Thursday 10 Aug
Ghosts of Bokor Hill
The rain lashed down as Sara, Rob, Diana and Jane battled the landmine decimated road in an ailing Toyota pick-up through the jungle to the abandoned French Hill Station of Bokor. As the rain intensified they heard a catastrophic crack underneath their seats and the truck shuddered to a stop. Kim, the 21 year old Cambodian driver looked gloomy. The truck had hit one rock too many and the suspension had snapped. All four watched helplessly at Kim's futile attempt to fix it with string and branches. Things weren't going according to plan, and they were left to watch the rest of the group trudge off in to the rain to meet the support vehicle, leaving them alone in the jungle.
As morning turned to afternoon Diana cursed not bringing her book to read. Time past slowly but just as uneasiness began to set in they were relieved to hear an approaching vehicle, Kim appeared with the other truck. The four eagerly abandoned the shelter of their vehicle, jumped in and set off stumbling and jolting up the track in the mist and rain. Despite the weather Kim was keen to continue the tour. First stop was the grand old colonial hotel built by the French in 1925. It was called Bokor Palace but was known to all local Khmer residents as 'The Casino.' Kim assured the group that in the summer the place commanded spectacular views of the dense jungle stretching to the sea, but in the dark cold fog it was beginning to feel pretty creepy up there.
Diana, Jane, Rob and Sara reluctantly left the shelter of their car, and gingerly entered the hotel. They wandered up and down the corridors, through the ballroom to the suites above. Inside the wind howled through the building and visibility dropped to nothing. Joking nervously that this was how all teenage horror flicks started they dared each other to explore the cellar. Confident all four were clearly outside this age bracket they descended the crumbling staircase in to the darkness, exchanging whispers of 'redrum' as they went.
Back out in the open, next stop on Kim's 'Ghost Town' tour was the old Catholic church. Stained red and black with moss, it was an eery sight against the darkening sky. Inside it felt like it had only been locked up yesterday. The altar remained intact and drawings of what looked like Khmer Rouge guerrilla fighters engraved the walls. The atmosphere was unsettling and all four were relieved to leave the dry, dark rooms for the comfort of the howling rain outside. The bad weather continued to close in and fearful it might leave them stranded outside for the night they decided to abandon the tour and head directly to the ranger's station.
Despite the leaking roof they heartily tucked in to a welcoming warm vegetable curry. After dinner some of the party decided to return to Kampot, leaving just six to face the night alone at the station. The hours ticked by as the group discussed politics and corruption over a bottle of Cambodian whisky, and stumbled to bed around midnight decidedly tipsy. Outside cloud engulfed the building, and wind howled across the courtyard turning the swirling mist in to a vortex against the black sky.
Kim refused to sleep in the house, claiming it was haunted, and instead chose to sleep in the jeep outside. At 3am there was an almighty crash and the sound of shattered glass. Unsure if anyone one else was awake, Sara lay alert in her bunk. Sleep was futile, the howling wind had seen to that hours ago, and to top it all her bladder nagged to be relieved. It was no use, she was going to have to make the journey across the courtyard to the toilet outside. The door had come off its latch and was swinging violently in the wind. Weary of the three legged tiger rumoured to prowl the area at night she cautiously picked her way over the glass and past the broken window to the bathroom. Back outside in the courtyard she struggled to stand against the force of the wind, and battled to secure the swinging door to the wall with string before climbing back to bed. She drifted off to sleep but awoke sensing someone watching her. In the doorway stood a ghostly figure with half their face burned and one eye missing. She quickly shut her eyes and stubbornly refused to open them until daybreak. In the morning the apparition had gone.
Over breakfast the cloud lifted its curtain briefly revealing the full extent of the abandoned hill station. It was all so close. In addition to the church and hotel, the group saw the post office, reservoir and water tower for the first time before the clouds rolled back obscuring the town from view. Happy to have at least seen something of the place, they prepared to leave. The jeep wouldn't start and as Kim turned the engine over for the third time, out of the mist emerged a man swinging an axe...
You'll be pleased to know that in the end the jeep started and we all made it safely back to Kampot. We decided to write this week's blog as a traditional ghost story for a bit of variety but with the exception of some poetic licencing on the descriptions all names, places and events are true. So, you have the choice to either leave it as a ghost story or read the explanations below:
* The man wielding the axe at the end of the story was actually the park ranger returning from chopping logs but it did add to our 'Here's Johnny' moment.
* The apparition in the doorway I'm fairly sure was a dream induced by the strong malaria medication I'm taking. Although disturbingly Kim later revealed the real reason he slept in the jeep was because the week before a driver had overturned his car on the track leading out of the park. When they discovered the body the top of his head had been sliced off and one eye was missing. The week we were there various people had reported sightings of the dismembered driver, including one in the ranger's house, where we were sleeping, by the ranger's wife. Another story he failed to divulge until we were safely out of the park was a murder that had been committed in the old hotel during this year's New Year's Eve party by a corrupt general's son with bodyguards. Guns and corruption are still a big problem in Cambodia.
The hill station genuinely had a ghost town feel to it. The church was straight out of 'Amityville' and the resemblance of the old Bokor Palace to the hotel in 'The Shining' was frightening. Walking around the corridors inside it wouldn't have surprised us to bump in to the twins on their trikes. I might not be one to believe in ghosts but I do think some buildings retain an atmosphere, and the abandoned French Hill Station at Bokor holds some pretty dark secrets.
The area has seen some ferocious fighting over the years. First in the forties, in the fight against the French for independence, and then as the final stronghold of Pol Pot's brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the late seventies. One of the Khmer Rouge units was reportedly held up in the Catholic church whilst the Vietnamese army shot at them from the old hotel only 500 metres away. The drawings of the guerrilla fighters around the altar are a disturbing reminder of Cambodia's dark history. Khmer Rouge guerrillas were still present in the area right up until the mid nineties. The forest is now uninhabited save for a few illegal loggers, a three legged tiger (yup that story is true- the ranger has pictures to prove it), and a few bears. Now, in an effort to encourage tourism, the Kampot tourist board is considering changing the name of Bokor Hill Station to 'Ghost Town.' Ironically the Cambodians we met were genuinely afraid.