April/May  2010


Jeff and Mark Loved Kep and Bokor

After a day of touring in southern Cambodia, my partner and I were sound asleep in Kep when a thunderstorm came through. We were awakened by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning which seemed to turn night into day. With each rumble and crash the windows rattled.

While waiting for the storm to pass and sleep to return, I couldn’t help but reflect that very similar sensations could have signaled far more grave occurrences in this very area less than 20 years ago.

In the 1990s, when Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge were writing one of the most savage chapters in Cambodia’s history, Kep and nearby Bokor bore the brunt of much warfare and destruction. Both areas have been referred to as “ghost cities” due to the loss of human life and the stark architectural remains of these events.

Mark and I had spent the preceding day touring Bokor and Kep on our vacation with Purple Dragon. We were fortunate to have our own personal guide; we were not relegated to a bus of noisy tourists or to a typical package tour. We had the opportunity to learn about the places and their history while seeing the ghostly remains of once luxurious and vibrant areas. Perhaps most importantly, we were able to absorb and reflect on all of this at our own pace.

Jeff and  Mark Loved Bokor Hill StationWe walked through the Bokor Palace, in its day the finest hotel and casino in the region, and marveled at the bright orange lichens covering the walls where once beautiful finishes provided a backdrop for the high life. As wind moved through the broken windows, doorways and around gracefully curved staircases, the din of the roulette wheels, card dealers and chatter of privileged guests whispered to us. The light fog which crept through ruined rooms recalled the heady atmosphere of fine cigars and French perfume. Sunlight flickered through bullet and grenade holes in the walls, suggesting firelight dancing from the grand fireplace on chilly Bokor evenings. Piles of sand on the balconies and terraces suggested more recent events. Sandbags once surrounded gun emplacements used by the Vietnamese as they occupied the building and fired at the Khmer Rouge in a nearby Catholic church, also now in ruins. Eventually, from the vantage point of the Bokor Palace, the Khmer Rouge were driven into the jungles, signaling the near end of their death grasp on the country.

Kep, a mid-century seaside resort for elite Cambodians and wealthy foreigners, was also reduced to near rubble during these terrible times. Mansions and royal palaces once lined the coast. Now the remaining high walls and gates enclose nearly unrecognizable fragments of these opulent homes. Some stand as skeletal reminders of their past grandeur, some have been swallowed by the mango trees and exotic landscaping that once framed them. Still others live only in memories and old photographs.

There is a strange and fragile beauty in all of this. Not only are the images arresting, but the immediacy of their history is alarming. Missing is the intellectual comfort that comes with understanding events of centuries past. Most of us can remember what was going on in our own lives while Cambodians were living this nightmare. Beauty can also be found in the people of Cambodia, who will always bear witness to these tragedies. Despite their recent past, when the material destruction paled in comparison to the cultural and human destruction, they graciously welcome visitors, share their history, and look to a more positive future.

The future, with renewed prosperity and tourism, does indeed look positive for Cambodia. The beginnings of that future can be seen everywhere. There is a huge new road being built to Bokor delivering tourists to a mega hotel complex currently under construction there. This new building will dwarf the nearby Bokor Palace. The effects of large numbers of tourists will irrevocably change the sights that we saw. Kep’s devastated mansions of the 1960s are being rehabilitated or replaced to once again welcome wealthy visitors; soon their ruined visages will be gone.

While these changes will have beneficial economic effects, I am glad that Mark and I got to see this area, take in its beauty, and ponder its lessons while its past is there to be appreciated. If you are thinking of traveling to this part of Cambodia, and want to appreciate the raw history and atmosphere of these places, you may want to consider a visit sooner rather than later. With time and progress, the whispers of these ghost cities will certainly grow faint.

Jeff Wood, San Francisco, CA
March, 2010

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