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Bokor mountain and the abandoned casinos

CAMBODIA | Thursday, 5 May 2011 | Views [2617]

Overlooking Kampot and the Tek Chhouu districts is the Elephant mountain range and Bokor national park. An ever changing spectrum of violet skies and veils of pink mist covering the details of the imposing mountain, with only the peak still in view no matter what the weather.

We ventured in a small truck up Bokor mountain, on the best roads in the area, if not Cambodia. Miles of brand new tarmac set in heavily landscaped cuttings and clearings lead up the side of the mountain to a huge plateau near the summit, where a whole resort town seems to be rising from the red earth. Big investments such as this one are starting to pour into the country. A hydroelectric dam is under construction near Kampot, financed with Chinese money. In theory, this should bring cheap and reliable electricity to the region, but it remains to be seen how this might affect the price of power for the average Cambodian not to mention the effect it will have on the local river life and fishing villages.

During French colonial rule, a huge pleasure palace was built right at the top of Bokor, complete with casinos and ballrooms. It was frequented by rich French and Khmer, including the King himself, and was constructed to make the most of the commanding views across miles of tropical forest, all the way to the distant sea.

We saw the now abandoned and isolated building in the middle of a blindingly bright day, growing more imposing as we drove nearer. It wasn't much of a leap to imagine how spooky it would be after dark or in thick fog. It was exhilarating to be able to wander around a derelict building such a spectacular location without any restrictive barriers or regulations, except for the 'Danger! Do not enter signs' as a preliminary caution. The building was covered inside and out with vibrant orange lichen, which contributes to the palette of rich blues, reds and greens of the plateau. It is almost as beautiful as the seemingly infinite rainforest views as you look over the edge of the dilapidated hotel.

There is little noise up here. The tour guide serves up rice pork and warm vegetables on the steps of the shelled hotel, probably the nicest food (or most welcome after the long trek) I've had since being in Cambodia. Echoes of people exploring the 4 storey ghost hotel fade as everyone starts to eat and a woman plays italian lady gaga from her i-phone.

The bullet holes in the walls and the AK-47 which our ranger carried provided sharp reminders of how things have been in this part of the world (we were told later that the gun was for protection in case of animal attacks during the jungle trek!). Apparently there are tigers, snakes and bears hidden in the forest. Although I didn't see anything except amazingly coloured and large insects, none of which are in anyway threatening, I heard some unfamiliar sounds in the dense trees.

Whilst on the jungle trek, we became lost as the group ahead of us managed the steep ascent much more easily than us, but we had also gone too far ahead of the group trailing behind. Luckily I had brought my rescue whistle, but it didn't work and I think may have attracted something other than our ranger. After 10 minutes or so of deliberating whether to go forward and catch up or stay put, we heard voices behind and a few others caught up to us. Phew! It was one of those moments when you think.. 'ok, what would Ray Mears do?' and frantically tried to locate a memory of my girl guide handbook!

At the base of the mountain is the tek chhouu river. We took a much deserved sunset boat trip after the mountain trek.

The River

I stayed with a friend who lives by the river with such an idyllic view of both mountain and river life. We swam across a bend in the river to a small island nestled in the tributaries. There, some of the performance students practiced somersaults and back flips, landing repeatedly in the shallow water with a slight stumble until they had perfected the moves.

Sleeping on the deck of her house the misty morning air cleared and I was awoken by the lively morning sounds. After working through the night, the fishermen chug past in their boats. As they slice through the river water, they sound similar to large helicopters pounding air as the noise reverberates around the village like a naval salute. They usually head out to sea about 5pm and come back around 5am. Resting by the side of the river, they sell fish to local people. I ride past each morning at 7am on my way to breakfast at the epic cafe and by 8am, on my way to work, the smell of hot rotting fish drenches the air where the morning activities took place.

The fish are sold at the town market, squirming in silver pools by the feet of passersby. Fish juice, a mixture of sea water and the gutted fish blood flows in the gutters under my feet as my flip flops splash the smelly liquid up my legs.

It's worth it for the fresh fruit I buy and the sounds of the bargaining people in the sun shafts breaking through the sweaty tarpaulin roof.


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