While sitting in a bar in Kâmpôt one evening I overheard a woman at the next table say, “I didn’t even know there was a Cambodian coastline until my second trip here.” Cameron pulled an ironical face at me and suggested aloud that she invest in an atlas or a guidebook before flying halfway round the world. The woman, not hearing him, continued to say the first time that she’d focused on Phnom Pénh and the temples of Angkor and had thought the kingdom was landlocked, imagining that Tonle Sap was the closest thing the country came to a sea. It was only on looking a options for a second trip that she had realized that the country had a port, Sihanoukville, and even some beaches! While her speech did suggest a rather tentative grasp of geography, the Cambodian coastline was shortish and none of its major temple sites were along its Gulf of Siam coast, suggesting that the Khmers had always been more of a riverine than coastal people. Perhaps her misunderstanding was indicative of the way that neither Cambodians or their foreign visitors thought of the land primarily in terms of the its seas.
Kâmpôt was one of the four coastal provinces of Cambodia, but its main town, Kâmpôt , was not set on the sea. Its main business district and tourist precinct was set on the east bank of the Kâmpôt River, which was located just a few kilometres inland. Its riverside had one of the most picturesque backdrops in all Cambodia, with the sluggish river sliding beneath the old railway bridge from the colonial era and the green peak of Phnom Bokor hoisted like a giant green circus-tent on the horizon. The strip of weathered old shop-houses along the riverfront had, like so many Cambodian towns, been abandoned to the swallows during the years of the mass-killings and it was only in recent years they had sprung to life again. Their new lease of life was in housing restaurants , guesthouses and cafes for the backpackers who had ‘discovered’ Kâmpôt as an alternative to Sihanoukville. As the waiter at our bar observed, “I’m from Phnom Penh but I love it here in Kâmpôt . It’s so peaceful and relaxing. I tried Sihanoukville but the people there are party animals. Here life is quiet.” For us the town had a mellow atmosphere which won us over entirely. The evenings were given over to a nightly round of Mojitos and Margaritas while watching the sun set over Phnom Bokor. There was then live music in some of the bars but Donal preferred billiards, so we would usually end up in one of the quieter places drinking and shooting pool.
For breakfast we would usually end up at Sisters II Bakery, which was set in a quiet backstreet of Sino-French shop-houses with peeling stucco and wooden shutters. It got hot early in Cambodia and by breakfast time, the bright sun was already at paint-bleaching brightness. It had a small veranda where we could sit just out the sun for our breakfast orders of pastries and coffee. The food was unusually well-suited to the Western palette and numerous backpackers have filled the internet with paeans of praise for its cookies, brownies and pancakes. For those wanting more of a local flavor, the chicken amok also comes recommended. But what was most memorable about the place for us was the stories which the proprietress told us.
She told us that her parents had been killed during the Khmer Rouge period and she had ended up in an institution run by an American missionary. Looking behind her I noticed all the Christian paraphernalia on the walls, such as crucifixes and embroidered scenes from the New Testament. There were also photos of her family in Church. While listening to her speak of her life in an orphanage, I thought, most uncharitably, that missionaries had made full use of the catastrophe to gain fresh converts. But that was perhaps unjustifiably harsh. The woman herself spoke very highly of the American missionary who had raised her and many of her other ‘sisters’. She mentioned that this American had taught her and her ‘sisters’ how to bake and that there were other branches of the ‘Sisters Bakery’ in Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. I decided that in spite of my reservations the church had clearly made a tremendous difference in this woman’s life and had probably saved the woman from a life of poverty and hardship. At this point she said, ‘They’re aren’t my real sisters. We were all orphans.” She then paused for a moment and then added, “There are orphans everywhere in Cambodia.”
After breakfast on the second day, we set off on a day trip on the back of the motorbikes we had rented from our hotel. Our ultimate destination was to be the Cave Temples of Kâmpôt, but the first stop on our excursion was to ride up the newly-built Chinese road to the top of Phnom Bokor. From our hotel, we crossed the rattling old railway bridge and then drove due west to the turn out, with Phnom Bokor hulking to our right the whole way. I was seated behind Donal while Cameron rode on ahead. The turn off to Bokor, once known for its French colonial hill station on the peak, was a few kilometres outside town and from there it was said to be another winding forty kilometres to the top.
As we began to climb up from the coastal plain, cool green forest closed on either side. This was, at least in theory, Bokor National Park, home to leopards monkeys and precious mountain forest, but like all of Cambodia’s national parks, it was pretty much up for sale or rent from corrupt officialdom, and in this case the Chinese had been the highest bidder. On the way up the main sign of Chinese commercial interest was the brand-new, sealed road, one of the best on show anywhere in Cambodia. Judging by the rutted, crumbling remnants of the old road which were sometimes still in evidence alongside the new one, this was no bad thing. Coming up here just a few years before would have been a bone-breaking jaunt which only the most hardened of backpackers would have relished.
But the nastiest side of the development was only in evidence once we reached the plateau atop Phnom Bokor. Here was an exhibition centre which revealed plans to build a whole ‘new city’ on the plateau- all of this within the confines of a national park. There was already a cement factory which had been built nearby to aid in the goal of smothering the entire area in concrete. Cement mixers were already lined up at the sight, carrying off their next load to their respective construction sights. It was almost impossible to imagine how much devastation was about to be visited on this once-pristine environment.
Worst of all lay ahead: the Chinese-built casino which was the centrepiece of the entire project. It lay at the top of a slight slope in all its monstrous ugliness, seemingly without any windows. The multi-story building was incongruously yellow and looked like any other anonymous building on the outskirts of a major Asian city. There was no sight yet of the golf course or fun parks which were promised, but there was already a large car-park for the Cambodian elite to park their vehicles. True, there had been a French-era casino up here, which had become a ghostly ruin after Khmer Rouge guerrillas had overrun the national park at the start of the 197os, but this had been an elegant structure which had never dominated the environment. This thing promised to turn Cambodia’s best-known mountain into a theme park.
Just a few kilometres up the road, we arrived at the remnants of the old Bogor hill station. There were just a few structures and some broken walls left of the old settlement and the heath vegetation which grew all around them. The former Catholic Church was perhaps the most atmospheric of the remaining structures. We parked the bikes and walked up to it. While the outer walls still stood, the pews had been ripped out during the Khmer Rouge period and ominous charcoal graffiti covered the walls. It still had the abandoned ghostly feel which had attracted adventurers up here in years past; we were relieved the Chinese developers hadn’t tried to turn it into a real estate agency or a souvenir shop yet. For this really was the fate which had befell the old French casino. While it hadn’t been demolished, the ongoing renovations were completely ham-fisted and it seemed have been concrete rendered. This was no longer the elegant ruin we had seen in all the travel literature on Bokor. True, the views from the area were still magnificent. Right behind the former French casino was a precipitously steep decline, which fell a thousand metres down to the coastal plain. Thick jungle clad the slopes of the mountain, the Gulf of Siam was beautifully blue and you could see all the way to Phu Quoc Island in Vietnamese waters, but it was difficult to feel any pleasure at what we had found atop Phnom Bokor.