CommentaryTravel

Bokor-Death and Re-Birth

In Cambodia there are many old and uncared for buildings, though these seem to be disappearing at a rapid rate, and often where some run-down or even derelict structure once stood, a new and shiny one can now be seen. Very rarely do we see absolutely derelict buildings though, most will have some signs of life, a caretaker or family living in some jerrybuilt shelter in a corner, or surviving in some of the remaining habitable rooms.

I’ve had a strange obsession with derelict buildings since I was young. The area I grew up in had been an affluent neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century, and at that time had mansions and grand houses in abundance, many with gate lodges and walled fruit gardens, mews and servants quarters. By the time I got to wander the area, quite a few of these had gotten into disrepair. So there were heaps of these squalid villas, with caved in roofs, mildewed Edwardian wallpaper, and detritus, detritus which often gave life to ideas of what we imagined the place to have once been. These scraps, old door-knobs, decades old fragments of photos and newspapers, useless broken knick-knacks, gave it all a rather spooky look, the ghosts of what had once been the good life gone rotten and reminded you of it every time your foot went through a moldy floorboard. Later on, as a teenager I moved to London, which at the time was still dotted with derelict buildings, some of which had been abandoned since the blitz, but more of which had been vacated more recently, something I took advantage of for a while.

Once a house was abandoned, scrappers would check in, and after any remaining fittings were removed, lead was the first thing on their minds. Old roofs especially held a lot of lead, as it was used for most gutters and many interior pipes in its time. Once stripped out, this led to an obvious myriad of problems with the building suddenly exposed to weather, damp and plant damage. Copper could also be found in heating systems and sometimes as a conduit for electrical wiring. Smaller amounts are found in wiring itself, and although the process of salvaging it involves both a huge destruction of plasterwork and the burning off of plastic in noxious fires, this is nothing that would put off the desperate. Other things are sometimes scavenged out of buildings like slates, tiles, old timber and quarry stone, but these are all worth a lot less by weight and a lot harder to cart off, literally.

So, with a bit of help from the scrappers, the building gets the kind of damage that might take more than twenty years to come to pass from the elements alone. Even without them though, a building will deteriorate rapidly without maintenance. Soil will lodge in untended corners, and seedlings will sprout there. It starts small, with a few moulds, but in no time there will be huge roots chewing into the walls and cracking the place to bits. In the tropics this is compounded of course, and we have probably all seen what happens to a glorious shrine after a few centuries of neglect.

This brings me to Bokor, probably the finest remaining collection of derelict 20th century buildings in the world. Abandoned for a long time, there have been many monuments to man’s folly, but this stands out amongst them. What a splendid place it must have been though, up there on the plateau with its own temperate micro-climate, an escape from the clammy lands below, and far from the maddening crowds. First explored by the French in the early years of the twentieth century, there is little to suggest that it had been inhabited by locals previous to this, but the name derives from the Cambodian for “hump of a cow”. It was first decided in 1917 to build the road, but it took till 1921 for this to be completed. The locals forced to work on it suffered terrible deprivations and thousands died during its construction. Estimates vary from nine hundred to two thousand, but we will never know the true toll, as the colonial authorities in their own best interests didn’t keep good records of such things. At the time, people in Kampot were grumbling and suggesting that it would be more appropriate to fly a skull and crossbones flag up there, rather than the French tri-color.

It took a few years more to get the hotel built, and the extensive vegetable gardens that were set up to supply the place. This was to ensure that the hotel, which was envisaged as a world-class affair, would never run out of fresh produce. It was to provide a similar service as any top hotel in France could provide. The Bokor palace Hotel finally opened on Valentine’s Day, 1925. One can only imagine the excitement of the guests that night. The Resident Superior, Baudoin, was on hand to toast the place a successful future. This was understandable considering the flack he had been getting for years about the project. Bokor was touted back then as a relaxation and recuperation spot, especially for children.

The complex was first abandoned in the late 1940’s, when Viet Minh and Khmer Issarak forces moved into the area, however this situation didn’t last long, and life went on once again at Bokor. To raise some extra revenues in the early 60’s, Sihanouk decided to relax the gambling laws slightly, and a casino was set up at Kep, and at the Bokor Palace Hotel. The problem was, besides the long drive up a cold mountain, the locals still associated Bokor with death, and the casino there was never popular. Still, things rolled along until the early 70’s when the real war came to Bokor, and nothing up there has had so much as a lick of paint since! There were big battles for control of the plateau around 1979.

There are plenty of bullet holes around the place, and some buildings, for example the old post office, have obvious rocket damage, you can still see the mount of a big Vietnamese gun on the ridge above the old church. The province was still a hot-bed of resistance right up till the end of the conflict in 1999.

Anyway, enough of the war! It must have been splendid back in its day, and what a splendid place it will be again, whatever about the more outlandish plans floated around recently. Although most of us may have heard about planned roller-coasters and mini-golf courses, the reality is a probably a little more mundane than that. Supposedly the old Palace Hotel is going to get a renovation, and a couple of other facilities will be put in meantime, but don’t expect much of the original surrounding shells to survive.

There are big plans afoot for Bokor. I for one look forward to when I can comfortably ride up there, and perhaps walk along some tree-top jungle walkway that they have erected and enjoy a beautiful, chilled drink I’ll be able to pick up as I enjoy the beautiful scenery, the overwhelming noise of the jungle and the cold air. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Dermot Sheehan

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