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Posted by Tim on Jan 29, 2006
Afternoon at the Haunted Hotel

We spent one night in Krong Ko Kong, a delightfully sleepy border town with an undeserved reputation for sleaziness. We then traveled to Sihanoukville, a beach town whose own seedy reputation is somewhat more warranted.

After two nights there, the three of us (Jessica and I and our friend Klaus) moved on to the marvelous little village of Kampot. Is was from Kampot that we set out on our daytrip to the desolate Bokor Hill Station.*

*This entire daytrip was made possible by the generous support of our friends Derick and Missy. Thank you both, so so much, for helping us to explore this silent hill.

The Bumpy Road

The Elephant Mountains lay to the west of Kampot, looming imposingly just beyond the Kampong River. While the rolling Cambodian plains oscillate between a baking dry heat and a sticky wet heat, up in the mist-shrouded mountains the climate is far more temperate. From atop Bokor Hill, high among the Elephants, you can see for miles in every direction.

A spectacular view, and a comfortable escape from the heat of the plains. It was only a matter of time before someone would figure out how the hell to get up there.

The French began construction on a road to the peak of Bokor Hill in 1917, as part of their plan to build a luxurious resort town there. A massive workforce (composed primarily of convict laborers) toiled for over four years, hacking their way through some of the densest jungle in Southeast Asia. Thousands of them died.

It was along the crumbling remains of that road that our truck rumbled. Decades of neglect had left it an uninterrupted 40km stretch of potholes and rubble, a painful and bumpy trip even in the 4x4 pickup we were taking.

The jungle was in the process of reclaiming the road entirely, massively overgrowing it along the edges at times. Sitting in the bed of the truck as it bounced and groaned up the mountain, we had to duck first one way and then the other to avoid hanging vines and massive palm leaves with razor-sharp edges.

At times, the greenery would crowd out the sun entirely, and we would find ourselves driving through an enclosed tunnel of rainforest. Some of the foliage existed on a truly massive scale: we passed trees with individual leaves far larger than me. I began to wonder whether King Kong lived somewhere in this jungle.

The Roof of the World

After the grueling 2-hour drive came another 40 minutes of hiking. And then we were there.

The view from atop Bokor Hill was breathtaking. Below us lay sleepy Kampot and nearby Kep; beyond them was spread the Gulf of Thailand. Clearly visible in the distance to the east was Vietnam, and to the south loomed the massive Vietnamese island of Phu Quoc.

There was no denying the strategic importance of a viewpoint like Bokor. But in the early 1920s, the French were far more interested in transforming it into a luxurious holiday getaway. To this end they constructed an entire little resort town up there, complete with post office, church, and two casinos. On our hike up from the truck to the summit of Bokor, we passed the sorry remains of many of these buildings, but they all paled in comparison with what came next.

The French, you see, had also built one absolutely massive hotel: the Bokor Palace.

Here

It is a huge and terrifying structure. It's no surprise that the first reaction most people have to the Bokor Palace is to be instantly reminded of the nightmarish hotel from the film The Shining. And like its fictional counterpart, the ground the Palace sits upon is blood-soaked.

"The local people," commented our guide Kei, "they say that the people who died here, they became ghosts. They say that those people will never leave this place after everything that happened here."

When the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, they immediately recognized the strategic importance of this place. The sumptuous halls that had once been the playground of the upper-crust of Indonchine society were transformed into barracks. As Pol Pot's genocidal rule destroyed the country, the troops stationed at Bokor kept their eyes firmly fixed on Vietnam. And in December 1978, the Vietnamese came.

They swept through most of the country in a fortnight, meeting only token resistance. One place where the Khmer Rouge put up a real fight was at Bokor. The battle raged for months: the Khmer forces were holed up in the old church, while the Vietnamese headquartered themselves down the street at the Palace. Countless numbers on both sides lost their lives.

Today at Bokor, all of the buildings bear a lasting reminder of those bloody days and nights: bulletholes.

After that, it was all abandoned for decades. I could see as we approached the hotel that its walls were all covered in patches of rust-colored moss, which (combined with the flaking remains of the hotel's original coat of dark red paint) looked like nothing so much as bloodstains. Inside, the empty hallways echoed with our footsteps as we explored the maze of rooms and hallways, from darkened basement to rooftop terrace.

I have never in my life been in a place so unnerving.

Outside the crumbling hotel, beside the yawning front doors, a small sign reads DO NOT SLEEP HERE. I really can't imagine that anyone could.

Bokor Hill is known for its unpredictable weather patterns. In testament to those, and in some odd homage to horror movie cliches, the sky darkened as we approached the Palace, and did not brighten until just after we'd left. Other than the hour or so we were at the hotel, the day was all blinding sunshine. But while we were there, an inky patch of black clouds hovered over our heads. Some coincidences you can't help but chuckle at.


A Gothic Farewell

Our last stop before departing Bokor was the decaying ruins of the old Catholic church. It was here that the Khmer Rouge had staged their desperate last stand before finally falling to the Vietnamese. Just as at the Palace and so many other buildings on Bokor Hill, the church's pockmarked walls bore silent witness to the violence they had seen.

I'd read that on one of the walls was a self-portrait carved decades ago by a Khmer soldier under seige, but I couldn't find it. Perhaps the layers and layers of graffiti that have been laid down since have completely obscured it. Many of the names carved into the walls were written in Khmer, left there by Cambodian tourists in the past few years.


Sunset

The two-hour drive back down the mountain was no less bone-jarring than the trip up had been. We ended our day with a trip out to a nearby waterfall for a refreshing swim, and then a leisurely boat journey down the river back to Kampot.

As we coasted homeward, the sun began to set behind the Elephant Mountains. All of us were quiet, exhausted from the exertions of the day. I lay sprawled out on my side of the motorized canoe, staring out at the world that floated past.

Small one-person fishing canoes paddled by. Children played along the edges of the water amid howls of laughter. We slid past a village set on stilts out over the water, and returned the friendly waves offered by the people there.

It really was just the perfect way to end our day.

Marcus
January 29, 2006 at 12:46pm
Guys STAY AWAY FROM THE HAUNTED STUFF, PLEASE DON,T BRING ANY UNWANTED SPIRITS HOME, BLAAAAA
Don,t make me come over there!
Marcus
Philsie
January 29, 2006 at 1:55pm
dam ittttttttttttttt
daddy
January 29, 2006 at 9:57pm
hey philsie's back, please be careful about walking in these placesit doesn't sound safe
KerryGirl
January 30, 2006 at 12:22pm
It's a good thing that I wasn't in that haunted house with you two for two things would of happened: 1.) I would of been so scared that I'd probably would of soiled myself and
2.) I wouldn't help but be tempted to scare Timmy out of his mind by saying in a creepy voice "there's a rope!" :D Hmm.. something tells me that I'm going to pay for this comment by being forced to watch "Ring 2" when he comes home. *tee-hee* ;)
Loofa
January 31, 2006 at 10:31am
Haunted house… It could not have been as much fun without a certain person cowering in fear from every shadow… um never mind, I am never afraid of haunted houses! (Philsie just.. Shhh!)
missy&derick
February 2, 2006 at 2:08pm
Whenever you want to include ghosts on your travels, we're here for you! :)
Janet
February 4, 2006 at 6:09am
Looks one hell of a lot scarier than Alcatraz. Was that blood stains on the floor? Creepy!
MoonUnit_Polka
February 7, 2006 at 11:15am
Man…architecture has never been quite so creepy. The picture alone is unnerving enough to guarantee that NO ONE could have coaxed me off the front lawn and through the front door.
Philsie
February 8, 2006 at 11:00am
Timmy u suck
Tim the hedgehog
February 11, 2006 at 4:44am

Timmy u suck

Philsie, you smell like pea soup. :)

Mama Wise
February 12, 2006 at 3:08pm
Hey you two, So happy everything is going so great. Papa Wise and I are going to spend the night at the Seneca Casino hotel on Valentines Day. Whoopie doo! We'll trade places with you, gladly. Mike and Liz are going to Paris next week for a vacation. They don't even have to dig until Jordan in the Fall. Take care and stay safe. Love, Mama Wise
Philsie
February 15, 2006 at 1:38pm
Timmy check out the new strong bad…i see a new t-shirt coming…
daddy
March 14, 2009 at 7:10pm
i think that the new format is wonderful, you both should very proud of creativity in your new look

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