In a gutted royal villa of mildewed walls, a wild gust welcomes cold spray into the shelter through long-glassless windows. Our guide, Dara, is ill-prepared for the weather in rain-soaked shirt and shorts. He shivers, hunched over, his hands seeking warmth in the pits of his elbows.
‘Welcome,’ he announces. ‘To Bokor National Park.’
Clouds have draped the view beyond the palace in opaque white. Heavy raindrops pelt the ground outside.
Bokor National Park
Bokor National Park is one of the main attractions to visit in Kampot in southern Cambodia. Tourists here come to see the ruins of the French Bokor Hill Station built in the 1920s and abandoned to warfare during the infamous Khmer Rouge era. It is a place of tantalising mystery.
We huddle together as we strain to hear Dara’s introduction to the park over Mother Nature’s howl and hiss. He has lost most of his crowd’s attention – we are more concerned about escaping the spittle of rain still penetrating the gutted remains of this shelter and seeking warmth against a feeble lick of flame in the corner than learning about Prince Sihanouk’s crumbling private palace. Dara stops the speech short, leans against a wall, and lights a cigarette. It is the first of many he will light today.
We return, a relieved pack of sodden sheep, to our van and continue the tour.
The pièce de résistance of the park is the crumbling ruins of the former hotel and casino, Bokor Hill Station. As we approach the building, we glimpse the echoes of a former French palace shrouded in mist. In B-grade Hollywood flick City of Ghosts, this very hotel (which features in the final action sequence) is speckled atmospherically with lichen. Today, it is being refurbished. The exterior walls are scrubbed up, lichen-free, an industrial grey.
Photo courtesy of Alessandro Vannucci
Dara steers the van into the underground garage where a waterfall tumults from the ceiling to form a shallow lake under the foundations. Despite the cover, the pervasive wind gusts through the garage and we run for the stairs.
We creep through damp corridors and around mouldy corners, side-stepping pools of rainwater leaking through the cracks in the walls and ceiling. Without electricity, we navigate by running chilled hands over moist concrete walls, winding our way up darkened staircases.
Bokor Hill Station served as a critical point of conflict during the Khmer Rouge war against the invading Vietnamese. Khmer Rouge soldiers camped out in these forgotten walls long after their government had fallen from power. Until the 1990s, the Hill Station was one of their last strongholds.
It is easy to imagine the howling gale is the cries of haunted souls trapped inside the building. We wander the many rooms and corridors and stairwells in a daze, turning back at dead-ends, or where the rain drives through the barren windows in sheets. It is eerie beyond imagining, the mists pooling in the abandoned rooms only adding to the atmosphere.
Somewhere beyond an elegant concrete balcony is a sudden cliff, but we can only see a thick white blanket.
‘It used to be considered a suicide point,’ Dara explains. ‘For those people who lost in the casino.’
The screams of a newly-arrived tour group expel us from the building. We beat our retreat with frost-bitten hands and squelching shoes.
Lunch is at the ruins of Bokor church. The downpour and mists won’t surrender, so when Dara parks the van by the roadside and waves his hand towards a mist-shrouded hill, we can only put our faith in him that the church is somewhere behind the veil.
We watch rivulets of water race each other down the windows, then take a deep breath, escape the warmth of the vehicle and sprint, slipping and sliding down makeshift mud rivers, up into the blank canvas.
Photo courtesy of travelcambodiaonline.com.
I barely glimpse mottled walls and a steeple before I ensconced in the clammy vestibule. The second chamber, with graffiti-covered walls, offers more shelter and greater warmth. We huddle in corners and eat fried rice from polystyrene containers, commiserating on the misfortune of such poor weather. The floor is too muddied to sit upon.
Curious tourists stray into the blackened disused kitchen until Dara calls them swiftly back, pointing out the sagging, unstable ceiling. We take turns using the drop toilet adjoining the kitchen. The door to the chamber rotted off long ago.
The next stop is an advertising office inside a large glass heated building. We linger only to gain respite from the cold outside. A development company has bought chunks of Bokor land to redevelop into resorts. A huge model in the centre of the cavernous hall displays examples of high rise buildings, flash new casinos, and modern hotels. Americanesque suburbia carves through the forests. Model houses are advertised for millions of dollars.
The tour group has bonded over the rain. When we return to the car, Dara turns to us.
‘Our next stop is the waterfall,’ he announces. But we have finally conspired in his absence. No, we tell him. We won’t be visiting the waterfall today. We had, we all agreed, seen enough of falling water for one day.
Also in Cambodia…
Cambodia has so much more to offer. Here are just a few other ideas, including my contribution to We Said Go Travel travel writing competition: