The halls of Bokor Palace, the old hotel perched on the top of Bokor Mountain in Kampot province, seem ghostly when a thick fog descends on the peak.
In the colonial era, the hotel was used by the French as a place to cool off during the hot season – but only a few photographs are left to tell the story.
In one black and white image, which appears to have been taken during the 1950s, a lady in a white hat admires the hotel from the top of a cliff on a bright, windy day. In front of the hotel’s front door, she faces a spacious lawn, with at least 30 cars parked around its edges
Now, the 88-year old hotel is set to become a museum, while the nearby abandoned Catholic Church will hold marriage ceremonies.
The church, from which the Khmer Rouge shot at the Vietnamese forces for several months in 1979, will soon welcome Christian couples who wish to tie the knot.
“I think the history of the old church, together with the location, would make this a very special and unique event,” said Gerd Beurich, the general manager of the mountain’s recently built new hotel and casino, the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort.
The former house of worship – with graffiti-covered walls, urns of burning incense and a sign for potential squatters that warns, “No sleeping here at night!” – will also be used for regular multidenominational religious services, he said.
“Our initial plan is for Christian church services for special events such as Easter as well as a monthly service on a Sunday if there is enough interest.”
Meanwhile, the long-abandoned 88-year-old former hotel and casino may be converted to a museum or become a hotel once again, according to the Sokimex Investment Group, who own the Bokor Mountain resort.
“Initially we planned to convert this building to a museum, but recently we received lots of comments and ideas from both local and foreign people that said instead of making a museum, we should do it as a classic hotel,” Seng Chanthu, the executive secretary to the chairman of the Sokimex Investment Group, wrote in an email. “We will decide on this matter in the immediate future.”
In some ways, Bokor Palace is already a museum. As tourists wander in and out of the empty rooms – gazing out to the breathtaking views of the sea below, and walking through the room which was a ballroom almost 100 years ago – the talent of the unknown architect is apparent.
Some renovations have already been undertaken.
The company recently cleaned in and around the church and improved access to it, according to Beurich.
In November, Sokimex also covered the graffiti on the inside and outside walls of the “Bokor Palace” with a layer of grey plaster. The original floor and bathroom tiles are still in place – for now.
“Why would you pull them out?” Beurich asked. “His (the chairman’s) advice to me was to turn it into a museum so people can enjoy the old place.”
Beurich said he does not have any additional details about the renovations.
“There is no definite timeline yet,” he said.
Local history enthusiast Luc Mogenet, who wrote a book about Kampot province, Kampot: the Mirror of Cambodia. A Historic and Literary Overview, welcomed the idea that the former hotel will be preserved.
“I was afraid that the building might be destroyed,” he said during a telephone interview from Paris. “Right now it’s grey cement, but if they put white paint on top of it, it will be the way it was when it was built.”
Mogenet said that building a museum on Bokor Mountain is a good idea, but expressed some skepticism about what would be displayed inside.
“What will they put into it?” he asked. “Three black and white photographs will not be enough to fill an entire museum. It’s a big building.”
Very few old photographs of the Bokor hotel have survived, he said.
The history of Bokor
Bokor’s Palace Hotel, which opened its doors on Valentine’s Day in 1925, has a remarkable history.
Royal University history professor Vong Sotheara said that the history of Bokor is so gloomy that he had never even wanted to see the mountain.
“When the French colonial power tried to build a road up to the mountain, they used Khmer prisoners from Kampot province. The living conditions were very bad, and a lot of labourers – around 900 – died of malaria and other diseases during road construction,” he said. “I never went there because I know about the history of that time, and I don’t want to use that road.”
Sokimex recently built a modern road to the top of Bokor on almost the same spot as the old French road. The new road has lights, a drainage system to prevent flooding, and mirrors allowing drivers to see who is coming toward them from behind the curves.
Bokor’s dark history doesn’t stop at road construction.
In the years after Cambodia became independent, some communists or suspected communists were allegedly executed by being thrown down from the top of the mountain, according to Mogenet. During the Khmer Rouge period, prisoners were also thrown down from the cliff with their hands tied behind them, Sotheara said.
According to Mogenet, the hotel was initially used by French colonial officials as a place to escape the searing hot season temperatures. After being inaugurated, it had 38 rooms and 42 employees – and was ordered to provide the same quality as the hotels on the French Riviera.
“At that time, you either went to swim at Kep or to refresh yourself at Bokor,” Mogenet says.
During the first Indochina War, the Bokor hotel became a hospital, but it was later abandoned after being set on fire by an armed gang named the Black Dragon.
King Norodom Sihanouk officially reopened Bokor Palace 50 years ago, in January of 1962, and added a casino.
“There was no air-conditioning, so playing roulette in the cool air was a double benefit,” Mogenet said.
After 1970, following Lon Nol’s coup d’etat, Bokor became a Khmer Rouge base – and it remained under Khmer Rouge control for a very long time, according to Mogenet.
To learn more about the history of Bokor, watch King Norodom Sihanouk’s 1969 film, “Rose de Bokor.”
The mountain resort has also been immortalised in the 2002 Hollywood flick, City of Ghosts.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Masis at [email protected]