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Bokor Mountain - risen from the wilderness

Bokor Mountain - risen from the wilderness

 

Bokor Mountain

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

apart.

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,"

he grinned.

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

 

 

 

 

 

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