The Forest of the Whispering SpiritsBokor Mountain is the highest peak of Elephant mountain range, rising 1,071 metres above the Gulf of Thailand. Dominating the skyline all along Cambodia's south coast, from the port and beaches of Sihanoukville to the Vietnamese border, its high table top plateau is almost constantly shrouded in misty clouds lending it a mystical aura that inspires reverence and awe from the Khmer people in the valleys below. As a tourist attraction Bokor is a mountain waiting to be discovered, it is rich in history as well a natural beauty and on a clear day the views from its summit are breathtaking. It is a 40-kilometre, or one-and-a-half hours, drive from the town of Kampot, which in turn is 150-kilometres south of Phnom Penh, but according to long term local resident and tour operator Davide Catteneo the mountain receives no more than forty or fifty visitors a week, including curious Khmers. Safety fears have been the crucial factor in keeping visitors away from Bokor. The area was one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge and although it is now said to be completely safe and under government control, memories of the three backpackers who were kidnapped and killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1994 are still fresh and deter many foreigners, even though the notoriously brutal commander of those renegade troops has now been arrested. Built between 1903 and 1908 by the French using forced local labour, the road to Bokor winds through the bare coastal plains into a dense jungle and finally spills out onto a wide plateau. The cool air and imperious views inspired the colonial rulers to build the magnificent Bokor Palace Hotel complete with a casino and garden looking out to sea. During the heady heights of 1920's colonial excess the high echelons of French and Khmer society would climb to the top of Bokor to escape the oppressive heat of the Cambodian summer, enjoy the cool mountain air and take their chances on the roulette tables. For those in need of absolution or divine intervention a church was built barely 500-metres from the hotel. Towards the end of the second world war the retreating Japanese allowed King Sihanouk to take power of Cambodia from the French in a coup de force and although his rule lasted a mere eight months he was able to negotiate control of a number of French possessions from the returning colonists. Among them was Bokor mountain and the casino and he set about building a summer palace on the plateau as well as an ornate pagoda confirming Bokor's reputation as a playground for the rich and famous throughout the 50s and 60s, even after the French were forced to grant Cambodia its independence in 1953. If you wish to visit Bokor you can charter a taxi from the market in Kampot or take a tour with Davide from the Marco Polo restaurant. I choose the guided tour and was glad that I had. Davide is a mine of information on the area, having spent many years in the timber trade in Laos and Cambodia. As we snaked up through the jungle in his four-wheel-drive pick-up-truck the clouds rolled down the hill and caught us in a haunting mist. Old men with machetes seemed to ghost in and out of sight disappearing into the mountain, their presence made all the more disturbing when Davide explained that Bokor has always been a traditional home of the Khmer Rouge. Even though they have been disarmed and supposedly brought into mainstream Cambodian life, many of the former soldiers still live a life on the fringes of society in the hills and mountains. No longer seen as a threat to peace many former soldiers had become so used to the wild life in the jungle they found it difficult to assimilate into mainstream culture, unable to farm or trade they only understood guns, war, and illegal logging; something the authorities are having little success in stamping out. In January 1979 the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia and brought to a close the darkest chapter in the country's variegated history: the three-years and nine months the county was ruled by the genocidal Khmer Rouge and the Angkar party led by Pol Pot and his clique. At this time the very qualities that made Bokor such a popular haunt for French bon vivers were also the reasons it became the front-line in the battle between the two armies: its commanding view of the coast. The KR mounted their big guns on the mountaintop and trained them on the Vietnamese arriving from nearby Phu Quoc Island. The battle hardened Vietnamese sent wave after wave of troops to their death on the steep slopes before their sheer weight of numbers won. Even then the KR held on for a few more days as a bloody battle was fought across the plateau, with Khmer Rouge holed up in the Pagoda and the Vietnamese 800 metres away in the Bokor Palace Hotel. As we drove across the plateau the scarred buildings revealed themselves in the mist, floating into view as if they were haunted houses: the fog on Bokor is as legendry as it is on any English moor and twice as spooky. Even though it has been gutted and ravaged by war, the hotel is still an imposing sight. The rich ochre façade and original tiles and fireplace inside evoke images of immaculately attired Frenchmen puffing on their cigarettes as they exaggerated the size of their winnings to coquettish young mamoiselles. Beyond the grand vestibule, a balustrade high on the cliffs overlooking the ocean guards an overgrown patch of land, which once must have been an ornate Parisian jardin. Wandering out onto the sundeck on the third floor, one quickly understands why the Vietnamese artillery chose it to mount their big guns there. Davide squatted to the floor and scooped up a handful of rusty chunks of metal. As I leant over to see what he was doing, I realised he was holding a dozen or so M-60 ammunition clips. "Still many," he said. "You see, not many people come here. You want some souvenirs?" He tipped a few into my hand, and as I too began to scan the floor, I quickly found I was holding a collection of M16 bullets and other chunks of ordinance that would send a treasure seeker green. Sandbags and razor wire still block the Hotel's front entrance and menacing graffiti is scratched on the walls inside the hotel, church and Buddhist pagoda. The pagoda, particularly, is a striking piece of pseudo-Khmer architecture. Surrounded by huge boulders and perched precariously close to the precipice, some of its ornate lintels are still intact. On its eastern flank, however, are huge gun mountings and the chedi behind is riddled with bullet holes. Bokor Mountain has recently been declared a national park and a research base has been established on top of the plateau. An impressive range of wildlife is said to inhabit the park, including wild boar, tiger, leopard, bears and monkeys and although there have been few, if any reliable sightings in recent years the sheer size of the forest and the fact that it is virtually uninhabited by man supports this claim. The research centre was funded by foreign aid and is housed in a modern building with rooms available for rent. However Davide is cynical as to the amount of research that goes on, claiming that the centre is merely another example of good intentions rather than deeds. Elephants, on the other hand, are more often sighted and Davide had a close encounter not long before I visited him. "I was bringing some tourists to see the waterfall, and as I drove around the corner an elephant suddenly appeared, and charged towards the car. I reversed quickly away and he changed course at the last minute and charged into the jungle," he said. And the tourists? "I turned round to ask them if they'd got any photos, but they were all hiding under the seats," he said with a chuckle. The Khmer are traditionally lowland farmers and rarely settle in mountainous regions, leaving the highlands to montagnards (hill tribe people) and there are no settlements or villages on Bokor Mountain. They are also deeply spiritual people who mix Buddhism with a miscellany of ancestor worship and live in a world full of ghosts and spirits - some good, some evil and some just naughty, but all of them are entirely perceptible to Khmers. An illustration of the depth of their belief is that children are not formally named and therefore don't officially exist, until they reach eleven or twelve years in age, at which time they are presumed old enough to deal with the spirits that enter a person's mind. Some Thai people are also apprehensive about visiting Cambodia due to the sheer weight of death the country has experienced over the last three decades and the possible spiritual consequences. As our car reached the top of the mountain a curtain of cloud blew across the plateau and suddenly visibility was reduced to around twenty metres. Our driver was shaking violently, "It is the whispering spirits talking to him." Davide explained. "So many people have died on this mountain that it is full of spirits and ghosts. The Khmer call Bokor the forest of the whispering spirits. They don't like to come here as they say the spirits here like to talk too much." If you feel able to deal with the whispering spirits, Bokor is a fascinating if macabre, side trip for visitors to Phnom Penh or Sihanoukville. Although it is still a relatively unknown destination, Bokor is fast becoming a 'must visit' site for journeys through Cambodia. With a compelling mixture of romantic colonial architecture, KR history and potentially some great trekking opportunities Bokor could easily become a landmark on the map of South East Asia.
Published on 11/17/01