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Last Tango in Bokor

Last Tango in Bokor

It was to be the biggest social event in Kampot since the advent of the French Protectorate.

The Resident Superior of the Protectorate, Baudoin, had announced his coming. Phnom

Penh's French colonial community had sent its most respected citizens. A ballroom

orchestra was in place and a luxurious dinner awaited the hungry. There was champagne

and wine, and everything was ready to celebrate the long awaited inauguration of

the Bokor Palace Hotel, the crown jewel of the first and only hill station of Cambodia.

Here were fabulous views overlooking the coastline of Kampot and a temperate climate

that promised relief to the colons from the heat and sweat of the plain. It was February

the 14th 1925, and it was a wonderful and warm day, with just a light breeze coming

from the sea.

At 7:30 p.m. a first dinner opened the celebrations; at 9:30 a musical revue recounted

the long process of completing the ambitious hotel project. Then the orchestra started

to play and the ball was officially opened. The "Courrier de Saigon" noted

later that "some especially beautiful wardrobes" could be seen on the ladies

in the hall. It felt just like one "of the winter palaces of our Côte

d'Azur", and everybody was so happy dancing, chatting and drinking that it was

not before 1 a.m. that Baudoin could officially open yet another feast, a supper

that brought together the finest foods that a Frenchman in Cambodia could think of:

cold soup, crabs a l'Americaine, chicken Bella-Vista, parfait de foie gras, salads,

cookies, strawberries for dessert... When the last guests retreated to their bedrooms

at 5 a.m. Bokor had seen a grand opening party to be remembered for years.

The strawberries served for dessert were grown just next door in an agricultural

experiment station that had also been established on the Bokor hill station. All

kinds of European vegetables were to be produced here and imported cows would provide

fresh milk to the hotel guests. It is thanks to the meticulousness of French record-keeping

that we still know exactly what the cows ate that same night the colonial jetset

was dining next door on the sumptuous buffet: one kilo of rice, one kilo of corn,

two kilos of son, 20 kilos of grass and grasslike plants and 20 grams of salt. Surely

not as tempting as what the hotel offered, but the cows didn't complain. Who would

have thought that within just three years of the grand opening the hotel's reputation

would go into free fall and its cuisine eventually compared to the menu that the

cows had to put up with that night?

The first complaints, however, were not about the food, but about the walls, made

of concrete, that had not yet dried completely and were a constant inconvenience.

These complaints were put forward by the disappointingly small number of guests who

came up to Bokor during the first few months of its operation. In April, supposedly

the busiest month of the season, there were only some 20 Westerners who fled the

burning sun and the sultriness of Phnom Penh and joined the mixed crowd at the Palace.

The French colonial administration that had generously financed Bokor's infrastructure

left the management of the hotel to the Society of Indochina's Grand Hotels and refused

to subsidize its operation substantially. And with little money coming in to bring

facilities and service at the Bokor up to standard things slowly started to turn


In 1928, Dr. Simon, a physician from Kampot, spent a month at the Bokor taking care

of patients and guests who often suffered from poor health. A rather outspoken critic

of the service at Bokor, he wanted to register his complaints with the management

of the hotel, but they declined to accept his account. He then sent it to the Resident

of Kampot and that's how we know today what he was so upset about: old meat, old

fish, and food in general that came on the table in various stages of decay. One

night he was sitting with four other guests at a table in the dining hall and they

were served fish with vegetables. He writes: "The fish at this stage had to

be considered inedible. What was left were the green peas, but they were served in

such minimal quantities that if one person at our table had not been on a diet and

declined to eat any, somebody else would have missed the peas. We were five at the

table and it needed some serious mental calculative efforts so that something would

be left for the one served at the end." Their request for another plate met

with no success. So they were left with the difficult question of what to do with

four sardines that had to be divided amongst five diners. In the case of the apricots

that came for dessert the chef obviously took pity on them and solved the problem

beforehand: they got served two and a half apricots, neatly sliced in half, half

an apricot per diner...

The prices however were more generous. The writer complains about the exaggerated

cost of cheese or a bottle of wine, "after all we are in a French country not

in an Anglo-Saxon one where wine constitutes a luxury." Those who had been deprived

of their wine by its high price and wanted to drink water instead had to watch what

they were doing. The provision of good water had always been a problem in Bokor and

Dr. Simon noted that during his stay the color of the water coming out of the tap

in his bathroom changed daily, from the color of weak tea to that of Turkish coffee.

Furthermore various dead creatures of lengths up to an inch that washed into his

sink with the tap water provoked his doubts about the overall purity of the water.

On some days he would not risk taking a bath. Luckily the hotel management facilitated

his decision to stop washing himself by refusing to change the towels even after

repeated requests.

Those who visit Bokor Palace today agree that the hotel's service standards have

deteriorated further.

Only two staff, both military guards of the RCAF, are left to await arriving guests.

The complex is still standing but is stripped of all its furniture and fittings,

except for the floor tiles, which as the last remaining unsold artefacts are the

object of an ongoing business. Since there is no more running water, complaints about

water quality have ceased; the menu consists largely of what the adventurous traveler

cares to take with him. Bokor is a ghost town today. But whoever stands long enough

in the midst of the remnants of colonial grandeur, looking down the big hall with

its huge cracked chimney, letting his thoughts wander and listening to the sound

of the wind caressing the battered old walls, will still hear the sound of the ballroom

orchestra, the dancing and the laughter that filled this room more than 70 years

ago on that first glamorous night in February 1925.

- Information for this article was taken from National Archives of Cambodia

files # 897, 3442, 4539, 4972, 5290, and 5596. The Archives is open Monday - Friday

, 8:00-11:00 and 2:00-4:30. It is located behind the National Library alongside the

Hotel Le Royal. All are welcome to come and browse through this vast resource and

discover for themselves an intriguing moment in Cambodia's past.


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