Once a magnificent tourism resort, Phnom Bokor in southern Cambodia is now reduced
to ruin. Jason Barber, Ker Munthit and Michael Hayes paid a visit to the virtual
ghost town that still retains its charm.
Ke Say, 59, remembers how Phnom Bokor used to be. "It was beautiful. It was
happy. Day and night, this place was busy," she cackles, her face creasing into
a toothless grin.
"I was young, I wasn't even married then. I was employed to clear the grass
along the main road. My whole family lived here and grew vegetables.
"The traffic never stopped. There was a big generator, and the road was all
lit up. Everywhere there were bright lights. It was more than I can describe."
Crouched beside a now-ruined villa with a panoramic view of Kampot province below,
Say recalls one of the many visits that the then Prince Sihanouk made here in the
"A white carpet was laid out for him right here. The Prince walked down it,
to the edge over there, so he could take in the view. We raised our palms together
and he gave out gifts to us.
"My salary was 900 riels a month. That was a lot of money then. There were so
many cars and people. It was such a pleasant place to be," she sighs.
Today, Ke Say, in tattered black pyjamas, regularly trudges up Bokor to gather bundles
of rattan to sell for a meagre profit. Life has taken its toll on her, as it has
on the former holiday-resort where she used to work. But as she recalls the old days,
her arms waving and her face aglow, it's enough to give a glimpse of a grander past.
Phnom Bokor was once a jewel of Cambodian tourism. Started as a French colonialist
health resort in the 1920s, it was later revived by Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum
regime. In its 1960s hey-day, thousands of visitors were attracted here by the glamor
of a casino and a fine hotel, set amid the cool weather and spectacular scenery of
a mountainous jungle where elephants and tigers roamed.
Bokor has long been special to the Royal family. King Monivong had a residence here
in the colonialist days, as did Sihanouk after him. The mountain's beauty moved Sihanouk
to shoot a movie - "Rose of Bokor" - here in 1969.
The party ended with the Lon Nol coup of 1970, when the new government shut down
the resort. "No-one dared to stay here," remembers Ke Say.
The former playground became a warground, as Khmer Rouge guerrillas besieged the
mountain, capturing it in 1972-73. By that time, Say was in a Kampot village, later
fleeing to Sihanoukville as fighting spread out across the lowlands.
Say - who lost her parents, husband and four of her children in the 1975-79 KR regime
- did not return to Bokor until after the 1993 elections.
She found the place a shattered skeleton of its former splendor. Today, the carcasses
of buildings, their ceilings collapsed and walls drilled with bullet holes, still
bear vivid testiment to years of strife and neglect.
But if whispers of new tourism development here are realized, the Rose of Bokor may
yet bloom again.
Phnom Bokor (Ox's Hump Mountain), about 20km west of Kampot town, sits at the southern
end of a mountain range which the French dubbed the "Chaine de l'Elephant".
Rising about 1040m, the peak provides expansive views over Kompong Som to the west,
Kampot and Kep to the east and out to the Gulf of Thailand.
In pride of place atop a sheer cliff stands the old Bokor Palace hotel, a once magnificant
but now ram-shackled veteran of more than half a decade of Cambodian history.
The original hotel was built by the French in the late 1920s, along with a church
which still stands today.
Renowned for its cool climate, the mountain was one of several "stations climatiques"
in Indochina - including Vietnam's Dalat - established for the recuperation of hot-and-bothered
colones. A 1930s tourism guide touts Bokor as ideal for those "needing rest
after a long spell of fatigue or to those requiring a few days of solitude amid cool
and healthy surroundings."
Another guide wrote of the Chain of the Elephant mountain range as being "full
of fantastic beasts and wandering monks", with excellent hunting, from birds
and small game to elephants and rhinos.
Bokor Palace was devastated by the Vietminh "invaders" - Vietnamese independence
fighters - between 1946-50, according to a Cambodian government pamphlet produced
in the early 1960s.
"Until the end of 1960, this large building, blackened by fire, its windows
and doors off their hinges, was only visited by a handful of tourists brave enough
to face a road gouged by the rains and half submerged by the jungle," says the
"The road leading up there was half covered by the jungle; the hotel and the
few remaining buildings were almost in ruins; there was no water, no electricity:
the town was dead," it continues, in an eerily accurate description of Bokor
On the instructions of Sihanouk, as head of state, the "municipality" Bokor
was reborn: the hotel was refurbished, with 22 rooms and four apartments; a raft
of administrative offices were completed (King Monivong's former residence became
the town hall), along with a rest center for the Royal Khmer Armed Forces. A chalet
was constructed for Sihanouk, and the Preah Sihanouk Agricultural Station was set
up to grow vegetables and fruits, such as strawberries, in the temperate climate.
Finally, there was the casino - open to only foreigners - offering baccureate and
roulette. "Because of the altitude, air-conditioning is not necessary,"
the pamphlet notes.
There were an assortment of other private villas and bungalows for rent. Other attractions
included the famous Popokvil (Swirling Clouds) three-level waterfall, reputed to
be guarded by a spirit in the trees.
After a night of entertainment, you could leave Bokor between midnight and 2am on
a motor coach to Phnom Penh, for 25 riels - or double that for a taxi - along the
two-lane paved mountain road connecting to the national highway.
Ke Say recalls that the "there were so many cars - day and night people came
to the casino".
Today, flooding and vegetation has reduced the mountain road to a pot-holed single
lane. By four-wheel drive vehicle, it takes about one-and-a-half hours to negotiate
the 30km trail which wraps its way round the mountain like a snake.
At the top, the ruins of a more than two dozen buildings, some reduced to their foundations,
dot the barren landscape. Their pillars are home to the hammocks of about 100 police,
and the few villagers like Ke Say who venture here to scavenge.
The police don't mind the posting. "I like the cool weather. It's good for my
health," says Danh Ven, a deputy police chief.
The last Khmer Rouge who used to prowl the mountain surrendered a few months ago.
Ven says that there had only been six to eight of them, couriering supplies to comrades
elsewhere in the mountain range. "They were a 'food force' - not a 'fighting
force'," he jokes.
Today, a few policemen, their families and a friendly dog are the only guests at
the three-storey Bokor Palace atop the mountain. At the edge of a massive cliff,
with 180 degree views, the grand old hotel may be a wrecked shell, but it still cuts
an imposing figure.
The words Bokor Palace are visible through inch-thick red moss on the building's
front. The front entrance steps, and the twin roof turrets, still bear the overgrown
sandbags of abandoned machine-gun posts.
The inside is a mess: broken windows, bedrooms stripped bare and bathrooms reduced
to a mash of broken pink tiles and shattered hand-basins.
In the ballroom, the huge fireplace is spilling bricks and close to collapse. The
ceiling bears the fittings for chandeliers long since gone. Peering through wall
bullet holes, one can see the seascape beyond the cliff edge.
Empty, rusty cans of sardines and the strench of urine betray the soldiers and others
who have camped here. Pictures and graffiti - in Khmer and Vietnamese and, more recently,
English - mark the walls.
Local police are unsure whether the KR were permanently based here during the Pol
Pot regime, but they say that Vietnamese troops occupied the site after the 1979
invasion of Cambodia.
The police point out the bygone casino: a plain, rectangular building across a field
from the hotel. Within eyesight is the old French church and, further away, a pagoda.
In former days, presumably you could lose your money on the roulette tables and then
wander across for redemption at the institution of your choice.
Big mushroom-shaped concrete picnic canopies dot the surrounding gardens, and a rusting
water-tower sits atop a small hill. Down the road, King Monivong's former art deco
residence still stands, as do other villas.
Further down the mountain, a police chief leads the way along a passable track to
the Popkovil waterfall, supposedly a spectactular torrent in the wet season but now
just a trickle.
The trill of birdcalls hints at the wildlife which Bokor was once famous for. The
police say wild pigs abound, but no-one has seen a tiger or elephant here in recent
times. "Perhaps there are still elephants in the deep jungle, but we are afraid
of them," says Ke Say. Trees abound; the poor state of the road has prevented
Ouk Phan, sheltering from the midday sun in a wooden shack a short trek from the
waterfall, remembers the days when all sorts of fruits and vegetables were grown
Phan came to Bokor in 1962 and found a job with a Japanese agriculturalist.
"His name was Isomura, he was 70-years-old at that time," says Phan. "He
used to work on Sihanouk's farm.
"It was such a happy time then. I remember Samdech [Sihanouk] and Monique used
to come for visits, and they would visit the Japanese man.
"When he stopped working for Sihanouk's farm, he didn't go back home. He got
permission to run his own vegetable farm on Bokor, and he would supply hotels in
"He died in Phnom Penh and his ashes were taken back to Bokor."
Today, it is not only to collect rattan that Phan ventures up the mountain from his
village below. Like his former Japanese employer, he says he will always return to
"No matter how old I am, I will keep coming back here," he declares. "I
want to see this place return to the glorious past."
He may yet get his wish. If foreign investors' interest in reviving tourism here
comes to fruition, Phnom Bokor could rise - for the third time - from the dead.
Several Malaysian or Taiwanese businessmen have visited Bokor Palace in recent months,
say the local police. The Ministry of Tourism in Phnom Penh says there is talk of
refurbishing the hotel, but any deal is a long way off.
"There has been a lot of verbal interest but there are no concrete plans yet,"
says Sambo Chey, an aide to Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth.
Stressing that the mountain is not yet open to foreign tourists, Chey says that much
work, such as improving the road, needs to be done.
But in the long-term, he believes Bokor could again become one of the premier tourist
attractions, after the Angkor temples, of Cambodia.
"The humbleness of the place, the naturalness of the place...could make it the
next best place to go for tourism, even more so than Sihanoukville.
"But I'm not sure that we are thinking of fast development. We would like the
place to retain its charm.
"His Majesty the King has a special heart for the place...so if we do anything,
we have to think of His Majesty's views as well," Chey added.
If tourism does return to Bokor, Ke Say has one small request: "Could I have
my old job back?"