Tag Archives: Kampot

Modern colonialism: the case of Bokor Mountain in Kampot

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…   

A taste of Cambodian countryside: Kampot.

24th to 27th September 2018

With plenty of time to explore a bit of Cambodia’s countryside, we head for Kampot: a small, sleepy town – not quite near the coast – renowned for its pepper plantations and salt fields.  And, of course, the Durian Roundabout named after the ‘Marmite-fruit’ Kampot is equally famous for.  Durian, you either love it or hate it.

As the durian season runs from mid-May to July, we have arrived a little late to ‘enjoy’ the fruit in all its olfactory and pungent glory… Not that this worries me; a fruit lover at heart, I have never developed any fondness for this tropical delicacy.  They rave about it in China and consider it a absolute delight in Vietnam, Malaysia and Cambodia, but hotels and Airbnb places in SE Asia forbid guests to bring the fruit into the accommodation.  Once the smell permeates the room, it lingers rather longer than one would wish.  Personally, I don’t know what is worse about the fruit: its taste, texture or smell…?   I only sampled it once, two summers ago in Malaysia, and was totally unimpressed: it was like chewing tasteless custard.  An experience I have felt unnecessary to repeat, as just like Marmite, durian divides folks into lovers and haters and I definitely belong to the latter group.

We book our Giant Ibis coach from Phnom Penh to Kampot through our hotel; dead simple.  After travelling though Vietnam on the Futa buses, we feel like pros at budget travel.  A four-hour trip at a drop of $10 in the lap of luxury: wifi, seatbelts, AC, legroom, charging points…  almost the same as travelling on the UK’s National Express coaches.  Only: no toilets!!  ‘At Giant Ibis Transport, we’re not fans of onboard toilets. They take up a lot of space and smell bad,’ their website explains, although they relent for the night buses…  Luckily for those with limited bladder capacity, or great thirst, the bus makes a couple of stops on the way…

Kampot is a tranquil town, nestled between the Elephant Mountains and the Praek Tuek Chhu river. Traffic is almost non-existent and once the ‘morning rush’ has passed, the streets empty as locals retreat to the comfort of cooler inside rooms.  Quaint buildings, a reminder of Kampot’s and Cambodia’s French colonial past, line the deserted streets. Women, head to toe protected from the blaring sun, pedal past, heaving baskets either side of the back seat of their bicycles.

The advantage of sparse traffic, and the miles of flat surface skirting the river, is that it makes the town and surrounding areas easily navigable by bicycle. Unfortunately, the cycling and kayaking trip we had booked with ‘WE’ was cancelled at the last minute by the tour company. A pity we missed out on joining a bicycle ride with local guides, but bicycle rental is widely available.

With Google Maps in hand, we set off on our own adventure. The tricky bit is finding a road-worthy bicycle… Flat tyres and unreliable brakes dictate that we do not venture too far out of town, just in case, and it doesn’t take too long for potholed tarmac roads to turn into dusty, orange tracks.

We follow the river, inland first, passing guesthouses where tourists can indulge in kayaking, paddle-boarding or swimming or just lazing about in the heat of the day. We plough on, trying to discover a bit of Cambodian real life and are rewarded with a glimpse of how those huge baskets on the back of bicycles are made. However, without a local guide to explain the details, we can only take photographs and guess the rest. English is not widely spoken in the Cambodian countryside.

Cycling along the river towards the Gulf of Thailand leads to the famous salt fields, which are mainly situated along the road between Kampot and Kep. When we are there, the place is totally abandoned. Some of the salt reservoirs are full of fresh water; it has been a particularly wet rainy season. During the dry season, from mid December to April, the fields are flooded with seawater. They are then sealed off to allow the water to evaporate, leaving behind the treasured salt crystals.

The Cambodia Natural Salt Production Exhibition Centre, or the Salt Museum, is only 5 minutes outside Kampot, on the road towards Kep.  Entry to the one-room museum is free and, as well as giving an overview of how the salt is harvested, you can buy some locally produced salt in 2 kg bags.. Rather too much salt to add to our travel essentials, so we’re giving this souvenir a miss.

http://www.kampot-cambodia.com/mainpages/PlacesinKampot/kampot-salt-museum.html

Pepper, on the other hand, is a different matter… Both cooking aficionados, Liz and I definitely find room in our bags for some samples of Kampot’s finest BoTree Farm pepper. Although ‘La Plantation’ seems to be the pepper farm on most tourists’ itineraries, we opt for BoTree Farm, enticed by the mouthwatering and delightfully piquant samples in BoTree’s shop in town as well as the packaging which looks so ‘Waitrose’ and exclusive … with price tags to match.

BoTree Farm is wholly owned by a Scottish-Cambodian family, according to their website. And indeed, during our visit, our guide elaborates further on how the Scotsman bought the farm and, together with his Cambodian wife and her family, gave it a new lease of life and a lucrative market back home in the UK. Another form of colonialism? Maybe, but Cambodia relies heavily on foreign investment to shed its poverty and the legacy of the Khmer Rouge. At least the pepper farm provides employment for locals, which is more than can be said of the China-run projects. Chinese investors are eagerly eyeing up this ‘needy’ country but definitely with more mercenary motives on their mind… (more about this in the next post on Bokor Mountain)

But what really makes our trip to the Pepper Farm exciting is travelling inland, deeper into the countryside, and watching people going about their daily life. After all Kampot is a town, and a tourist magnet for that with a liberal peppering of expats. Even our guesthouse, The Magic Sponge, is run by an expat American and his Cambodian wife… More Western than Cambodian food on the menu, but at least it guarantees good coffee for breakfast…

As we make our journey to and from the pepper farm, we pass the Secret Lake. Not secret because no one knows about it, but because of the secrets buried beneath, the peaceful surface belying the atrocities perpetrated during its construction. The lake is not a natural lake, but formed by a dam built with the hard labour and lives of prisoners and locals who were made to dig the reservoir with hand tools by the Khmer Rouge. No one knows how many people died and are buried underneath the vast expanse of water. Another macabre heirloom from the Pol Pot regime.

We get back to Kampot in the early evening to enjoy a short cruise on the river and watch sundown. It may not be the most spectacular sunset I have ever witnessed, but still a pleasant way to spend a few hours.