25th September 2018
‘A visit to Bokor Mountain is a must,’ our guesthouse host in Kampot explains. ‘Mind you, since the Chinese leased the mountain, a lot has changed. You better go now before it’s too late and nothing is left. They have already spoilt Sihanoukville…’
They are eyed with suspicion, distrust even. Just like in Vietnam, the Chinese are not welcomed by the locals in Cambodia. Under the surface, sentiments run high, trampled into silence and acquiescence as the locals feel powerless to turn the tide. They watch on as more and more of their country is sold out to Chinese and foreign companies whilst the grease of corruption only touches the greedy hands of the ‘establishment’. Here, progress doesn’t touch the lives of ordinary citizens. Welcome to 21st century communism. Welcome to modern colonialism.
Liz and I visit Bokor Mountain riding pillion, safely seated on the back of motorbikes; we haven’t taken to renting them for ourselves… yet… It’s quicker than cycling or a hike up I suppose and, at a distance of around 37 km from the centre of Kampot, it may be a little too far to cover in a daytrip. With a motorbike, it is easy to take in all the sights in a matter of a few hours.
It doesn’t take long to see how a splash of foreign investment has put its mark on Bokor Mountain. We leave Kampot on dirt roads but as soon as we reach the National Park, beautiful tarmac greets us, courtesy of the developers who need good access to set their plans for the National Park into motion. On the upside, it also makes for a comfortable journey to the top of the mountain, a trip that in the past would have taken almost an hour and a half by jeep or 4×4 on a bumpy, muddy track…
Bokor Mountain overlooks Kampot from the other side of the river. The impressive mound – its peak often clad in opaque fog and prone to more rain than the lower lying regions – used to be covered in dense jungle and home to an abundance of wildlife. Tales of roaming lions, tigers and elephants may well have been exaggerated, but the trees are a habitat for giant birds, parrots, wild monkeys and some of the smaller cats. Not that we see any of those either on our trip, apart from the inquisitive and bold monkeys maybe. They are always on the lookout for opportunities to loot unsuspecting tourists. Loss of habitat doesn’t mean they are on the brink of starvation.
Bokor Mountain National Park is under construction, Chinese style. Vast swathes of prime forest have been devastated by logging. Bulldozers and other machinery have flattened land ready for construction and development. Not that anyone in town knows what the long-term future holds for Bokor Mountain; it’s all kept under wraps. My guide, who speaks reasonable English, is not exactly shy about voicing his disquiet. ‘Before, locals used to come to the mountain to collect fire wood,’ he elaborates, ‘but now this is no longer possible. Maybe they [the Chinese] are really exploring for valuable minerals, who knows…’ Although small-scale, illegal logging by locals and poachers has been happening for years, it is the magnitude of the current devastation by the new owners that is causing grave concern. The rainforest has no time to regenerate; what is lost is lost forever.
We soon hit our first tourist attraction, a gigantic statue of the Lok Yeay Mao Buddha, the lady Buddha protector of the hunters and travellers and a divinity revered in Cambodian Buddhism, especially in the coastal areas of Kampot and Kep. The statue was inaugurated in 2012 by the new lease-holding company and part of a 15-year development plan of Bokor National Park. But the statue feels at odds with its surroundings and history; it’s ostentatious, if not grotesque and does not sit well with the more modest and simple Cambodian way of life…
‘Far more interesting are the collection of dilapidated buildings across the road from the statue,’ my guide explains. And indeed, nestled between the encroaching jungle stand the remnants of the Black Palace and other royal entourage buildings, built in 1936 as the residence of King Sihanouk. Clearly restoration of those historical keepsakes is not part of the grand plan for a bright future for Bokor Mountain National Park. Still, being reclaimed by nature and graffiti artists makes the ruins so much more fascinating and eye-catching. A tangible legacy from a not too distant but more affluent past. Easy to see why royalty picked out this site: the view from the clifftop overlooking the bay is simply spectacular, although veiled by a wisp of cloud when we are there.
Bokor Hill Station, originally built by the French in the 1920s at the top of the mountain, was a luxurious retreat for colonial residents offering respite from the summer heat and stuffiness of Phnom Penh. The hotel and casino have long since fallen in disrepair; its haunting skeleton a tourist attraction and used as a location for ghost movies. As the clouds are drawing in and the light drizzle is becoming more persistent, we don’t stop at the old hotel and only take photographs of the entrance.
But we pass the newer version of the hotel though: grandiose and overbearing, recently built by the new owners as part of the redevelopment. The casino and hotel are already functional: taking in predominantly Chinese guests looked after by Chinese staff with none of the proceeds benefiting the local community. Bokor Mountain, a little Chinese enclave… No wonder there is resentment.
But it is the Wat Sampov Pram, or ‘five-rocks-pagoda’ at the top of the hill that really catches my eye. The jumble of pagodas, temples and statues breathes mystic tranquility and peace. Although the legend linked to the pagoda spins a yarn of ancient love and sailing boats, the pagoda was actually only built in 1924. Whilst the French administration claimed the mountain for their own pleasures, the King added the pagoda complex in keeping with the country’s Buddhist tradition.
But even this sacred place has not escaped the attention of the new guardians of Bokor Mountain. Just opposite the stairs leading to the main pagoda, a newer building has arisen, this time more in character with the architectural style of the surrounding structures.
The real eyesore however can be seen through the gate to the pagoda, a modern block of apartments housing the Chinese mainland workers brought to Kampot to help in the construction and development. And as our guide points out, ‘They don’t even have to go into town for their shopping. All food is imported and made available on the premises here…’
On our way down, we stop at the old, disused French Catholic Church. The building crumbling and its windows gaping, graffiti has sprouted on its walls whilst church paraphernalia still rest on the alter. Still an interesting place to visit, though, if only to witness the contrast in the landscape: on the one side a valley thick with rainforest, the other side blemished by the tide of progress…
We finish our visit to Bokor Mountain National Park with a trip to the Popokvil waterfall. We get our entry tickets in a cavernous building, hollow for its space and nothing to fill it. Chairs and tables stretch inside what must be an enormous dining hall, only it is empty, another soulless addition. Luckily, the waterfall itself doesn’t disappoint. Recent rainfall has ensured a healthy flow of water and it’s fun to dip our toes in to cool down…
Bokor Mountain is in flux and Kampot town is watching on, nervous about the outcome. No one in this town wants Kampot to become the next Sihanoukville which turned from a backpackers and beach lovers haven into a gambling addicts paradise, a playground for the cash-rich Chinese middle class. Deprived of gambling opportunities in their own country, they are taking full advantage and flock to Sihanoukville to spend their money in Chinese-owned and Chinese-backed hotels and casinos. They buy up the properties, pricing locals out of the housing market and livelihoods…
It is a delicate balance. Cambodia is a country in need of money for development, but at what price…
Ugh this is a sad story. There’s little that would attract me to Bokor now not even the jumble of pagodas and temples. So sad for the forest, and for the local people.
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Of course there’s nothing to say that what the French colonial powers did was any better… Reading up on the history of Bokor Mountain, it appears that when they built the original Bokor Mountain Hill Station (the hotel, casino, church etc) almost a 1000 local people died in the process of the development. But yes, the new development does not respect the history of the place and shows complete disregard for conservation, which is astonishing since the mountain is a National Park and has maintained this status after it was leased to the current company… Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Further north, China is involved in building dams on the Mekong River, again with little regard for the environment or the local population. More grand casinos have sprouted up, definitely not for locals who can only dream of ever being able to afford visiting these places…
Luckily, there are still plenty of places worth visiting in Cambodia, because the country needs tourism of the right kind… people who spend money that goes to the locals…
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The Chinese Dragon has roared awake, and not just at home it seems. 😦
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