Punting on Bokor’s Colonial Charm

ASIAWATCH — Architects and historians say a conglomerate’s US$1 billion plan to build a gaming centre on Bokor Hill could mean it losing its unique French heritage, Luke Hunt Reports.

Hidden in the clouds on a mountain overlooking the provincial capital of Kampot in Cambodia’s south sits a relic of a long-gone French colonial era. For decades a Catholic church, possibly the oldest in the country, remained abandoned here as wars were waged for decades on the flat lands below.

Under the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge, churches _ alongside all forms of religious life _ were anathema and systematically destroyed, believers persecuted and clergy exterminated by the Communists.

In Phnom Penh, the 19th century Notre Dame Cathedral became the first building to be razed by the ultra-Maoists, torn down brick by brick, after they entered the capital in April, 1975. Muslims were made to eat pork and targeted for ethnic cleansing while even Buddhism, the national religion, was outlawed as Pol Pot’s henchmen declared Cambodia would be driven back to Year Zero.

The Bokor Hill Station did not escape the carnage. Thousands were marched off the cliff top _ 1,048m above sea level in the Elephant Mountains _ and to their deaths but the abandoned church, a casino, post office, villas and other colonial buildings survived the destruction.

Then in the 1990s and early 2000s the hilltop became an isolated destination for the adventurous, accessible only by motorbike and four-wheel-drive.

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Historians lauded the place while a younger, more adventurous crowd held raves and full moon parties. That lifestyle and reverence stands in sharp contrast to more recent developments.

Outside the church, and what remains of the older buildings, the signs attempt to deter overnight visitors. The more recent additions _ a big concrete Buddha and a gaudy new casino and entertainment complex _ would look more at home on the Las Vegas strip or in Macau than alongside an old French town.

But Bokor is currently in the middle of US$1 billion (29.4 billion baht), 15-year construction programme by the Sokimex Group which holds a 99-year lease on the site. The initial stages of the massive casino project have been completed. Eventually the Thanksur Bokor Resort will cover most of the 105 hectare plateau with hundreds of villas, and include a sailing lake, a golf course and entertainment complexes.

Speculation abounds over what might be built _ chairlifts, animal parks and a Ferris wheel among them.

For many, the changes are the death knell of a bygone era deserving of preservation. For others not much has changed; Bokor is still a high society playground but in the 21st century it is being marketed for well-heeled Khmers with the French replaced by Chinese and Korean businessmen. And its raison d’etre _ a cooler climate offering some respite from the heat below _ is as strong a draw as ever.

The Sokimex Group is predictably upbeat with statements such as: ”We actually don’t say it’s a development _ we say it’s a rehabilitation because it already existed and we’re restoring it.”

The company, with the blessing of Prime Minister Hun Sen, is also on record as saying the Thansur Bokor Resort focuses on three points: Nature, history and modern entertainment.

Still, the post office and other buildings that sustained severe mortar damage during the war, were not restored and had to be pulled down about three years ago because they were deemed too dangerous for tourists.

The first step in this ”rehabilitation”, the building of a 33km road to the mountain top was widely applauded. The old road was dangerous and often subject to landslides.

Locals believed it was haunted by the ghosts of about 2,000 prisoners who reportedly died of malaria and exhaustion after being forced to build the road by French colonialists.

Back then, in the 1920s and ’30s, Kampot was in its heyday. The Kampot River, connecting the town at the foot of Bokor with the Gulf of Siam, had become Cambodia’s first port.

Hans von Zoggel, owner and manager of Villa Vedici, on the rural outskirts of Kampot said the French grandeur, its history and the almost constant mist shrouding the summit lent an eerie splendour to the area.

This was helped by the plateau being declared a national park.

However, more recent developments were designed to attract a different type of tourist, predominantly Asian high rollers and other wealthy people. He was scathing of the completed structures.

”The design, style, location, colours and interior of the casino just look ugly, Mr von Zoggel said.

”This is also feedback which I get from nearly all guests staying in the guesthouse,” he said, adding that although construction on the mountain top had not yet impacted on his business, he has doubts about the longer term future of the area.

”Many people have come to Kampot to enjoy the slow and sleepy French old-style town, as it is often described in the brochures, and with Kampot changing due to the way Bokor is being developed, that audience may want to seek other places than Kampot,” he said.

While the Sokimex Gorup continues to put its best spin on the redevelopment with lines such as: ”We will have villas for people who treasure the tranquility and serenity of this unique sanctuary,” and, the group aims to ”transform this unique five square kilometre picturesque mountain plateau into a resort for international and local tourists alike” _ others were not so sure.

Architects and historians were reluctant to publicly criticise the project, possibly because of an inherent risk in upsetting the close knit circle of developers who have gained control of Cambodia’s reconstruction in the aftermath of its tragic wars. But they were critical nevertheless.

One historian said he was always attracted to Bokor’s sparseness _ a landscape void of tall trees, covered by rock outcrops with a ”wind-swept gnarled vegetation often shrouded in thick, grey mist”.

”I would not have gone for the glitz and glamour of the current modern casino. The buildings that were there from the past almost form part of the scenery, stained with mosses and lichens … weather-beaten. New low-rise, cluster villa development in natural materials that would have fitted the landscape would be my choice,” he said.

But at the end of the day Bokor and its massive redesign, matched only by its lip service to appease the predominantly Western critics, is all about making money _ and lots of it _ and that means catering for thousands of gamblers at any given time. The national park status does not seem to matter.

Founded by the Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman Sok Kong, Sokimex is a rarity in Cambodia – a genuine diversified conglomerate with assets in a range of industries, predominantly petroleum but also in property, garments and tourism, including management of the famous temples at Angkor Wat.

The company has always been reluctant to provide any market information on its profit or loss levels, a point that has always annoyed potential investors after Sokimex insiders flagged the prospect that it could attempt a listing on Cambodia’s fledgling stock market. That secretiveness has also allowed rumours to flourish and cast doubts over the remaining French buildings.

”From what I can see little of the old remains _ except the hotel, church and a few structures that were re-used,” the historian said. His sentiments were echoed by Mr von Zoggel who added that Sokimex risked alienating Bokor’s traditional market.

”Kampot is also attractive for Phnom Penh expats who want to escape the capital. If Kampot is getting busier due to the Bokor developments, then this specific group may also change.”

Bokor’s $1 billion ground-up construction must succeed if Sokimex is to successfully list. The company will also have to disclose its longer term plans and distinguish itself from being just another gambling haven _ whether inside Cambodia or around the region in places like Macau, Singapore or Myanmar _ if it is to attract the numbers needed to turn a profit.

That distinguishing difference might just lie in Bokor’s French heritage _ or what’s left of it.

 

 

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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