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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - ‘Magic’ lives on at old royal retreat

Locals say this overgrown house was once occupied by Princess Bopha Devi. Inside there is an intact Angkorian-style mural.
Locals say this overgrown house was once occupied by Princess Bopha Devi. Inside there is an intact Angkorian-style mural. Charlotte Pert

‘Magic’ lives on at old royal retreat

On top of Kirirom Mountain are the 1960s-era ruins of a once grand getaway for the royalty and urban elite of pre-war Cambodia. Now, four decades after it was abandoned, life is returning to the settlement

The locals still call the settlement that was built on Kirirom Mountain a city, though all that is left is rubble. Amid the ruins of the former King Norodom Sihanouk’s house, a great Brutalist-style chimney stands lonely, as tall as the pine trees, on a plateau that commands a vista of the hills and the river. From makeshift wooden planks, you can stare down into a few sunken rooms, including a bathroom decorated with tiny black and white wall tiles. You can also climb the long brick staircase that Sisowath Siengdy, the star of Sihanouk’s comedic romp La Joie de Vivre, bounded down to meet her love interest, “The Prince”.

The Kirirom Mountain Lodge is set in a restored villa.
The Kirirom Mountain Lodge is set in a restored villa. Charlotte Pert

On a typical weekend in the 1960s, Siengdy finished performing at the clubs in Phnom Penh at about one in the morning. Then she and her boyfriend would jump in their car and set off for the mountain, a favourite weekend getaway of royalty and the urban elite. They’d eat, drink and dance and then drive to the beach at Kep before sunrise. “We were back in Phnom Penh by 10am and slept until 4pm!” she said.

There’s little left now of the restaurants where they ate. The sofas they danced on after the day’s filming wrapped are long gone. “I went there for the last time in 1999 and saw only pieces of houses,” she said.

Dozens of overgrown and derelict villas still stand on Kirirom – more than 100, according to local authorities. Columns of red ants march in the villa where locals say Sihanouk’s ballet dancing daughter Princess Bopha Devi stayed. At the house, the blue and orange paint has washed out of an Angkorian-style mural after nearly a half-century’s worth of rain. Seldom visited, even by tourists, these places are silent reminders of a lost era.

Cracked tiles in one of the villas.
Cracked tiles in one of the villas. Charlotte Pert

“I was so young, and I loved to enjoy life so I didn’t want to stay in Phnom Penh at night,” recalled Siengdy, who is now an ambassador to the Royal Cabinet. “We went there every day because we wanted to make our lives happy.” 

The Buddhist rule

According to Ma Sovan, a local historian and employee of the Ministry of Environment, Sihanouk’s relationship with the mountain began when a hunter known to the palace lost his way and stumbled on the place. Seeing its natural beauty – the pine forests, lakes and cool air – he took the news back to the royals. Sihanouk rode in on an elephant and declared the mountain a natural reserve by royal decree – Cambodia’s first national park.

The King then embarked on a grand development plan. Roads were paved and chalets and villas built in the Bauhaus-like style of New Khmer Architecture, as they were in Kep. Wealthy urbanites buzzed back and forth from Phnom Penh in shiny sports cars. Some arrived by helicopter at a small airstrip created by Sihanouk. He even set up a tea plantation.

There are more than 100 houses like this.
There are more than 100 houses like this. Charlotte Pert

According to Julio Jeldres, his official biographer, Sihanouk entertained foreign diplomats on the mountain. “I know that the former Israeli and Danish ambassadors to Cambodia (this is in the 1960s) were given farewell luncheons there,” Jeldres wrote in an email.

La Joie de Vivre offers the most vivid depiction of the era. Shot at a guesthouse at the top of the mountain, the film follows the story of an illegal gambling den in the woods and all the carousing and partner-swapping that takes place there. There is a long and memorable scene of rock ’n’ roll dancing in a wooden cabin.

Sovan puts it like this: “It was a happy time, when they enjoyed life, but afterwards came the time of disaster. It’s the Buddhist rule – something is born, something is destroyed.”

Time of disaster

The great disaster for Kirirom, as for the rest of the country, was the Khmer Rouge, the communists who turned Cambodia into a vast prison. Heavy fighting took place in the forest – Australian journalist Kate Webb was captured there in 1971 by the Vietnamese. Soldiers shacked up in the villas of the elite, who fled as the fighting approached. Bullet holes can be seen in the walls.

This Angkorian mural was once painted in bright colours.
This Angkorian mural was once painted in bright colours. Charlotte Pert

In the years that followed the collapse of the regime, which had killed a quarter of the population and all but annihilated the educated classes, the city at Kirirom continued its fall into disrepair. The owners of most of the villas never returned, whether from death or displacement. Some of the abandoned homes housed squatters and workers at the tea plantation, which was restarted. But by then, they were already tainted.

“I lived in the house but I never met the spirit or ghost – but I heard other workers say they saw ghosts in the houses,” said Kim Loan, a villager now in her sixties.

Few stay in the houses now, other than the occasional squatter and groups of soldiers. In Sihanouk’s second house, a more modest structure known by the locals as damnak thmey or “new building”, an uprooted sink lies in the garden. Pine cones are scattered on the terrace. A handprint is smeared on a white painted door. A pile of firewood stands in the living room – most likely from soldiers, who slept inside to escape the cold, said Som Ravy, a villager who lives nearby. In another villa, the outline of a pistol has been drawn on the wall.

These ruins lie deep in the forest on Kirirom Mountain.
These ruins lie deep in the forest on Kirirom Mountain. Charlotte Pert

Ravy, who is in his twenties, said that some of the younger generation would be interested in renovation – if it wasn’t for the unclear ownership. “When we wanted to repaint and live in the houses, we were afraid that the owner would come to take it one day,” he said.

A man known locally as “grandfather Tro”, a military police official, has inscribed his name on the walls of several of the houses. But some say they belong to Sokimex, which holds an economic land concession in the area. So does Japanese company, A2A Cambodia, which owns nearly 10,000 hectares. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the concessions are overlapping – this is Cambodia,” one local businessman remarked.

Mostly, locals ignore the villas. Villagers eke out a living selling flowers to tourists and tending to crops. “The people are just worried about their daily life,” said Som Saron, a local Ministry of Environment employee.

One of the villas.
One of the villas. Charlotte Pert

Restoration

But while the mountain is sleepy, there are signs of something astir. After three years of renovations and negotiations, Alexis de Suremain, a French businessman living in Phnom Penh, opened Kirirom Mountain Lodge in a restored villa late last year. The building was being used as a guesthouse and restaurant when de Suremain found it.

The hotelier, who owns a string of properties including restored colonial villas The Plantation and The Pavilion in Phnom Penh, believes that, judging by the layout of the rooms and the small water tank, his newest venture was originally a small house.

Now it’s a stark white hotel at the end of a winding mountain road. “We wanted to do something small and pleasant,” said de Suremain.

There are bigger changes coming to Kirirom, if A2A Cambodia, the Japanese company with the concession, have their way. They opened vKirirom Pine Resort in February last year and plan to build a university and retirement home. Om Pharin, the senior vice-president of the company, said the $500 million project was awaiting approval from the Council for the Development of Cambodia. He was unable to reveal how much forest would be cleared.

Sihanouk’s house. One of his films, La Joie de Vivre, was shot here.
Sihanouk’s house. One of his films, La Joie de Vivre, was shot here. Charlotte Pert

De Suremain is divided over whether he wants Kirirom to bustle again – and draw in money for his hotel – or to stay quiet. He takes his family there on weekends.

“I’d like it to become the weekend destination for Phnom Penh, but on the other hand, it might lose its elusiveness. I would say ... keep it as it is. Because it’s really magic now.”

As for Siengdy, one of the only surviving royals to still remember Kirirom, she hopes that some of the wooden chalets featured in La Joie de Vivre can be rebuilt. “The environment, with its cold weather and trees, was really wonderful to live in.”

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