Just off the bus, we met a representative from the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism, who hustled us onto a van heading to Bokor Mountain, where the conference was happening. His name was Narong, and he said that first we had to stop at the airport to pick up a few more people. 20 minutes later Narong jogged back to our van, as some others got into the vehicles in front. He subtly pointed to one, saying, “Look, the King.”
We found ourselves in the escort crew of the King — which king I didn’t really know. We followed six other black vans and SUVs, going 100km per hour down to the mountains of southern Cambodia, sharp turns left and right the whole three hours. The road hugged the hill when we got close, a guard every 200 metres. I could see the sunlight shining on us, disappearing and reappearing over and over. As my friend said, “It’s like we’re chasing the sun.”
The Hill Station
When we arrived at Bokor Mountain — a cool-weather colonial French hill station, about 42km from Kampot — there were already 300 people there for the event. Whichever king we came with got swallowed up by a bunch of black suits as we made our way in. We were checked into the Thansur Bokor Highland Resort, one of the only inhabited places in this slowly-reviving former ghost town only a few kilometres from beautiful Veal Rinh Bay, the body of water on the Cambodian side of Phu Quoc.
As many people as there were for the conference, our journalist group was only six. This gave me good access to the important people we were there to meet, including most of the tourism ministers in Southeast Asia and other powerful people in the industry. But it wasn’t nearly as revealing as taking a walk around Bokor.
Next morning we visited the Bokor Palace Hotel — site of 2002 creepy Hollywood thriller City of Ghosts, and maybe home to some real ones — and other abandoned colonial buildings around the area. The weather on the mountain was cool enough for a light jacket day or night. The sun was always shining, like spring weather.
Most of the buildings in the ruins were built in the 1920s to cater to the wealthy, but in the upheaval of the next decades they were abandoned by the French, and then for good in the 1970s as the Khmer Rouge took over the area. The buildings had a haunted look, yet were strangely beautiful. Age-blackened walls and high grass all over the place, even though there was some furniture that showed the buildings were still in use.
In the backyard of the hotel, on top of the hill, I could see the entire Veal Rinh Bay down below, then the sea — and a bit further away, partially hidden under the clouds, Phu Quoc.
Adventure Time in Kampot
After the conference was over, I was again knocked around the van as we navigated the sharp turns down the mountain, heading to nearby Kampot. This time there weren’t any guards.
Kampot is a little town by the bay, filled with French colonial architecture. Along the bay, abandoned French villas lie untouched, ruined — urban explorers out there should take note. Some buildings are being renovated, as hotels or villas, keeping their original look. These large homes fit well with their surroundings.
We had the driver drop us off for a walk around town, doing the “adventure time” thing for a few hours. We wandered around all these anonymous, interesting buildings, enjoying the feeling of being in a different era. Residents have made use of the buildings by turning them into the signature look of Kampot. Some have been transformed into boutique hotels, like The Columns (37 Phoum 1 Ouksophear); many were turned into coffee shops, like my favourite, Epic Arts Café (67 Oosaupia Muoy), which provides work and hangout opportunities for deaf students.
We managed to visit a completely renovated villa in nearby Kep called Villa Romonea (Prey Thom, Kep Thmei). The crescent-shaped villa is white with a pool out back facing the beach. The windows on the second floor were all opened and filled with butterflies and other insects. As if in perfect harmony with nature, so close even the bugs loved it.
Property manager Stéphane continued on this theme, describing the outside of the villa as like the skin of a dragon, which defends it from its enemies. The back is the belly, where all the good things are. Its openness to the refreshing nature it’s surrounded by is one of the good things — the heat and ocean breezes making you want to sit down, have an ice-cold glass of lemonade and enjoy this good life — or feel good about life.
During the trip I kept seeing signs and banners around Kampot, saying, “It’s paradise.” At first I thought them odd, but after getting to know this town, I started thinking that maybe they’re right.
I came to the area for the bay, and that’s what the people at the Cambodian Ministry of Tourism showed me. But what I found on this trip was much more than just that.