Remnants of colonialism are scattered all over Southeast Asia. From city cafes to coastal villas, French influence casts a Western hue over even the most remote of Cambodian regions.
We caught a southbound bus from Phnom Penh, racing out of the city into the fresh air of the countryside. Cambodians and foreigners alike hopped off on rolling stops at what seemed like roads to nowhere. As we neared the coast, the indigenous stilt-propped houses scattered amongst the thinning forests were intermingled with European-style, ground-based villas.
Our bus arrived in Kampot during the mid-afternoon heat, which meant we could only do one thing – hit the beach at Kep, a small seaside village with French schools, a crisp white sand beach, and a revered crab market.
The following day the expedition began. Cramming into a van with eight other adventurers, we climbed the hills of Phnom Bokor, reaching into sweeping clouds that danced through us in the mid-morning hours.
At first, I wondered what the big deal was – all I saw was a thick fog and some broken buildings. But as the clouds parted, apparitional marvels of French and Cambodian architecture appeared before us, a ghost town gleaming above a vast seaside jungle.
Bokor National Park is home to endangered animals such as the Indian elephant, Malayan sun bear, and slow loris. However the real attractions are the abandoned French outposts: Bokor Palace, a once luxurious four-story hilltop hotel; a Catholic Church, rundown but still available for wedding celebrations; and a giant Buddha statue known as “The Woman on the Hill”, all of which created in the colonial and economic flourishing of the 1920’s and abandoned with the rise of the totalitarian oppression of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970’s.
The Khmer coveted Bokor Hill for its strategic military advantage against the French, and also the Vietnamese during the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. Certain areas are still laced with mines, keeping tourists on the beaten path.
Before viewing the trickling stream that is Popokvil Falls in the dry season, our guide told us that the road through Bokor National Park is the best road in Cambodia because it is privately owned. However, no one could tell us who made this investment. After a little research, I found that Sokimex Group, a Cambodian petroleum distribution company, is responsible for not only the development of the country’s national parks, but also for hotel chains, airlines, and the maintenance of Angkor Wat as a world heritage site. Based in Phnom Penh, they are largely silent about monopolizing the country’s major industries. As an outsider with a limited insight into Cambodian life, it’s hard to tell whether this is a good or bad thing for the Khmer people; but as a tourist, it’s comforting to know that there’s a greater power protecting the region’s natural beauty and fascinating history.