Kampot part 3! [+short history of Cambodia!]

Trip Start Dec 30, 2010
Trip End May 05, 2011

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Monday, February 14, 2011

In order to place my Bokor Mountain visit in context I'm going to have to give a brief outline of the recent history of Cambodia, for anyone that's not sure (I certainly wasn't before I knew I was coming here).  I'm sure I'll have got things wrong so if you notice anything obvious please let me know, most of my fact-checking was wikipedia-based!

From 1863 to 1953, Cambodia formed part of Indochina, a French colony.  The French established Bokor Hill Station in the 1920s: a mountain retreat with a cool climate, great panoramic vistas, and proximity to Kep beach.  It was a proper town during its heyday in the 1920s-30s, with a post office, Catholic church, a luxurious hotel and casino and several restaurants. 
During the Second World War, the Japanese occupied the country, meaning that Bokor's popularity was unfortunately shortlived.  It took a while for Cambodia to get on its feet again after the war, and when the country declared its independence from France in 1954, that was another big upheaval. 
Then of course came the Vietnam war in the 1960s, which spilled into Cambodia (complicated but basically their policy of trying to be friends with both US and China didn't really work and the US ended up bombing parts of Cambodia which was of course illegal). 
This extension of the Vietnam war kind of morphed into the Cambodian Civil War 1970-75, which pitted US-backed government forces against the North Vietnam-backed Cambodian communist party, the Khmer rouge.  Bokor Hill Station was used as a battlefield during this period.
The civil war finally came to an end in 1975 when the Khmer rouge seized power.  Unfortunately the wrong side won.  They mainly recruited children, 14yr old boys and the like, easily impressionable, to action their crazy ideology.  The idea was that Cambodia should return to its rural roots, and the leader of the regime Pol Pot was convinced that if every citizen became a rice farmer, the country could produce enough rice to make them all rich.  All the towns and cities were evacuated and everyone was forced to labour in the fields.  The economic policy was a massive failure and there was a huge famine.  Peasants were idealised and intellectuals were demonised: all professors, doctors and other professionals who hadn't escaped into exile or managed to hide under the radar were sent to prison, tortured then killed in concentration camps.  Even just wearing glasses would brand you as an intellectual.  The genocide lasted four years and 1.7million people were killed - over 20% of the population.  Going back to Bokor, the Khmer rouge used the hotel/casino as a sort of fort/military camp.  As they were living there, the hotel at this point was still intact.
In 1978 the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, and a pro-Soviet government 'The People's Republic of Kampuchea' was established.  Bokor became a surreal battlefield, with the Vietnamese occupying the hotel/casino, and the Khmer rouge occupying the church a few hundred metres away. 
Now comes the bit I struggle with.  We're into the Cold War, and the US and its allies (including Britain of course) are terrified of Soviet communism spreading.  This new government in Cambodia is therefore seen as an enemy to be extinguished, and (ignoring the genocide) the United States, United Kingdom and Thailand actively supplied the Khmer rouge to fight against the 'Republic of Kampuchea'.  This prolonged the misery of the Cambodians (what was left of them), and civil war raged throughout the 1980s.  The Khmer rouge still had a stronghold over much of the country, and made attacks on those parts of the kingdom not under their control.
1989 obviously had a major impact with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and finally in the early 1990s the UN decided to intervene in Cambodia.  (They didn't manage to prevent a coup d'etat in 1997 though.)  Pol Pot's death (of old age) in 1998 seems to have marked a turning point for the country.  Trials are ongoing for the leaders of the Khmer rouge, but progressing ridiculously slowly and gradually they're all dying off peacefully of old age, it's disgusting.
Now the population of Cambodia is overwhelmingly young, but sometimes when you see an older person (and we're talking middle aged not just old, this was not a long time ago) you wonder what they have been through in their life.  Then you remember it's just as likely they fought for the Khmer rouge as were victims.  In fact of course they're all victims.  I've heard people describe a 'brain drain' in Cambodia, as all the academics etc were killed in the first instance, and education was non-existent throughout all the turmoil following the genocide. Nowadays school is encouraged but not obligatory.  You really do get a sense that the country is being held together by NGOs.

So Bokor was basically a classy colonial holiday resort in the 1920s-30s, then abandoned for several years before becoming a stronghold of the Khmer rouge, then a battlefield, then abandoned for another couple of decades (when it was looted of all remaining iron fences, window frames, tiles and anything else seemingly of any value.)  It was opened to tourism in 1997 but the plot has now been leased for 99yrs to Chinese developers, who are in the process of building a massive road up there, and a new hotel/casino at the top.  The future of the ruins is undecided as yet but I doubt they'll place much importance on the history of the site, instead choosing the most economically effective solution.

Since the road is in construction, the only way to get up there at present is to take part in an organised day-long trek.  A pick-up truck took us up and down part of the hill (the bit that's already been built) which was an experience in itself - we were crammed in like sardines and during the first journey I made the mistake of crossing my legs, giving me horrendous pins and needles!  Then came the trek: 2 hours up and 1 hour down through the jungle.  In fact it was perfect:
not strenuous enough to make me miserable but definitely hard enough to
make me feel a great sense of achievement!  The ranger who led the trek looked about 16, wore flipflops and carried an AK47.

I can't tell you how atmospheric this place was, helped by the misty weather.  Apparently it was used in the filming of the movie 'City of Ghosts' and the title is certainly apt.  It's just so steeped in history, it's palpable.  I could have spent hours just exploring the hotel, the main structure of which was totally intact, with every bedroom, fireplace and bathroom recognisable.  Stepping onto the balcony of a clearly very expensive suite, you could imagine the people who'd stayed there and what they would think if they saw the place now.  Looking at the bulletholes in the walls opposite the huge fireplace of the main hall you could try to imagine what it was like as a battlefield, or when the Khmer rouge lived there.  Outside, making your way through weeds, you come to a cliff edge which took my breath away - it falls away incredibly steeply into a seemingly infinite spread of green.  Apparently during its casino days, countless men would hurl themselves in this direction after losing too much money and drinking too much alcohol.

The church was also incredible.  Made of brick rather than concrete, the outside structure was much more solid, but the interior had been entirely gutted expect for a central altar still standing resolutely amidst (mostly very recent) crude graffiti and broken tiles.  There were a few other ruins, including an almost totally destroyed building which still displayed a welcoming sign to "L'Auberge rurale de Bokor".  Some of the buildings seemed to be inhabited: washing was hanging in the empty window frames, and motorbikes parked outside.

It will be so interesting to come back and see what this place is like in ten years' time.  It has so much potential: you could maybe restore part of it, like one room to show what it was like in colonial times, one as a Khmer rouge base, and one as a battlefield, with exhibitions on the history.  I would just love to see photographs of the hotel in its heyday.  Go too far though and you'd ruin what is so amazing about the site.  If the developers restore or demolish any of the ruins entirely it would be such a great shame.

During the trek down we heard a loud explosion which we assumed was to do with the road construction.  Exiting the jungle, we waited two hours on the roadside as in fact they'd over-exploded, causing a minor landslide onto the road a bit further up so that our truck was stuck along with a load of other traffic.  Of course we had to deduce all of this ourselves.  Actually it was quite nice to chat to some other travellers, and we had an impromtu picnic with some snacks I'd accumulated in my bag: Indian almonds, Singapore sweets, salted broad beans from Bangkok airport, some hazelnuts from home and some more sweets from Cambodia.

We were meant to go on a sunset cruise but it ended up being a nightime one really.  Still, it was quite good fun and since it was cloudy I don't think we'd missed much.  I had dinner with a couple of women from the trek which was nice, then headed home to pack because the following morning I was moving on from Kampot!

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