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Bokor Mountain - An Abandoned Beauty in the Clouds

By: Charles Usher Posted: January-31-2008 in
Charles Usher

The flappers' gowns are torn, their cloche hats discolored and disintegrating; coattails are ripped and muddied; cigarette holders dangle from bare phalanges; the haunting quintet in matching tuxedos is tearing through Duke Ellington; and a reanimated, though paler than usual, Jay Gatsby has flown in to host the liveliest -- or is that undeadest? -- party of the year in the decrepit ballroom. No need to clear out the dead branches on the floor. The guests' spectral feet will Charleston right through them. And no need to clean out the fireplace; the chilled air suits the atmosphere nicely. Spend a few minutes wandering around the remains of Le Palace Hotel at Bokor Hill Station and peregrinations of fantasy like this can quickly seem to take on an eerie possibility.

The Palace is and was the focal point of Bokor, where French colonialists would retreat when they tired of the lowland heat or the quotidian drudgery of lording over their colonial subjects. The oasis, like so much of this pain-riddled country, has endured a violent history. Scores of indentured Cambodians died in the eight years spent constructing the station and the mountain road leading to it. It had to be abandoned in the late 1940s under pressure from the Vietnamese and the anti-colonialist Khmer Issarak forces, and again in the 1970s when Lon Nol left it to the Khmer Rouge. The only residents the station has seen since were alternating populations of Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops before being definitively abandoned and left to devolve into its present hollowed condition.

The road leading to Bokor -- and it isn't so much a road as a 32 kilometer taunt; a three-hour middle finger raised in the direction of the visitor's lumbar; a 910 meter climb over potholes, craters, and the occasional tiny piece of asphalt. Most visitors will traverse the road sitting on a bench in the bed of a 4x4 pickup. Hold on and keep your eyes turned forward so you know when to duck out of the way of one of the numerous tree branches hanging over the road. With good humor the conditions make for a fun trip up, although the jarring, the unpruned branches, and the sore arse can lose their charm along the way.

The first building encountered, about two-thirds of the way to the summit, are the remains of Sihanouk's villa, named, in a delightfully wicked fairy tale manner, the Black Palace. Christened so for its construction with black wood, it was built in 1936, saw its last bomb in 1995, and today is little more than a burnt-out shell hosting a dozen Cambodian soldiers lolling about playing cards, hanging shoes on bushes to dry, and taking naps in hammocks.

Leaving the Black Palace and the soldiers behind the road continues up to the hill station where the first thing you see is the flying saucer-shaped water tower. The rest of the station is a somewhat otherworldly scene as well: abandoned buildings left over to ruin and time, tall grasses left to sway in the mountaintop breeze. Its macabre charms have by no means gone unnoticed, as Bokor has served as shooting locations for City of Ghosts and the Korean Vietnam War horror movie R-Point.

Among the buildings at Bokor is an old concrete and brick church, gone black with age, graffitied and chipped, covered with moss and lichen, any holy ghosts having long since vanished. Further up the bluff are the skeletons of the post office, the casino, and, overlooking them all, the Palace Hotel.

Undoubtedly grand in its day the Palace now looks as if someone took a sledgehammer to it willy-nilly: nearly every surface is chipped or punctured and spiral staircases are split in two where steps have broken off. Like the other buildings at Bokor it's possible to wander through the Palace -- from basement kitchens to rooftop terrace -- letting your imagination loose, conjuring up images of the lives of the French colonialists or of the afterlives of those to whom this splendid and decrepit location would be the perfect final resting place.

Please Note: Due to recent development in progress the road up Bokor mountain is now closed. EAS will keep you posted as to when it will be open to the public again.

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