The Bokor Hill Station
We were on our way to Kampot, a riverside town in Southwest Cambodia and home to Phnom Bokor, a mountain upon which a French ghost town is perched. Way back when, I learned about the Bokor Hill Station and was immediately enthralled with the place. Abandoned places and things are like caffeine for my imagination. From ghost towns in California and Nevada to athletic shoes strung over city telephone wires, I have always been curious about the stories of the places, the things that people no longer want. Usually, their stories are hard to come by, but the history of the Bokor Hill Station is not unknown, and its story makes the place all the more intriguing.
The Bokor Hill Station was a colonial retreat, built by the French in the early 1920s -- a complement to the neighboring beachside resort city of Kep (which is also abandoned and strewn with ruins). The hill station was an 'elegant getaway for French officials and foreign visitors' seeking temperate climes in the oppressive heat of Cambodia. The French abandoned it in the late 1940s when fighting between the Vietnamese, French, and Khmer Issaraks forced evacuation. Affluent Khmers then used the Hill Station until the early 1970s, when it was again abandoned because the Khmer Rouge took over the area, using the hill station as a base of operations. Eventually, the Vietnamese took Phonm Bokor when they 'liberated' and then occupied Cambodia in the late 70s. In its history, the Hill Station has seen luxury and war; has been a place of sanctuary and battle. Today it stands in ruins, a mere skeleton of its former self, with battle wounds and graffiti on its walls.
The French picked the perfect place to build a mountain retreat. Afterall, King Norodom had his summer palace up there. From the top, there are amazing views of the coastline (when the mountain isn't shrouded in fog), waterfalls, lush jungle, and wet evergreen and deciduous forests. The Hill Station is located on the Southern tip of the Elephant Mountains and in today's time, within the Bokor National Park, which was established in 1995. Within the park, there are elephans, tigers, leopards, bear, primates, peacocks, buzzards, and more. We saw a pig-tailed macaque and pit viper during our foray into the wilds.
The original plan was to ride a rented motorcycle from Phnom Penh to Kampot (148 km) and up to the top of Phnom Bokor. I'd read that the road to the Bokor hill station was difficult to navigate in a car, but perfect for a dirt bike. In fact, it was in learning about the abandoned hill station three plus years ago that I signed up for a motorcycle riding class back home. Getting to the old hill station was going to be an adventure on two wheels. However, plans changed when we postponed our trip to the Southwest coast until the end of our month in Cambodia -- we were following good weather. With the change in plan, we would no longer be looping back through Phnom Penh and so, we took the bus instead of bikes.
"We can still ride to the top of the mountain," Benjamin mentioned on the evening before we left Phnom Penh.
"I dunno..." was my answer. Suddenly I'd turned into a big coward. Everything I'd read about riding to the top of the mountain was alarming. "I don't have the kind of experience you could set in italics," I told Benjamin.
He laughed. "What?"
"All the guidebooks and pamphlets, they say experienced riders only should make this trip. In italics. I don't even know if you could use a regular-weight font for my level of riding experience."
Benjamin looked amused.
"I don't want to die," I added.
When we arrived in Kampot, we learned that the dirt bikes for rent were in poor condition. We were advised not to take one to the top of Bokor. This sealed the deal for me, but Benjamin was a little dejected by the thought of taking a car to the top. It was certainly 'less adventurous' and maybe even a little 'nerdy' to scrap the bike ride in favor of a Toyota Carolla that had illustrations of dinosaurs on the doors.
We found this car (and the driver) on the street corner. The beauty of travel in many Asian countries is that if you want or need something, all that is required is your presence on a street corner: everything finds you. We positioned ourselves on opposite corners of a wide boulevard with a traffic circle and within minutes, had several offers. At first, we weren't able to find a driver who would make the trip for less than $25.00. We didn't want to spend more than $20.00. So we walked away, thinking of a 'plan B'. Suddenly, a moto driver appeared next to us, telling us that his uncle would take us for $20.00. He was just a phone call away and appeared several minutes later with a cargo of passengers headed to Sihanoukville, a beach town several hours away. He deposited them with another driver and returned with our chariot, a beat up gray Carolla infused with years of sweat and dino decals on the exterior, which seemed to personify the car itself: it appeared to be ancient.
In the end, we were glad to have taken the car. The 'road' to the Bokor Hill Station is a loose term, a generous term for what looked more like a dry river bed with man-eating pits, giant boulders, and deep ravines. There are segments of asphalt here and there, enough bits to remind you that there once was a proper road, but left to the decay of war and time, it has degenerated to nothing more than a tumultuous path in the jungle.
On the way to the top, we found a helpless German couple who'd decided to take a scooter up the mountain road. They were stranded 15 minutes into the two-hour drive with a flat tire and had no choice but to walk the bike back down. At the top, we found some intrepid riders who made the journey, successfully, on a dirt bike. One of them was pulling a leech off his thigh, which was apparently flung onto his skin while riding through a deep puddle. I was happy for the 'safety' of our sweaty smelling dino-mobile, which was, once at the top, the laughing stock of other drivers who made the trip in SUVs and trucks. The only reason our car made the journey without issue was the prowess of our driver and a lifted suspension.
The Bokor Hill Station is an eerie place: a collection of crumbling buildings covered in red lichen and green moss, set upon a plateau on the edge of a cliff, with drifts of fog rolling in and curling around the framework of buildings like ghostly fingers. I felt like I was on the set of a horror movie and half expected to find vampires sleeping in the steeple of the old church. The fog came and went: one minute the entire view was completely obliterated by white mist, the next blue patches of sky and sun illuminated the entire plateau. Peering over the cliff's edge, down into the clouds below, it felt as if we were on the edge of the world and could be gobbled up and trapped in time, like Bokor, by the swirling mist around our feet.
In addition to the church, there are remains of a police station, library, post office, casino, and hotel. The old hotel has been likened to the one in 'The Shining', but to me, it felt more peaceful than horrific; the elegance of the past still permeates the ruined building, found in the patterned tiles on the floor, the curving staircases, the details of the woodwork, and what is left of the decorative windows. With some imagination, it is possible to hear the clink of wine glasses and the crackle of a fire in the massive dining room; to see women sunning themselves out in the garden; to smell trails of perfume lingering in the bed chambers; to feel the revelry of party-goers and happy gamblers having won fortunes in the casino.
We spent several hours exploring the Hill Station, feeling as if we'd somehow found passage to another dimension of time -- with the waves of misty fog, revealing and hiding the stately silhouettes of abandoned buildings... there one minute, gone the next... Perhaps this is how the Bokor Hill Station lives on in the memories of those who spent time there: vacationers are soldiers alike. If the walls could tell stories, I wonder, what stories would they tell?