The escape from the city of ghosts + Kampot

Kampot is a small town situated on the Teuk Chhou River. A few old French colonial buildings remain but on the whole it is unremarkable. Taking a bicycle outside and visiting the rural villages was far more interesting. As I dodged the pot holes, navigated the river and sought shade under the palm trees, I was very surprised to see the amount of women wearing the hijab. I was even more surprised to then come across two small mosques. After a small amount of research my random cycling had brought me into the Muslim practicing Cham community. Just like the Khmer they were as friendly as they come. It was a very picturesque bike ride, reminding me greatly of my time spent in Kerela, although the heat was a killer.

The principle reason to come to Kampot however is to jump on a tour and head up into the Bokor National Park. 1080meters up, perched on Phnom Bokor is a French hill station established in the early 1920’s. With a hotel, church and Cambodia’s first ever casino it became the hide-away for the rich and famous. However in 1972 the Khmer Rouge infiltrated the area and its inhabitants abandoned it in fear. It then became one of the last remaining strong holds of the Khmer Rouge as they fought for survival against the Vietnamese forces. Recently the now ghost town has opened up the road to tourism (as long as the relevant officials hands are greased) and was even the setting for the film ‘City of Ghosts’ starring Matt Dillon.

I had read that it was possible to spend the night at the Bokor hill station and set about going from tour operator to tour operator attempting to sort out the best deal. Some said it was not possible, some not, others charged the earth, I eventually settled upon Orchid travels (its mention will have more relevance later). The following day I set up the mountain in a mini bus with another fifteen or so tourists. After half an hour we transferred into a rickety pick up truck at the park entrance. Not long after that we were on foot, travelling through the jungle. We were joined by a guide and a non-English speaking ranger armed with an AK47, apparently in case of a tiger attack. It was a rather beautiful walk through the primary rainforest until after a couple of hours, drenched in sweat we jumped back on the truck and headed up to the hill station. Apparently the walk is not just a nice side trip but necessary as the government deems it too risky for tourists to be on that part of the road.

The hill station is fascinating not least because of its history, but also because of its current state. Everything has been looted leaving this once place of the rich, reduced to cold, eerie bareness heightened by the bright orange lichen attached to the walls. Bullet holes are evident throughout the building, the scene of many a battle. Every step you take echoes and the wind howls. Stepping out onto the front lawn, it was unfortunate that the mist had come down because otherwise it would have revealed the view that the hotel was famous for. Looking down on the sheer drop to the trees below though reminded us of the Chinese gamblers who were known for throwing themselves off of the edge when losing too much money at the casino.

I left the group after lunch revealing that I was the only one to be staying overnight. As one English guy said to me, ‘I don’t know whether to be envious or relieved.’ I was to stay the night in an empty dorm room at the Rangers station. After a quick nap I went to the Catholic Church and looked around it. Being alone increased the creepiness ten-fold. The whole place really does make you feel incredibly uncomfortable. Escaping with the heart rate just about ok I made my way up behind it and plonked myself on a rock. The clouds had lifted revealing one of the finest views I have ever seen. A sheer drop straight down to the rainforest below which then stretched all the way out to the ocean. It was hard not to feel like a god sat surveying his lands. The most beautiful butterflies flew around as birds soared over the trees below.

Someone asked me if I believed in ghosts. My response had been I will soon find out. I guess by the fact that as the sun set and I snapped some photos, I felt an urge to run as fast as I could away from the buildings, probably meant yes. Despite the temptation to return at night with a flash light, I was quite convinced my heart would not take it. Earlier our guide had told us about the amount of people thought to have been killed in and around the hotel. Only recently have the owners changed the sign outside of the hotel from ‘do not sleep here’ to ‘danger keep out’. The original sign was in place because it is thought that only after a special religious ceremony should anyone be safe to step inside the building at night. Many of the workers around the site have claimed to have seen ghosts.

That night I had way too much food at the Rangers station as the wife first served me a huge meal and then I was invited by the only English speaking person on site to have food with him and his friends. It was quite a feed.

The following day after breakfast I received a phone call on the Rangers mobile telling me there was no tour group going up that day so they would need to send a car to pick me up. Alarm bells rang. This was prime rip off territory as the tour company devolves responsibility for me and leaves me trapped! I spent the morning admiring the views and exploring other buildings surrounding the hotel, including the old Commissariat de Police. Eventually I arrived at the meet and waited for my car. After over an hour nothing came and I started to wonder. Then in a moment worthy of Hollywood itself a car approached. It stopped. Then crawled slowly towards me. A man wound down the window and passed me a mobile phone. Without introduction I was told in simpler words that the rendez-vous had changed. I was to go back down to the Rangers Station. The car promptly drove off. Unsure who I had just spoken to I started walking. Nearing the base, I met my Phnom Penh friend from the previous night. He delivered the devastating news that I may be too late for lunch. I quickened my pace and it brought rewards as the chief Ranger and his wife offered to share the food they were eating. Initially I panicked as I noticed small eyes and legs in one of the dishes. Cambodia is famous for the eating of insects. Luckily it turned out to be miniscule shrimps. All I could think of whilst I was eating it was those days on Cornish beaches hearing how we could not go fishing today as the prawns and shrimps were too small. After eating that dish they can never be too small. With this knowledge in hand, Willy Joe will not have to go through the same disappointment.

After some discussion the wife pointed to the Rangers car and indicated I was going down in that. All well and good except that the battery had gone flat. As the chief Ranger attempted to fix it and his marriage (just like in England, the man thinks he knows best when it comes to cars and refuses to listen to the wife who thinks she understands the solution) I sat around wondering if I would ever find my way down. Eventually after jump leads and attempting to steal another man’s car battery the jeep worked and we hit the road.

As we wound down to the bottom we went along the road where tourists are not allowed. It was ok, I was with the ranger after all. I didn’t find it particularly hairy, however what was disturbing was how much deforestation has taken place to allow for the building of the new five star resort they are planning to build up top. It is quite typical of Cambodia to sell all of its land and assets in return for quick money. The destruction of such a beautiful area, home to so endangered species is shocking. Returning back the man who runs Orchid travel looked delighted and relieved by my return. It was very fortunate to have chosen him as my organiser because I have little doubt that some of the other ones I spoke to would have devolved responsibility rather than sort it themselves.

Bokor hill station will be a place that I will long remember. It was so surreal being the only tourist in what in the future Cambodia hopes will become a major destination once again for the rich. The views were spectacular and the feeling I had when walking from building to building was everything you would expect from a so called ghost town. It may not have been on the same size of Chernobyl but with all the recent history surrounding the place it certainly has a very unnerving atmosphere and a disturbing story to match.

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