May 22, 2007

Le Boker Palace

:: Le Boker Palace Hotel & Casino (now) ::

From Phonm Penh we took off South to the river side town of Kampot. Famous for Pepper in bygone Colonial days and for its proximity to the old beach side seafood town of Kep (as well as being a Khmer Rouge stronghold). Today its a sleepy town with plenty of colonial buildings making wandering around enjoyable and a smattering of ex-pat run riverside eateries. We used it as a base to venture to the fantastic old hill station in Boker National Park.

Abandoned by the French in 1922 and originally built as a spectacular (and much cooler than the lowlands) hilltop Hotel and Casino complex complete with shops, post office, Church and Royal apartments, today the station is a ghost town. Only a new ranger station has any manned presence.

:: Le Boker Palace Hotel & Casino (then) ::

At 3000ft above the surrounding coast, the climb up to the top is an adventure unto itself. The single lane road which once was tarmaced, has now been destroyed by the weather and overgrown by the jungle. Remember this is a jungle that hides tigers and elephants !. The 32km's of winding rubble is all the more enjoyable from the back of a pick-up. Every corner brings a duck, a weave or a hold on tight, as we bump over another small canyon. Two full hours after entering the gate, we arrive at the top. Battered and bruised the journey has been for something.

:: I wasn't joking ::

Ironically due to the vertical drop from the top to the sea below, rising hot air normally creates so much mist you can't see your nose, but the day we chose was perfect. Clear blue sky, mist rolling up onto the plateau and a view that ranks with the best we have seen out over Phu Quoc island and the coast below.

:: Outstanding View ::

The buildings themselves are in varied states of collapse. The Church and the Casino Hotel are in the best condition for exploring. The Casino - known in its heyday as Le Boker Palace can be explored from top to bottom. From the kitchens, through the grand ballroom to the suites and outdoor dining areas above, while although small by current comparison you can switch your minds eye to see grandeur all around. The mist and empty halls make for an eerie atmosphere, it is said this is a haunted place. The King even went so far as to build a new casino 100m away as he thought the gamblers who took the shortcut down to the sea after losing too much cursed the original casino.

:: The Grand Ballroom ::

Even in the day with a made road the journey up here would have been tough in the vehicles of the time. Guests would have stayed here for a week at a time, enjoying the coolness, view and facilities.

:: The Post Office ::

The view from the top is phenomenal. 180 degrees of almost sheer drop to the sea coast 3000ft below.

:: A fair drop-off ::

After the great fun at the top, a reality check, another 2 hour bone-crunching ride to the bottom makes this a long, tiring but extraordinarily interesting and enjoyable expedition.

From Kampot we caught a share taxi around to Sihanoukville the evolving tourist friendly coastal town. Plenty of guesthouses and BBQ's on the sand make this a pleasant place to hang out for a few days. After our fill of barbied barracuda and local Angkor we braved a back to back bus journey from here , through Phnom Penh through to Siem Reap....a place deserving of its own blog...due to some old temples around there. Stay Tuned.

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"To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss."

Cambodia is a country that has economically fallen behind its neighbours due to years of internal strife. Its a country that is trying to get back onto its feet, driven by textiles, tourism and potentially, resources. We found the people to be positive; focused on creating a future that they see around them in Vietnam and Thailand. They have a long way to go. Years of zero investment coupled with rampant corruption make for challenging times ahead.

We spent a few days exploring Phnom Penh. Last time Dee was here she whistled through on the way to Siem Reap, so this time we wanted to get under its skin a bit more. After Vietnam some things took a bit of adapting to. The local food borrows from its neighbours and is heavy on fish and rice. The beer is strong and expensive (although that would be the case for any country after Vietnam) with a big plus being they have a good range of local stouts. Overall the streets are a bit dirtier and dustier with homeless families occupying some corners. With the focus of the downtown area being the riverfront, most of the traveller bars and hangouts line the promenade. There are some beautiful buildings, particularly the Royal Palace and the National Museum and some more sobering tourist sites like Tuol Sleng.

The Khmer Rouge was the ruling political party in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. In those 4 years they left a scar on their country which today is not openly discussed, but will certainly never be forgotten.

From Wikipedia:
In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, financecurrency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn Cambodians into "New People" through agricultural labor. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.

The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum is a former high school turned security prison located in central Phnom Penh. In it's few years of operation it saw an estimated 17,000 political prisoners enter its doors. There were seven known survivors, kept alive for their useful skills.

Tuol Sleng was is linked to the infamous Choeung Ek killing fields, some 17km's out of town. The Museum is presented in the 4 blocks of the old school buildings. Rooms used for interrogation complete with instruments of torture and photos of how the rooms were found by the Vietnamese liberators occupy one three storey block.

The Khmer captors kept meticulous records including photos and extracted biographies from their prisoners. Boards of these photos taken on arrival at the prison are displayed in the second block. Thousands of black and white photos. The third block has the cells, some brick, some wooden and group rooms where hundreds of people were chained together unable to move.

The final block houses displays; skulls, photos, artwork and a film room. Stories of the Khmer captors, their lives now and then also feature.

The impact of Tuol Sleng on the visitor is dramatic, made even more so by the fact this occurred in our lifetime and many of the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.

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May 2, 2007

Colonel Kurtz's Mekong.....

After three long days in a host of different floating vessels we have finally made our way through the Mekong Delta and up the Mekong river to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. Our time in the Delta was spent visiting some of the local cottage industries such as coconut confectionery and rice paper factories. The most visually interesting process we saw was the making of "Rice Krispies" (same idea as the Kellogg's brand). The rice husks are thrown into a huge wok filled with very hot black sand, after a couple of seconds and a lot of loud snap, crackles and pops white rice bubbles appear from beneath the black sand.

This fertile region is known as Vietnam's rice basket as it produces most of Vietnam's rice supplies. The area also produces large quantities of sugar cane, fruit, coconut and fish. We walked through some dense fruit farms with very ripe mangos precariously hanging high above. The delta contains a network of small canals which the locals commute through in small rowing boats. Daily floating markets are the hub of the community, lots of boats gather each specialising in a veg, fruit or ware and sell to the local people who row around doing their shopping. Each boat displays what their selling by perching their fruit or veg up on a large stick.
A huge variety of vessels ply the waterways thing they all have in common is that they are steered by the foot of a captain very comfortably a hammock if available.

April has been a hot and humid month in the Delta and rain that was badly needed was forecast during our time there. As the guide predicted the rains came down in a torrential downpour that last 45 minutes and are followed by blue skies. We got caught out in a small boat with only flimsy sun curtains to shelter from the almost horizontal rain.

On the last day of the trip we were rowed around in a small boat to see some of the floating fish farms. Families live in houses above their fish farms which are floated on plastic drums. Some of the farms contain as much as 150,000 fish at any given time, throwing some fish food in creates a feeding frenzy.

After a four boat trip we finally reached the Cambodian border. After the usual delays and bureaucracy we transferred over to yet another boat for two and a half hours. By the time we were aboard a bus to Phnom Penh we'd decided to steer well clear of boats for the next few days.

Phnom Penh is lively, busy and extremely hot. Over the past couple of days we've been enjoying dry land and checking out some of the local sights and markets.

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