26 December 2021

Bokor Hill Station – Cambodia’s Abandoned Town

The history of Cambodia in the twentieth century is one of almost continual struggle and conflict. One place which encapsulates the traumatic events which the country persevered is the Bokor Hill Station. This eerie ghost town has been abandoned not once, but twice in its history.

Even its birth was savage. Designed as a resort for the French colonists of the early twentieth century, the construction of Bokor Hill Station was complete by 1925. Built by indentured Cambodian laborers it took nine months to build. Almost a thousand men perished during that time.

The colonists and their Cambodian associates certainly believed in luxury. At its center the Palace Hotel and Casino dominated the small town and the laughter and idle chatter of wealthy Europeans making merry would echo in to the surrounding jungle. Although the settlers built the town as a retreat from the heat and squalor of the capital Phnom Penh they would find themselves hurriedly abandoning Bokor in the late 1940s.

There were also royal apartments which were visited often by the Cambodian royal family, effectively puppets of the French ruling class. The First Indochine War, a brutal conflict lasting till 1953 and costing the lives of over half a million people precipitated the withdrawal of the French. The town was then used by the shaky Cambodian upper classes during the brief period that the country was a constructional monarchy.

The fifties and sixties saw the heyday of the station. The station was particularly popular among wealthy Khmers. It must have seemed that the days of French colonialism and Japanese invasion were over, like a bad dream and the future of the country, for once ruled by its own people, was bright. Yet worse, much worse, was to befall the country.

By 1972 the Khmer Rouge had taken a firm grip on the countryside surrounding Bokor and the station was abandoned for a second time. The Khmer Rouge would eventually overrun the entire country and what followed was an experiment in social engineering tantamount to autogenocide. The Vietnamese intervened in 1978 by invading the beleaguered country.

Bokor Hill was stubbornly held by the Khmer Rouge for nine months. As late as the early 1990s it was still considered one of their strongholds. During Cambodia’s struggle the area was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese and neither proved to be benign overlords.

Yet despite the Vietnamese intervention the 1980s were also a disastrous decade for the country and its fraught population. The Khmer Rouge was still fighting on, thanks to funding from the US, UK and Thailand. Economic sanctions added to the misery of the people, and reconstruction was impossible.

The UN was given a mandate to force a ceasefire in 1991 and things finally began to look up for the country. The monarchy was restored in 1993, which made Cambodia the only post communist society to reintroduce it. Stability was established and despite a coup d'état in 1997 the country is now a multiparty democracy. Although no one pretends this is anything more than fragile, it is hoped that it will become a state of permanence.

The country then, has many ghosts. Bokor Hill Station is very much a symbol of the country’s recent history. The buildings, virtually gutted, remain standing. The authorities retain a Ranger Station on the site, which is now situated within a national park as it is strategically important militarily. As peace and political constancy establishes itself more firmly in Cambodia so the station has begun to lure tourists once again – but of a different variety to those it received in the 1920s.

Getting there is not for the faint hearted. The station is 42km by road from the nearest town, Kampot – which itself is an up and coming tourist destination. The roads are not good and the journey is uphill. However, those who make it agree that it is worth the discomforts of travelling there.

What the future holds for the site is unclear. Redevelopment has been proposed but continually started and stopped. Many argue that the station should be preserved as it is, rather than rebuilt, as a reminder of darker times which must never be visited on the country again. And perhaps they are right.

First Image Credit Flickr User Pigale