Ghost stories: the living and the dead

Trip Start Oct 04, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Monday, March 13, 2006

I was half way between Kampot and Kep, little towns in the middle of that meant that I am truly in the middle of the middle of nowhere. I had met two Swiss guys on my way to Kampot from Sihanoukville and we had decided that we should go exploring, so we rented two motorbikes and off we went...until we got the flat. Which is why I ended up standing outside of a little shack that acted as garage, gas station, and distillery (yes, the liquid in the vat to the side of the house was rum). When we approached, the entire family came out to stare and smile and giggle as we got our tire fixed. I was given a little stool to sit on while a little boy about five years old shyly smiled at me from behind a pole and his two older brothers tussled with each other over a half deflated volleyball. In the opposite corner of the yard a huge mother pig lay on her side as all her cute little piglets fought for access to "lunch". It was one of those moments that really made me realize that, yes, I'm in Cambodia. THIS is Cambodia. This lovely, friendly family that fixed our tire for less than a dollar and sent us on our way with smiles and waves.

Once in Kep, though, the mood changed. Where I had felt nothing but warmth and life when sitting with that family, here I felt hollowness. Yes, the sun reflecting on the water was beautiful and the hammocks did look very inviting, but it was obvious that this was a ghost town. The French had made it a very popular resort town before the Khmer Rouge regime and their grand villas still remained, but now the lawns were overgrown, the windows without glass, the ornamentation ripped out, and the walls riddled with bullet holes. It was sad to drive through and know that it had once been a happy place. It looked like there were beginnings of reconstruction, and the crabshacks had a few customers, but it all seemed so tired and sad. The lifeforce of this place had been drained many years before.

The fog had drifted across the "road" giving chills and obscuring our view on and off all the way up the mountain. For the past ten minutes all that we could see from the back of the pickup truck was the vague forms of bushes and trees on the hills next to us. And then suddenly it appeared right in front of us - The Bokor Palace Hotel. We had spent two hours bumping up the nonexistant road, broken up with an hour jungle hike, to get to what is supposed to be the creepiest place in South East Asia. The hotel had been built as a getaway for the French who prefered the cool mountain air to the beaches of Kep. It was a five-star piece of heaven overlooking the jungles surrounding the mountain, the nearby towns, and the ocean beyond. Then, like in Kep, it was all abandoned and taken over by the Khmer Rouge. What had once been a pleasure place become a prison from which no one returned. Thousands of people died here, starved, tortured, shot, and pushed off the mountain's edge. After the war was over there was a famine, during which the place was stripped of everything that could be removed. So here we were, eight of us in the back of a pick up looking up through the fog at the shell of a building that was once magnificant. It gave me chills just looking at it. As I walked up the main stairway through what had once been a lobby and made my way through the rooms looking out over the jungles, the fog followed me. It felt like the ghosts of all those poor people who had perished there were following me, wrapping around my body, and guiding me. I soon found myself alone in the basement. This was where all the prisoners were kept, many of them killed down there. My chest tightened and I felt cold, as if someone were watchng me. I resisted the urge to run back up the stairs for as long as I could, but I could feel the cold horror of the place in my bones. Whether something really was down there, as all the stories said there was, or if it was just my imagination, who knows. Climbing up the nearest stairs I could find in the labryinth of the hotel, I found myself in a room that must have been a luxurious sitting room or ballroom with a huge fireplace in the middle. I was thinking how beautiful it all must have been when I saw something by the door that once again made my blood run cold. There, right by the door that led to the jungle overlook, was a place in the wall that was so full of bullet holes that entire chunks were missing. It was a sobering sight. There may not be real ghosts at Bokor, but the reality of death is strong there. Back in the truck on our way down to the living world, I looked back to see the entire building swallowed up by fog, gone as quickly as it had appeared.

Walking down the streets in my last day in Kampot, the sun beginning its descent behind the mountains and the children playing some sort of game resembling kick ball, I suddenly felt as if I were walking down a street in the States. I may be halfway around the world from home in place very different from what I grew up with, but the most important things are the same. As I pass, the children wave to me with giggled shouts of hello, and I wave back just as excited as they are to make that small contact. Here, despite the horrors of their past, a new generation is growing up knowing love and peace. I feel safe walking these streets alone, safer sometimes then in Charlottesville or Arlington, because I know that the guys on bikes and motos are just staring out of curiosity or because they want to make a few dollars giving me a ride to my guesthouse. I smile and tell them no, that I like to walk. There are puppies playing in the dust-filled gutters, it always seems that one is black and one is white - strange. Little babies wearing only little t-shirts sit on their mothers' or sisters' laps, safe in the arms of those who love them. As dinnertime approaches, the mouthwatering smells of curry, fried rice, and noodle soup begin to fill the air. A breeze from the nearby ocean cools the sweat on my brow and ruffles my skirt up so that I have to grab the edges to make sure I don't give the watching moto drivers something to really look at. As I approach my guesthouse, I think, that this is a perfect way to end my stay in Cambodia, enjoying the life of the country, the love that has managed to survive so much terror.
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dadofdivaboots on

I was brought to tears reading this compassionate and sensitive and moving and descriptive. Amazing observations, Lacey,,,Wow

prashant badve on

Really awesome to read your story. I am sure you must be writer by now
This will help me for my coming trip to Compot.
thanks a lot

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