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Faded glory: The many lives of a Kampot palace

The ruins of the Bokor Palace Hotel on a misty morning
The ruins of the Bokor Palace Hotel on a misty morning. Bennett Murray

Faded glory: The many lives of a Kampot palace

Originally built as a retreat for the French colonial elite, the Bokor Palace Hotel eventually became the site of forced labour and Khmer Rouge massacres

On the morning of January 6, 1962, the staircase leading up to Bokor Palace Hotel was strewn with ribbons in anticipation of a grand opening party. According to a yellowing invitation buried in Phnom Penh’s National Archives, military rosettes were handed out in the morning and champagne flutes were served before lunch. Newspaper columnist Peter Hann noted that then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk was “every bit as effervescent” as the booze. The evening finished with dancing in the ballroom amid bouquets of flowers.

It must have been misty up on the mountain because, posting online many years later, one man who said he had been a guest described how “the cloud that surrounded the building [felt] like we were in heaven.”

But, more than five decades later, the haze that cloaked the skeletal remains of the hotel on a recent morning gave the place the air of a gloomy purgatory. Of the barren remains of the ballroom, chipped ruby tiles glazed with rainwater were the only splashes of colour. Rust red lichen had formed elsewhere.

It was a strange contrast to the other hotel a modern visitor to the mountain will find: Thansur Bokor Highland Resort – the billion-dollar casino development opened by Sokha Hotels in 2012. The new development has left the old hotel mostly untouched – although tidied up here and there. Layers of graffiti have been scrubbed away. On Thansur’s website, the ruins of Bokor Palace are touted as an “ideal wedding venue”. Open-air ceremonies are available for booking, according to general manager Benoit Jancloes. Romantic candlelit dinners can be served.

Buried within the walls of the ruins, however, is a much darker tale that can be pieced together from archival relics and the testimony of characters who knew the place during the various chapters of its history.

The ruins of the Bokor Palace Hotel on a misty morning
The ruins of the Bokor Palace Hotel on a misty morning Bennett Murray

It begins with hard labour. The Bokor Palace Hotel was originally intended as part of a colonial French hill-station, a place to retreat to cooler air during the hot season. Construction began in the early 1900s – and the work was back-breaking. The original mountain road was built by prisoners, who were disciplined by being buried to their necks in the baking sun, said French writer Marguerite Duras, who grew up in Kampot, in an interview later in her life.

Many are believed to have died before the road was even ready to carry passengers up to the hotel, which had 38 bedrooms. In a 1925 inventory of staff enlisted to work within its doors, four prisoners are listed, with three “paid” prisoners added in pencil.

The doors opened on Valentine’s Day in 1925 and a dance was held that evening to celebrate. The lavish six-course menu included gazpacho, “US-style” crawfish, rich foie gras served cold and strawberries from the Emerald Valley served with Chantilly cream. The last guest didn’t leave until 5am. “Fur framed the women’s faces … [We were] asking ourselves if the Grand Hotel wasn’t a winter palace in our Cote d’Azur,” remembered the French resident of Kampot Duras in an article preserved in the Phnom Penh archives.

**
Even after the hotel opened, bloody accidents continued. A letter from the supervising officer in June 1931, when the road was under construction again, describes an explosion that killed two men and injured two others. In the bloody aftermath, he notes, “We could still see the blood on the dead leaves, in the cracks in the soil, and in the puddles.”

During the First Indochina War, the Bokor Palace acted as a military hospital, but was abandoned thereafter.

The rate card for the original 1920s hotel
The rate card for the original 1920s hotel. THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES

The glamorous evening in 1962 was Bokor Palace Hotel’s second debut. This time, a casino was added by Sihanouk, who was so taken by the mountain that he went on to shoot a film there, Rose de Bokor.

The hotel was mostly reserved for members of government and wealthy businesspeople, according to Marie-Françoise Chatel, who was a professor from 1960 to 1965 at the Lycée Preah Reach Samphear in Kampot.

“Kampot was a rich town, happy and friendly,” she recalled in an email from France, where she is now retired. Bokor Palace, a cold and misty place, was seen as a remnant of colonialism, she said, as independence was relatively recent.

“Cambodians didn’t go to Bokor itself... Bokor was mysterious and made people a little afraid. Western expats liked to go there to find fresh air, picnicking and playing petanque. No one went off the beaten trails.”

The major attraction was the casino, which drew mainly Vietnamese and Chinese clients and was dubbed in one newspaper article “the dreariest casino in the world”. “I went there once: stress and passion reigned,” wrote Chatel.

**
Bokor might have been mysterious, cold and misty in the ’60s, but it was the Khmer Rouge who tattooed a truly dark shadow on the mountain. Uy Sokkaom can attest to that. The soft-spoken 55-year-old now works in Kampot town repairing motorbikes, and was formerly a tour guide. He used to live on the mountain – and saw some of the hotel’s most gruesome days.

After the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, Sokkaom’s father, mother and sister were murdered. “They accused my father of being in the CIA. I saw them kill my family, but I ran away from the killing place while they shot at me,” he remembered.

He fled to the jungle that sprawls across Bokor – at the time, a wild forest home to elephants and tigers – and spent years in hiding. That’s how he acquired his nickname: “Mr Tree”.

“When I lived up in the trees, the only thing I had to fear was cobras,” he recalled. “Then the Vietnamese found me. I had to convince them I wasn’t in the Khmer Rouge, and [so] I fought [alongside] them in the old church. I knew the mountain better than anyone, so I became a kind of leader.”

While Sokkaom and the Vietnamese were holed up in the church, the Khmer Rouge occupied Bokor Palace. Much of it remained untouched. There were still paintings hanging in the old ballroom. “The chandeliers didn’t work. The marble [which was later stolen] and the tables and chairs, they were still there,” recalled Sokkaom.

He can still picture the slaughter that took place. “They killed people in the casino – there was blood on the walls,” he said. “Some people’s hands were cut off.” Others had their hands bound and were thrown off the mountain, he added.

After the Khmer Rouge regime fell, Sokkaom worked with the United Nations to clear landmines – some of which he had planted during the conflict – from the area before later becoming a tour guide. Now he refuses to go back to the old hotel.

The mountain was named a National Park in 1993, but now the plateau belongs to Sokha Hotels. When asked about the development of the mountain, Sokkaom said: “It is not good for nature and the jungle, but it is good for jobs.”

Last year, a representative of Sokha Hotels said the old hotel would be converted into a museum. But when contacted for this article, management said there had been no decision on whether the hotel would be restored as a museum, or as accommodation.

Historian Jean-Michel Filippi, who is working to set up his own museum in Kampot, believes the former to be unlikely.

“I don’t think the old hotel will ever become a museum, in the true sense of the term. When I visited the new developments, I didn’t see any creativity or interesting perspective,” he said.

**
Whatever happens to the ruins, the hotel is well preserved in memory. From a letter by R. Villatte, an agronomist writing in the 1920s:

“There is nothing mediocre on the coast of the gulf of Siam; nature only exposes its masterpieces here. The marvelous Bokor Palace is a work of genius from one of the best governors of Indochina…

“By the moonlight, during one of those starry nights which Cambodia is so famous for, the poetic enchantment here seems to belong to things truly out of this world.”

‘An explosion occurred immediately. Prisoner Duong was in a pool of blood one metre away’

Kampot in the 1960s: The picture of ‘a prosperous provincial town’

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