol.42, no.4, March 2005), I can report that construction of the Station d’altitude de Bokor began towards the end of 1920. The road up from Kampot, approximately 42 kilometres away, was completed in 1921, and the Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino, a stunning building very much in keeping with the then current Art Deco style of architecture, was officially opened in 1925.

As well as the hotel, there were also shops, a church, a post office, and the King’s Royal Apartments. Most of these buildings have since been demolished but the church and the hotel are still clearly identifiable and easily visited – but, be quick, if you intend checking out this amazing place.

Bokor Palace Hotel and Casino

First, the French abandoned Bokor Hill during the First Indochina War (from 1946 to 1954), when the hotel was used as a hospital. They left for good when the Khmer Rouge took over the area in the 1970s and the Palace Hotel was burned by bands of the guerrilla group Dragon Noir. But by far the worst damage to the evocative atmosphere of this place has been done in more recent years.

The new casino is a blot on the skyline

In 2007 the Cambodia government sold a 99-year lease on the mountain to the Chinese Sokimex Group (owner of Sokha Resorts and Sokimex oil, amongst other companies) for US$100million and the mountain has already been irredeemably changed for the worse. The new 32-kilometre road that winds its way up the steep escarpment is probably the best road I’ve seen anywhere in Cambodia - but there is a charge to use it – and the first stages of the new development have now been completed, with a sprawling and exceedingly ugly casino already open for business. Sokimex have huge plans for their hill – as well as the casino, they plan on constructing more hotels, golf courses, and water parks, as well as a major port complex on the nearby coast, from where they intend helicoptering guests from visiting cruise ships to the plateau resort. It all sounds as hideous as their new casino.



The grand salon at the Bokor Palace





The remains of the floor tiles hint at the former Art Deco grandeur of the hotel
When you google Bokor Hill, you can read stories of the eerie atmosphere of the ghost town and see images of buildings covered in the black mould and orange lichen that come from years of decay. But, already the ghostly remains of the Bokor Palace have been forever altered. The building appears to have been water-blasted, whether in preparation for refurbishment by Sokimex is not clear. It has certainly altered the spooky character that earlier travellers have written of, even if the dramatic cliff-top position and impressive architecture remain unchanged.

And, as for the ghosts – the story goes that Frenchmen, ever dramatic, would throw themselves off the cliff behind the casino after loosing their fortunes from a night’s gambling, then return to haunt the rooms of the hotel. I can only hope that they are now wandering the corridors of Sokimex’s new casino and will scare away those visitors!

The old water reservoir tower opposite the hotel

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