Riding Pillion

Earlier this week, I hired a motorcycle taxi to take me from my guesthouse in Kampot (the lovely Les Manguiers) to the ruined French colonial resort of Bokor. He picked me up at 8am and we roared off down the dirt track into town. Well, pootled, rather than roared, really. It was a Honda 125cc scooter with a dodgy back brake. We refueled at the local corner shop. The fumes from the petrol must be bad because the attendant was wearing a surgical facemask.

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The driver was only about five foot tall, and must have weighed less than 55kg, so having a hulking westerner on the back must have altered the normal equilibrium of the bike, especially as there was a stiff breeze gusting intermittently. We passed the oddly named Sonja Killing Memorial Private Hospital. Don’t laugh; it’s the premier health facility in South East Cambodia.

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The Sonja Killing Memorial Private Hospital, Kampot.

Bokor Mountain was “discovered” by the French in 1917. It is over 1,000 metres above sea level, so it offered a respite from the humid heat of the plains during the hot season, reminiscent of Simla and Darjeeling in India. The French constructed a road through the jungle and rainforested slopes of the mountain. On the summit there was a casino/hotel, a town hall, a church, and several other buildings, all fallen into ruins. King Sihanouk built a villa, with accommodation for his retinue of guards and servants.

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Le Bokor Palace was built in 1925 on the edge of the cliff overlooking the Gulf of Thailand.

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It reminded me of the hotel in the film, “The Shining”. You can wander around inside, despite the perfunctory signs saying it may not be safe. The views from the rear are phenomenal. It is said that gamblers, who had lost all their money on the gambling tables, would throw themselves off the cliff. The hotel was in use until 1972.

The church is solidly built, covered with startling orange lichen. The altar remains, but the interior is covered in graffiti. Some of the stone window shutters still work, allowing the cool breeze to provide natural air conditioning.

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The Royal Villa is set apart from the main buildings, past the town hall. It’s tiled inner walls have been vandalised and the site is overgrown. If you listen closely, perhaps you can hear the ghostly tinkling of champagne glasses being used to toast His Majesty, of perhaps that was just the wind blowing through the empty window frames.

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This building was the town hall. It was constructed in local stone supplemented with reinforced concrete. It looks squat and ugly.

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The Damnak Sla Kmao, or Black Royal Villa, with the servants’ and guards’ quarters nearby.
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The interior is sadly wrecked.

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A few years ago, some developers decided that it was time to redevelop the site, to renovate Le Bokor Palace, with a new casino and hotel complex, “the first and only highland resort in the Mekong Sub-Region amid pristine jungle wilderness and pleasant cool weather on the top of the mountain.”

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Thansur Bokor Highland Resort looks soulless and empty. There are no windows at all on the back of the casino, to concentrate the minds of the gamblers on the serious business of chancing their luck. The children’s play palace looks like ToysRUs on steroids. A great warehouse shed the size of an aircraft hangar, stands by an old Buddhist temple, small and simple in its design. One wonders about planning regulations in Cambodia.

Wat Sampov Pram means Five Boats Temple, named after the wind-sculpted rocks nearby, which look like boats.

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Of course, if a business syndicate is going to built a massive gambling complex on top of a mountain, there needs to be an easy way to get there. The new road is reputedly the best road in the country. That didn’t help the 125ccs of the scooter, as it crawled up the hairpin bends on the immaculate tarmac.

My driver was as astonished as I was by the new development. He had to keep stopping to ask directions as the roads had changed since he had last been here. He wanted to give me the full tour of all the sights to justify his fee of $15.

We visited a waterfall which had almost dried up. This didn’t deter a host of Khmer tourists out for a picnic. It was a shame that they all brought their own food, leaving the aircraft hangar-cum-cafeteria empty.

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At 1pm, I had had enough and asked to return to Kampot. It was easier going down the mountain than coming up. To save fuel, he kept putting the bike into neutral and coasting down the less steep inclines.

Because I was clinging to the motorcycle, I could not take photographs to record what I was looking at. I had to use my eyes instead. What a strange experience for me, the compulsive photo snapper. I had to look, and smell, and hear what was going on around me, instead of relying on a digital image to tell me what had occurred. Refreshing, but I’m not over my addiction just yet.

As we approached Kampot, I gestured that we should stop for refreshments. He screeched to a halt at a road side cafe/shack selling rock cakes and sugar cane juice.

The girl who crushed the cane in a mangle looked like she had just gotten out of bed, still wearing her pyjamas (this reminded me of the Saffron Lane Council Estate in Leicester). As I took some photographs, a one handed man came out from the shadows in the back of the shop, to have his picture taken, too. I just wondered if he’d lost his hand in the mangle.
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The sugar cane juice, mixed with like and water from an earthenware jar, tasted wonderful. Even the rock cakes revived me. I retrieved my backpack from the guest house and for another $5, my driver took me to Kep, about half an hour away.

He wanted to show me his new motorbike, which had just 500km on the odometer. “We’ll get there in no time,” I thought, until he picked up his friend. Despite the heavier load of two Khmer men, a large Westerner and his luggage, we sped along the flat dirt road at a good pace, overtaking tuktuks, bicycles and, occasionally, a car. But every time a lorry drove past us, we were cloaked in red dust for ten seconds.

The driver’s navigational skills were still impaired and we got lost in Kep. I would have thought that the clue was in the name, Jasmine VALLEY eco resort, so searching as long the coast wasn’t helpful. We drove back into the centre of Kep but he refused to ask for directions. Not being a typical man, I did ask a tuktuk driver, but he wanted to charge me more than twice the going rate to the trip. And he refused to tell my driver how to get there. “You can’t get there on a motorbike,” he said. “The road’s bad and it’s too steep.”

I had a cunning plan; I would ask at the tourist centre. It was empty. A pastrami-coloured Irishman came out of the bureau and said that it was the fourth time he’d called by, but there never was anyone manning the desk. But he showed me a map he’d acquired. “Dis’ll tellya all the places youse’ll be ripped orf. But, they do it nicely, wid a smile,” he said.

I guided my driver up the valley track to the resort. We nearly came off the bike several times, doing a “wheelie” on a particularly steep bit. But we made it. I gave him a generous tip. I checked into my eco room, and as I stripped off for my cold eco shower, I glanced in the mirror. Seven hours of sun and wind while riding pillion had turned my face a strange colour – beetroot mahogany, I think Farrow & Ball might call it.

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