Impressed by the solemn, haunting beauty of the Bokor ruins while watching Matt Dillon’s “City of Ghosts” in 2002, I decided to return to Cambodia to photograph the French Colonial ruins at the Bokor Hill Station, and the abandoned mansions along the coast road near the town of Kep.
I used the charming Bokor Lodge, formerly the Foreign Correspondents Club, in Kampot, as home base for my explorations, and hired local guides to help me find and visit these destinations.
Kep seemed to me a sleepy fishing village, with some well-deserved local fame for its crab and seafood delicacies, but otherwise quite content to be a world apart; a former French colonial outpost returning to its humble origins as a community that thrives off the bounty of the ocean, with little concern for the outside world. There were a number of colorful oceanfront restaurants filled with people, music and laughter, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and that was a joy to behold. And yet, I didn’t see much in the way of housing for the locals. Upon looking closer and photographing some of the abandoned mansions, I discovered that they were actually being inhabited, even in their tumbledown state. In one home, I found clothing and other signs of life strewn about, but no people, and then while I was photographing, a group of 8-10 teenage boys showed up and made themselves comfortable, as if they owned the place… truly an amazing experience.
The ride up the mountain to Bokor was about 3 hours, on some of the worst roads with huge potholes and erosion I’ve ever seen. We left at dawn, so that I would have as many hours of daylight as possible to photograph, although we also had to allow enough time to get back down safely before complete darkness. Arriving at last at the main Hotel building, the former grandeur and present dark atmosphere were a heady mix to behold. Having seen vintage images of the resort during its heyday with expensive automobiles and well-dressed French colonialists outside the front door, it’s quite a different feeling to see the decay, entropy and misuse that are the current condition of this formerly majestic complex.
There have been rumors for several years that the Bokor Hill resort (and hopefully the access road) may be rebuilt and re-opened as a modern-day luxury destination, reliving its former glory. If this is done in a way that can benefit the local population and the Cambodian people in general, then perhaps the evolution of this unique location can become something positive in the lives of the locals, rather than remaining a silent witness to more painful times in the history of the land.
Eric Alan Pritchard