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The Bokor Palace, Cambodia

Tom Vater visits the spooky Bokor Palace Casino – Cambodia’s equivalent of the Overlook Hotel – and finds that the country’s crumbling colonial heritage is haunted by the ghosts of war.

The Cambodian soldier hisses, "Today, you dead," into Matt Dillon’s face before smashing Dillon’s head to the floor of a dilapidated room.

Seconds later, James Caan and a group of gangsters shoot it out on a patchy lawn in front of a dark, imposing building, while doom-laden mist drifts up from the surrounding jungle, threatening to swallow the protagonists, whether dead or alive.

That was in 2002, in Dillon’s disappointing thriller The City of Ghosts. While the plot was forgettable and the protagonists two-dimensional, the film’s locations had a brooding, menacing presence filled with tension and despair.

No wonder – the movie’s key scenes were shot in and around an old casino, the Bokor Palace, a long-abandoned French hill station on a windswept mountain 1,000 metres (3,300ft) above the Cambodian coastline, and now at the centre of a national park.

Five years on and further violent films have been shot here – most notably 2004’s Korean-made, Vietnam-set horror R-Point which made brilliant use of the old hill station’s pervasive air of clinging spookiness – but little has changed around here otherwise.

Vichat, a ranger who has been working in the national park for the past three years, wouldn’t dare set foot inside the casino at night: "Every time we walk past, we can hear the dead walk in there. It’s full of ghosts."

A big sign in the casino’s lobby warns all visitors: "Do not sleep here".

But the fog of war may soon evaporate into history – a South Korean company has landed a concession to redevelop the hill station, build a golf course and resurrect the casino for a new generation of high rollers.

In its heyday, Bokor Hill Station was Cambodia’s most luxurious colonial hide-away, as well as an imperial folly. Hotels and dance halls, a church, a royal villa, restaurants, servants’ quarters and a water tower that appears to have walked straight out of a 1950s Cold War sci-fi picture must all have made for an incredibly exclusive ambience in such a remote location. The crowning glory of this community in the clouds was the Bokor Palace Casino and Hotel, a towering monument to France’s vainglory.

The construction of this most unusual holiday resort came at a price: more than 2,000 Cambodians are said to have died during the construction of the road up from the coast, which snakes through 40km (25 miles) of dense, forbidding jungle. Since then, the killing around Bokor has never really stopped.

France quit Indochina in 1953, its taste for colonial adventure gone after being expelled from Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh’s Communists.

The half-century since has been anything but kind to Cambodia – accumulated decades of suffering from US bombing and civil war, the Khmer Rouge genocide, a Vietnamese invasion, famine and chaos have crushed the country and its people.

What’s left of Cambodia’s imperial French heritage is crumbling from lack of attention. Old town houses and administrative buildings in the capital, Phnom Penh, and elsewhere are being knocked down to make room for modern buildings.

For the Cambodians, the remnants of these old foreign structures hold no meaning beyond their current utility and the French have little influence today. Restoration is certainly not on anyone’s mind. The country wants to move on, wants to be part of the 21st century. But at the Bokor Casino, the ghosts of old wars have not yet faded from the mountaintop.

Vichat, the park ranger, never leaves his office without his gun. "We have problems with poachers who come to take trees out of the national park, sometimes to shoot animals too."

He only earns 17,000 Riel (£2.30p) a month, not much of an incentive to risk your life against desperate intruders. The US NGO Wild Aid, active in the Bokor national park since 2002, is supplementing his meagre earnings and has provided training for more rangers who, like Vichat, are all armed and have the power to arrest poachers. But the park area is huge and there are few trails.

Vichat is cautiously optimistic: "We have managed to reduce the logging significantly. And in May 2006, a tiger was spotted near the Wat, right on top of Bokor Mountain. But these sightings are very rare nowadays. Too many people come and go."

A small but steady trickle of tourists, mostly on trips in pick-ups organised from Kampot, has begun to visit Bokor Hill Station. The journey is not an easy one; the road up from the coast is potholed all the way. Up top, facilities are minimal. The ranger’s station offers dorm beds but no food. The colonial ruins are as they have been for years: spooky and abandoned since the Khmer Rouge swept through the area in the 1970s.

"There was fighting here until quite recently," Vichat tells me. "The Khmer Rouge were holed up in the casino in the early 1980s and fought the Vietnamese who had taken the church. Later, the Khmer Rouge fought government troops from the casino."

Standing in front of the Bokor Casino Hotel in the late afternoon is just plain creepy. The windows are shattered, black holes looming out of the building like empty eye sockets; the walls are covered in red moss that looks like freshly congealed blood. The Victorian turrets, the broken balustrades, the rusty water tanks and the smashed toilets all look deeply sinister – the only thing missing is the gargoyles.

The casino’s entrance is a wide staircase that looks as if it leads straight to hell. Beyond, corridors and narrow stairways lead off into darkness. The fireplace in the ballroom has been smashed to pieces, toilets have been ripped from their bases, mirrors smashed and electrical wires chiselled out of the walls and carted off; the only fixtures left here are psychic ones. Graffiti, much of it explicitly vulgar, covers the walls of the suites and hallways. "Everyone died", reads one in English. Some of these scrawls were left behind by Khmer Rouge fighters; others have been added by tourists since.

The traces of war are all-pervasive. Many balconies are still protected by leaking sandbags and rusty shells litter corners of the property.

From the roof, reached via many long corridors and partially collapsed stairways, the church, the post office and the other hotels are all visible. Beyond the main buildings, service quarters and a royal villa lie hidden in the jungle. Deeper still, an hour’s walk away, are the remnants of a prison where the French kept their Cambodian prisoners. But everything is smashed beyond repair, falling down, desolate. No wonder the rangers don’t like to wander at night.

Even now, the darkness unleashed by the violent dissolution of civil society sticks to everything in Cambodia – including the Bokor Casino. On New Year’s Eve 2005, several thousand tourists and young locals gathered at the Bokor Casino for a dance party. During the night, an argument between two young Cambodians turned violent. One of the men was shot and later succumbed to his injuries.

Bokor is a national park and precious jungle surrounds the old hill station. This should protect the area from commercial exploitation, but the planned redevelopment of the Casino Hotel will most likely put an end to nature’s reign. The reconstruction of the road and the planned building of an 18-hole golf course will have a huge impact on this wilderness area. Given that a Korean company has fielded the redevelopment plan, and that the potential clientele will be well-heeled Asian golfers and gamblers, the lingering ghosts of French Indo-China are bound to disappear.

Some voices have called for the renaissance of Bokor to be abandoned, but foreign development is virtually unconditional in Cambodia and neither the country’s impoverished and uneducated population nor its government have the time or inclination to protect their colonial heritage or the natural resources the area has to offer.

The ghosts of war, and the jungle that has sheltered them for so long, may soon make way for the 18th hole and the Black Jack table.

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The Bokor Palace Cambodia
Exterior view of the Bokor Palace - the perfect location for a horror movie. Image: Aroon Thaewchatturat
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The Bokor Palace, Cambodia
The deserted corridors of the Bokor Palace, Casino and Hotel, Cambodia. Image: Aroon Thaewchatturat
  The Bokor Palace Cambodia
 
Author Biography
Tom Vater specialises in weird tales from South Asia and has published articles, books and travel guides on the region. He is co-author of several TV screenplays and has just published his first novel, The Devil’s Road To Kathmandu with Dragon’s Mouth Press.
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