Once a colonial playground retreat for turn-of-the-century expatriates, later a Khmer
Rouge battleground, the lush scenery of Bokor National Park is now set to become
one of Cambodia's premier tourist attractions.
In its 1920s heyday, thousands of revelers made the steep jungle climb to spend a
few nights at the luxurious Bokor Palace Hotel, relax in the cool mountain air, gaze
at the awesome views across to Sihanoukville and the Gulf of Thailand, or perhaps
indulge in a little wager at the casino.
But after decades of fighting, illegal logging and neglect, today's Bokor is attracting
tourists for a very different reason. The once-magnificent colonial buildings are
mere shells, bombarded by bullets, eaten away by lichens and mosses, imbuing Bokor
with a mysterious and haunting air.
Ironically, the very qualities that made Bokor such a popular haunt for pleasure
seekers were the same that caused it to become a front-line in the battle between
the Khmer Rouge and the invading Vietnamese in the late 1970s. Both sides valued
the mountain, which offered commanding views of the surrounding land and coastline
and so presented huge military advantages. In early 1979, the two armies fought fiercely
for three months over possession of Bokor, the Khmer Rouge holed up in a small French
church, the Vietnamese in the Bokor Hotel. The two buildings are just 500 meters
Today, remains of grenades, bullets and graffiti can be seen in both the hotel and
the church. Sandbags and razor wire still sit on some window sills, and broken art
deco tiles litter the floor.
A corner of the ruined hotel
"This could well become a major destination for tourists again," says Davide
Cattaneo, who not only runs a small Italian restaurant in nearby Kampot, but takes
trekking parties around Bokor. The mountain has only been officially open to sightseers
for three months, and with just a $2 entrance fee for foreigners, is proving popular.
The 30km trail up the mountainside is surprisingly navigable, but still takes one-and-a-half
hours by four-wheel-drive vehicle (or three hours by moto). Ex-Khmer Rouge, now eking
out a quieter and less controversial living, sit by the side of the road and sell
fresh papayas to passers-by.
Not far from the Bokor Palace hotel are overgrown footpaths and mountain trails,
the ruins of one of King Sihanouk's palaces, a waterfall, a hill station and an old
pagoda, already a popular spot for locals to picnic.
Locals insist there are also wild boar, tiger and other cats on the mountain, but
there have been few, if any reliable sightings in recent years. Elephants, however,
often wander into plantations on the mountain, causing havoc for local farmers. Cattaneo
also had a disturbing confrontation.
"I was bringing some tourists to see the waterfall, and as I drove around the
corner an elephant suddenly appeared, and charged towards the car, trumpeting. I
just sat and waited," he said. "At the last moment she changed her course
and thundered off into the bush." And the tourists? "I turned round to
ask them if they'd got any photos, but they were all hiding under the seats,"
Bokor may not yet be able to compete with Sihanoukville or Siem Reap in terms of
visitors, but its enticing mixture of romantic colonial architecture, KR history
and breathtaking views may well help it become Cambodia's third great tourist destination.
The French church, which the KR defended for three months
Vietnamese gun emplacement on top of Bokor Palace Hotel
View down the cliffside from the pagoda
The shell of then-Prince Sihanouk's villa