The Ghosts of South-central Cambodia
From: Room 11. Phnom Khieu Guesthouse, Kampot, Cambodia.
Abandoned areas all over the world have a common eerie kinship. The same sadness that pervades the ghost towns and Anasazi Indian ruins of the desert southwest of America where we live, is present in the relics of past colonial luxury found all over this south-central part of Cambodia. Grand villas, regal residences, opulent hotels, government offices dripping with ornamentation and once flush casinos have all been abandoned and are slowly being worn down by the jungle and it's climate.
The most fertile ground for nurturing imaginings of outposts of refinement amongst the far-flung colonies of Indochina is undoubtedly Bokor Hill Station. High atop a plateau in the Elephant mountains this breezy refuge from the world around it has all the trappings. The fantasy of exploring a rare site just one's own begins with the rugged ride to the top. The guidebook describes the road as 'atrocious' for the first 20 km but after Hwy. 3 and with the powerful dirt bike beneath us, we felt prepared for anything. It occurred to me on the way up that I might celebrate my first anniversary of motorcycle ownership with an accident two days in a row. So on the way down I did. I do not quibble with the adjective 'atrocious' to describe the road to Bokor hill station. No, rather I have a problem with calling what we struggled over for an hour a road. 'Boulder strewn riverbed' or 'remnants of a rockfall ' seemed more apt appellations. Nevertheless it was a stretch of my abilities now stored away as a learning experience and the way down was almost much easier. The trick was to damn the spine and hit the potholes head on rather than try to swerve around them in the loose rock and sand and fall entirely. That is until you get a flat front tire and the same rule will only get you a dented rim and a reopening of the previous days wounds, both physical and psychological. We walked the last 2 km pushing the bike to the ranger station at the entrance where we were met by a heroic fellow rider who'd gone ahead to fetch a tire-repair man.
'Road' quality aside, the ride to the top is through jungle that exceeds expectations of thick canopies of monkey filled fecundity. Vines as thick as our arms hang from branches out of sight somewhere in the green light above, giant rocks that could be lost jungle temples are locked in place only by thick root systems and gigantic ferns make us think of the possibility of pockets of surviving dinosaurs. These prompts to far fetched fantasy are not tempered once emerging onto the drier grassier vegetation of the plateau above. Here the abandoned buildings begin to appear, some reclaimed by the jungle, some almost totally destroyed and others so well preserved one need add only doors and windows to imagine how lucky the people lived here were. The views of the gulf of Thailand the houses are built to take advantage of stretch to the distant horizon past the fields and beaches of the coastline and the shimmering sea.
Further on, in the center of 'town' there is a bullet ridden Catholic church that was the Khmer Rouge's last stand against the invading Viet army. The view the hill station affords is not only breathtaking but strategically crucial and the firefight that took place here lasted three months. There is a post office, more overgrown villas, a royal residence and a casino with an entirely rotted safe and stalagmites beginning to form in the room where Roulette tables once clattered. An odd water tower that seems too modern even today, a half filled and overgrown reservoir and the small but supposedly real possibility of spotting Tiger and Elephant within this national park . The crown jewel though, the reason to undertake the harrowing road to the top is the Bokor Palace Hotel.
Thick with red lichen the Palace Hotel must once have been beautiful in the refined taste of the French who built it almost 100 years ago. The lobby is small with high ceilings, the ballroom not grand but just right and the rooms all suites with views worth the ride up and the prices they must have gone for. All this is only in the imagination for what remains today is a film set for a haunted house. In fact if any director were to use the place as the backdrop to a horror film we would all laugh at the cliché. Walking down the stairs into the huge empty kitchen one hears pots still bubbling in the alcoves and sees white frocked French chefs shouting orders. Further on, near the laundry rooms where the maid are working, the Chauffeurs lean on the shiny cars just dusted after the ride up the mountain, smoking and laughing together. More cars are pulling up and bags are being stacked in the lobby beneath the sparkling chandelier. Uniformed bellhops struggle to get trunks up the small spiral service stairs to the large suites. Heels clack on the tile floors as someone approaches the doors of the ballroom, swings them open and lets out the light and noise of the party inside. Brightly lit and full of people sipping drinks and talking amongst the potted palms and the piano music, waiters move with silver trays and white lined folded over their arms. The fire pops, a lady laughs and touches her neck and on the verandah where lights glow more softly a man admiring the view blows out a puff of cigar smoke that is whipped away by the gentle breeze.
Indulgent fantasy? Overactive imagination? I truly felt no effort in thinking of these vivid scenes as I walked about that deserted hotel. It was almost as if they were being suggested to me by some residual energy in the place. Perhaps places with as much personality as the Grand Palace Hotel, such misfortune, have their own memories. Memories that are shared with anyone willing to listen the whispers in the bare ruined rooms and long dark corridors. Maybe those whispers are just the wind that always seems to be blowing here. Perhaps. Though if this hotel isn't haunted, it really ought to be.