Bokor: A Forgotten Fragment of Cambodia's Past

© Alessandro Vannucci
By Guido Pallini

There are places in the world of which little is known. Their past, though intertwined with the lives of ordinary men and adventurous travellers, remains somehow on the sidelines of history. Bokor is one of those places.

Built by the French in the early 1920s, Bokor was Cambodia’s most luxurious colonial retreat. The main feature of the resort was the Bokor Palace Hotel & Casino, which was complemented by dance halls, restaurants, shops, royal apartments, a post office, a church and a water tower. The place was eventually abandoned by the French in the late 1940s and became a major stronghold of the Khmer Rouge, who retained the strategic location until the early 1990s. Today, what is left is a landscape of abandoned and decaying buildings, which, however, still retain a scent of their luxurious past. A past that many appear to have forgotten: the end of French colonialism in Indochina and the beginning of Pol Pot’s bloody regime.

The buildings are scattered over a considerable area. We are in the province of Kampot, Southern Cambodia. The National Park is centred on a large plateau, more than 1000 meters above sea level, periodically enveloped by gigantic clouds sweeping in from the coast. In a few seconds the entire area is swathed in a grey fog, bringing with it a shroud of uncertainty. An old Catholic Church is visible in the distance, its shell dwarfed by the remains of the Bokor Palace & Casino.

As I wander among the ruins, I cannot help but notice the clear signs of past conflicts. Walls covered in bullet holes, windows shattered and minefields still in the process of being rendered safe. The heavy inheritance of the past. All is silent around me. Such is the silence that the sound of my footsteps becomes deafening.

It is the monsoon season. A small number of forest guards are patrolling the park. And apart from a group of young Buddhist monks, I am alone. The Casino is an imposing structure, but time has taken its toll and today its facade is almost entirely colonized by green moss. The original orange paint has been overtaken by nature. As I approach the main entrance, the entire area is once again obscured by clouds, which swallow everything in a white mist increasing its mystical charm while casting a haunting shadow over the surrounding landscape. Once inside, I realise that the building is larger than I thought. Beyond a large reception area and three big central rooms, a maze of narrow corridors leads into the unknown. A wide staircase leads to the first floor, where mirrors have been smashed to pieces and bathtubs and toilets have been ripped from their foundations. From the terraces and balconies, the church and the other buildings are visible. The walls of bedrooms and hallways are covered with carvings and graffiti, remaining traces of the Khmer Rouge - who were holed up in the Casino in the early 1980s fighting the Vietnamese – and of recent visitors. While I try to read some of these graffiti, I can hear the voices and footsteps of busy employees rushing through the corridors leading to the kitchens.

As I walk from one room to another, I imagine the building’s luxurious past. French women covered in jewels and members of the colonial administration discussing politics. A wall littered with bullet holes evokes images of war: the dead, the wounded, young children gripping their weapons and fighting for reasons they know nothing about.

Wandering through this decaying landscape I am overwhelmed by this country’s past: how many died? How many atrocities were committed in this remote location? I struggle to understand the indifference of the international community and I wonder how much more cruelty the West will be able to forget.


Born in Rome but a nomad at heart, Guido Pallini is a passionate photographer, traveller and writer. This article first appeared in Italian on The Tamarind. Edited and translated by Andrea Dessi for The Heptagon Post. 


9 November 2010


Photo Credit: Fickr/Alessandro Vannucci