It used to be a retreat. 90 years ago, the French spent 9 months building Bokor Hill Station up as the ultimate getaway: escape from the miserable heat and humidity of Phnom Penh. 900 laborers died while building it, but to the French all these ghosts were worth it. There was a casino, a ballroom, a hotel, and when all the sinning was done, a Catholic church.
But this was a century ago.
In the 1940s, the French fled. Cambodia was no longer theirs. The wealthy Cambodians, and even a few royals, moved in and took over. The dancing and gambling and whoring continued anew. Life was rich. When too much was lost, it’s been said, the unlucky rollers would just hurl themselves off the cliff… a fast, drunk, rolling death. They weren’t all suicides, either. The fog rolls in thick, fast and unexpected like a Val Lewton movie. A single wrong step, and you’ll slip out of sight. One minute, it’s a clear blue sky. The next, you can’t see your feet.
“The ghosts,” locals say. “The ghosts here are many.”
In 1972, the year I was born, Bokor Hill was taken by the Khmer Rouge. It was the end of the ballrooms and casinos and Catholic churches. Instead of fine wines and romps and giggles, this casino became a space for target practice. It was a Pol Pot hotspot, and stayed that way until the 1990s. It was one of the last few places for the Khmer Rouge to keep a grip. How many lives were lost here during their time? How many lives were lost across Cambodia? How many ghosts are here?
The fog rolls in again. The walls are moldering and rotting in the damp air, and collapsing. So are the floors. I’d feel a step give under me, a significant downwards shift, and I’d move back. “Maybe I’ll try another room,” I’d laugh, nervously.
Bullet holes still line the walls. Green and orange fungus wallpaper it all. There’s human feces on the floor, grass growing from unlikely places, and graffiti absolutely everywhere. Some of it is in Cambodian, but much of it is foreign. “RedRum,” some cad carved into a stairwell. Comparisons to the Overlook Hotel are possible.
Down the street… if street is the right word to use, as it’s long gone… a bombed out post office and the crumbling Catholic church remain. The altar has been cleared, and the walls are plastered in scrawling. Outside, a tile pathway has been ripped up, and is mostly concealed by overgrowth.
Three years ago, the entire area was leased, and a new road is today being built. A golf course is on its way. So is a hotel. A new hotel. Perhaps there’ll even be a casino. Perhaps it’s time for some new ghosts, as well.
Hipstamatic pix by me. Others by Woo