Monday, April 16, 2012

Bokor is Open Again

The following is an intro for people unfamiliar with Cambodia. Bokor hill station was established by the French colonials in the 1920’s as a high elevation escape from the sea level heat in the January to May hot season. It wasn’t all that successful until it was shut down by WWII in 1940. It was then opened again in 1963 only to be closed again as a result of Cambodia’s troubles when it became a sometime battleground. It stood in ruins until recently when Cambodia’s richest man was given the concession to develop it into a billion dollar casino, resort and luxury villa complex. It was and still is an interesting place to visit historically. It’s part of Bokor National Park, but national parks don’t mean much in Cambodia, since most have recently had large chunks of their areas sold off for agri-businesses or resorts.

After three years of construction, Bokor is finally open again and it’s free too. I’d been there twice previously, once via the old road and then when the new one was under construction. The old road was left over from the sixties with a pavement that hadn’t been maintained since then so it was like very holy Swiss cheese all the way up with small pieces of pavement surrounded by gaping potholes. It was great for an adventurous dirt bike ride, but for the SUV I was in the 30 kilometers to the top was a tedious two hour crawl. On the other hand, esthetically it was a beautiful ride with a narrow right-of-way slicing through the forest. The trees were so close at times they almost made a canopy over the road.
The second time, about 2 years ago, I went up with my ‘88 Camry. The road was under construction and it was torturous washboard surface for the old beast to manage. After that when people asked to go up I said not until the road is finished. The road is now probably the best quality highway in the country. It’s a wide surface with two thick smooth layers of asphalt in contrast to newly reconstructed national highways which are a thin layer of bitumen sandwiched in between two layers of gravel. Though National Highway 3 hasn’t been finished all that long it’s already deteriorating and needing extensive repairs in some places.
As for the Bokor road, the right-of-way is far larger than is needed, which is especially problematical in steep terrain. For much of the distance the right-of-way can accommodate an additional two lanes of pavement. The flat area is so wide it required very large road cuts which have eroded so quickly that before the complex was even open for visitors they had already begun repair mode on the brand new road right-of-way by bolstering up the hillsides to protect the pavement from washing away. You can easily see the gaping gash on the mountainside from Kampot.
They wanted to make the road able to easily accommodate large tour buses and the virtual city they are planning up top, but they could’ve easily done that by widening the road a bit here and there and straightening out some of the difficult curvy spots. They could’ve done that with far less money and maintained the wonderful feeling of passing through leafy green forest, but we know Khmers don’t have much sense of green esthetics and they love vast expanses of pavement so the result is the road passes through a wide and ugly road cut. Curiously, they’ve planted trees on the extra wide level part but not on the hillsides where they’re needed the most to prevent erosion, but at any rate, the road is finished and we can at least go up and check it out.
Not far from the top is a giant Buddha, maybe 10 meters tall, that was under construction at the time we went by. I’m not sure what relevance a giant Buddha has to a massive casino complex, but maybe after you’ve lost your shirt you’re ready to give up all earthly desires and join the monkhood. I fortunately got weaned off any gambling desire as a teenager after playing poker with friends: some were adept at cheating and I’d consistently lose my cigarette money. After that I’d sit back and watch and let the losers bum fags off me.
Across from the Buddha is an abandoned relic, erstwhile kitchen for the workers. It is fronted by roadside snack vendors, the only place you see them, there are none up top. Down the dirt track from the former kitchen are two abandoned houses to peruse. One has an especially interesting wing-shaped design. Along the way are several immense old Agave plants, evidently doing fine on their own for decades without any care or maintenance.
The first thing to check out up on the plateau is the large scale model of the project. It’s so big a friend I went with took two minutes to walk around it, though admittedly he was taking pictures as he went. Also the building housing the model is twice or three times the size of the model itself and thus mostly sits empty, they might even have a plan for the space. I hope it’s not a bad omen but many of the buildings on the hilly parts of the terrain in the model are listing at steep angles seemingly ready to topple over at any time. For sure they have grand, even grandiose, plans for the area with hundreds of villas and large apartment houses and hotels as well as the casino complex. There’s also the 18-hole golf course and a tram to take people from the lower level golf course up to the casino and developed area. By the time this article is published the casino will have had its soft opening. Just in time for me to change my tack, go up and blow my pension check on the chance to get rich quick. Or maybe not.
We next headed for Populvul waterfall. The previous time I saw it was on a Khmer holiday. For three years while the road was under construction they only let people up during holidays and the place was jammed. There’s not a lot of watershed upstream of the falls so you’re not likely to see much water except in rainy season. Still, it’s a very large and dramatic falls consisting of flat rocks, sometimes huge, stacked up about eight or ten meters above the lower pool. Water flows through the cracks as well as over the top. All parts are accessible so you’ll see people clambering about on all levels. Downstream is very steep with massive boulders strewn about, some of which have perfectly square corners.
In a national park in a typical western country there’d be well marked trails that would allow for hiking downstream to see the dramatic creek bed. There are no marked trails that I know of in the park or I expect, any park in Cambodia. The only exception being Kep National Park and those signs were put up by a restaurant owner. The plateau is actually a tiny part of the park. There are places to enter Bokor on foot from the periphery where the forest is largely intact, though any natural area in Cambodia that isn’t watched 24/7 will have been degraded somewhat. One such trail leads to what we locals call the hidden waterfall. The lack of trails means the only way to see it is by hiking up the creek bed. Actually it’s more like clambering over sometimes huge rocks that are very slick and wet in rainy season, the only time you really want to see a waterfall. When it’s raining hard it’d be downright dangerous if not impossible to make it up that way.
This time on a weekday there were only two Khmers at Populvul. The signage wasn’t in place and it took a while to figure out how to get the 100 meters from the road to the falls. They’ve taken one of the feeder creeks, which didn’t have much water in it, and added large relatively flat rocks to give access to the falls. I’m sure they’ll construct better access because one thing you can’t miss is the very large building under construction no more than 20 meters from the falls. The only use I can imagine for the building is a restaurant or food court. I guess it’s designed to serve about 300 people. That’s the absolute last thing I would develop at the site. Besides where are all the customers going to come from? I just don’t see it. A viewpoint I could understand, but a huge restaurant practically hanging over the falls?
On the way back, heading into the heart of the complex we passed by the casino. It’s a large and impressive building tucked into a hollow in the sloping land. Alongside is a 200 or 300 car hillside parking lot. In the back, I assume, are the hotel units. By itself the building is a bit grand in a garish kind of way. It’s a typical casino style building so it’s somewhat overdone and thus a little out of place up on the mountain. Casinos are supposed to look impressive and as an aside reflect the huge amount of money the owners make off people’s weakness. Still, all-in-all, it’s not bad looking.
Next we stopped at the old hotel which is fenced off and being restored. Well, that’s good, at least the developers have a bit of respect for history. Just back of the hotel is the steep 1000 meter drop-off from the plateau to the ocean. Unfortunately, for the third time, as I somehow expected, I wasn’t able to see the water. The plateau itself was mostly in sun, but everything below was shrouded in clouds and mist; you’re looking down into the cloud. You could see the moisture rising up the mountainside and then dissipating as it reached the top. The first time was identical to the above. I’m told the clouds often envelop the plateau as well. The second time it was raining like hell and not even possible to check out the steep mountainside. There are even rare occasions which are cloudless and offer great views of the ocean… I’ve seen pictures so I know it must be true.
Which brings up another point, for a good part of the year the weather is really shitty: wet, windy and uncomfortable. For the rest of it, cloudy, threatening weather is very likely. It’s much cooler up there, a definite plus, but in balance, it’s not a pleasant place to be over the whole year so I wonder how many people will want to buy million dollar mansions up there. The French built it as a hill station to escape the sea level heat in the March to May hot season, but it’ll get very chilly around December and January and constantly pissing down rain in September and October.   
Up on the hillside is the old trashed-out church, which I’m told is now being used as a crash pad for construction workers. When you wander a little further you come to the abandoned king’s house and nearby barracks for his bodyguards. Then there’s the reservoir, old casino and a few other relics to visit. The area is good for a leisurely afternoon’s exploration and interesting from an historical perspective, but I personally wouldn’t go again unless it was to escort others; especially now that my favorite place, the waterfall area , has received such a garish treatment.
On another note, a community of expats oriented towards civic and environmental activism organized “I love Kampot River” day on March 14 in conjunction with International Clean Rivers Day. They solicited contributions from local businesses and used the money to put on a fun environmental awareness event. This involved bringing hundreds of kids out to clean up the river and a flotilla of tour boats to ferry them to places to do their good deeds. They set up a tent on riverside park a block north of the old bridge, provided t-shirts and food and there was music by the Kampot Playboys at sunset. Damage and/or injury was just barely avoided when one of the tents started blowing over around sunset; a bunch of guys grabbed it just in time before it could cause any problems.
I did a lot of that type of activity during my time in Portland, Oregon and went to one of their meetings to check out what they were up to. It reminded me of the large amount of organizing work it takes to put on an event of that magnitude. It also indicated the presence of a whole subset of activist type expats who are taking root in the town.
Also, related to road construction, River Road in the center of town is getting a brand new high-quality asphalt pavement. It was only a year or so ago that the original surface, which was solid, but rough, was torn up and replaced with a gravel and bitumen treatment. The old surface could’ve been patched and then lasted a long time, though still been somewhat rough, but that’s okay in that kind of touristy, entertainment-type location because you don’t want people to drive fast to begin with. The bitumen surface started breaking up after only a few months and in only a year had been thoroughly patched twice. Now the new asphalt surface is so smooth, it’s almost hard to believe.
They sure are bringing in the money to improve Kampot: along with the new pavement, upgrading of riverside park is nearly finished as well as the restoration of the old market, but with Bokor open and the new port under construction and the obvious surge in tourist arrivals, their interest is probably warranted. Too bad it’s so often misguided like the way they emasculated Kampot’s century old trees.
Still, I’ve also got plenty of gripes about the way the US has been developed, and in the end result, Cambodia doesn’t look all that bad in comparison. For instance, Cambodia is in the process of selling off vast tracts of national park and other ‘protected’ areas for corporate plantations. In America, starting in 1946 (and continuing to the present) the US government has sold off 90% of the giant trees of the national forests of the Pacific Northwest. Trees up to 100 meters tall and 800-years-old were chopped down like toothpicks.
Still, one wishes the Cambo government wasn’t so intent on imitating the worst aspects of western development by selling off so much of the nation’s patrimony. Those resources should’ve been maintained in perpetuity for the common good. The country’s officials believe they’re making the right decisions for the country’s future, but like the filling in of Boeng Kak Lake in Phnom Penh, the end result will eventually be realized to have been a mistake.
Stan Kahn