This series takes a look at the legendary stories behind some of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. Here we delve into the dark history of Cambodia’s Le Bokor Palace hotel.
Le Bokor Palace: The Legend
If the walls of Le Bokor Palace hotel could talk, they’d probably crank it up to a scream. Located at the top of a mist-shrouded mountain in southwest Cambodia and first opened in 1925, the venue re-opened this spring, after spending decades as a derelict shell beloved of GoPro-touting travel vloggers. Before that though it survived several darker episodes. In the 1970s for example it was a stronghold of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge forces – as such it’s seen a good deal more death than, say, your average Holiday Inn.
“They killed people in the casino – there was blood on the walls. Some people’s hands were cut off”
In its first incarnation however, this hotel was a more sedate and luxurious affair. In 1925 the ribbon was cut on the 38-bedroom Bokor Palace Hotel at a lavish opening party. The southeast Asian country was under French colonial rule, with the hotel designed as a breezy centrepiece of a French-style outpost for foreigners and the local elite.
Located at the peak of the imposing, jungle-strewn Bokor Mountain, near the riverside town Kampot, the area was named Bokor Station.
Grainy black and white photos on the walls of the re-opened hotel show a jolly time being had by early foreign visitors. Ball games were played on the immaculate lawn and children climbed rock formations to view the stately hotel, which did indeed resemble a palace. It was, it seemed, worth the hassle of being driven up the area’s muddy, windy mountainside road. A road incidentally that had been laid by prisoners in the early 1900s.
This mountain peak fun was ended initially by the First Indochina War (from 1945-1954) between French colonial forces and the Vietnamese under Ho Chi Minh. Fighting spilled across the border from Vietnam into neighbouring Cambodia, and the hotel was used as a hospital, but Bokor Station was largely evacuated.
After the conflict ended the area was resurrected by Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk. The area was something of a royal pet project – the king constructed more buildings, including a casino at the hotel, in 1962.
Despite his best intentions however, these additions did not bring the intended glamour to the mountain. “I went there once: stress and passion reigned,” Marie-Françoise Chatel, a professor who worked in Kampot in the early 1960s, told the Phnom Penh Post in 2014. “Bokor was mysterious and made people a little afraid. Western expats liked to go there to find fresh air, [go] picnicking and play petanque. [But] no-one went off the beaten trails.”
“The hotel lay derelict: a grim reminder of what had happened there, but a intriguing (if slightly morbid) attraction for the few urban explorers”
The casino was closed in 1964 after a spate of gambling-related suicides on Bokor. The dramatic cliffs that can be seen from the hotel were pretty attractions for customers, but also provided an all-too tempting exit route for those caught in the swirl of its roulette table.
“Sometimes women would bring money to play there without telling their husbands, and lose it all,” says Mao Sokha, 66, a retired health manager living in Kampot. “They’d lose the money then jump from the top.”
Mao visited Bokor Station in 1969 when he was a student. “It was wild in the jungle,” he says. “When we drove down we’d meet 20 elephants walking across the road. Once I saw a tiger sleeping – he heard the car then ran at it with his claws out. We closed the window.”
Pythons weren’t so easily avoided. “We saw a big one on the road,” Mao says, “but the driver thought it was a pipe or something so he ran over it. When he hit it the snake’s tail flipped onto the roof of the car, waking my father up. He shouted, ‘What happened?’ and the driver said, ‘Oh, I crashed into a snake’, then went on ahead.”
As part of his effort to glamourise the area, King Sihanouk filmed a movie at the hotel, Rose de Bokor, in 1969. The following year however, Cambodia’s National Assembly voted to depose him and the US-backed Lon Nol came to power, before himself being deposed in turn by a far more brutal regime. In 1972, three years ahead of claiming the capital city Phnom Penh, the Khmer Rouge took Bokor. Pol Pot’s twisted vision of socialism saw millions of Cambodians killed for the crime of “being bourgeois”. The hotel did not escape the slaughter.
Uy Sokkaom, who used to live on Bokor, saw the killing first-hand. In his late 50s and now running in a bicycle rental shop in Kampot, he understandably refuses to discuss this time when I chat to him. But in 2014, when he worked as a tour guide, he told the Phnom Penh Post: “They killed people in the casino – there was blood on the walls. Some people’s hands were cut off.”
Uy himself escaped death by holing up in the jungle, then helping Vietnamese forces based in a church near the hotel. He earned the name “Mr Tree” by living, quite literally, in a tree. “I saw them kill my family, but I ran away from the killing place while they shot at me,” he told the Post. “When I lived up in the trees, the only thing I had to fear was cobras. Then the Vietnamese found me. I had to convince them I wasn’t in the Khmer Rouge, and I fought [alongside] them in the old church.”
The Vietnamese eventually drove out the Khmer Rouge in 1979, but ex-Khmer Rouge soldiers remained dotted around Bokor until as recently as the 1990s. The hotel lay derelict: a grim reminder of what had happened there, but a intriguing (if slightly morbid) attraction for the few urban explorers who made the hour-long motorcycle ride up the mountain.
Now the hotel, renamed Le Bokor Palace, forms part of plans larger resort on the mountain. Pristinely white walls, grand pianos, coconut smoothies and deep bathtubs give little clue as to the dark history of what went on in this place. The only thing still recognisable from the derelict era is the silhouette.
I don’t stay over, instead driving back down the mountain through the cotton ball-thick mist, being careful not to run over any pythons napping on the road.
Le Bokor Palace: The Location
Kampot is a charming riverside town in southwest Cambodia, close to the Thai gulf, that is yet to succumb to the foreign investment overload that has seen gaudy casinos and hotels take over the nearby city Sihanoukville. With a population of around 50,000, the town is dotted with colonial-era buildings and is a gateway to beautiful countryside where the famous Kampot pepper is grown, on sites such as La Plantation.
The main Kampot bustle is on the east side of the Preaek Tuek Chhu river that cuts through town, but the west side boasts brilliant riverside establishments like Banyan Tree and Naga House: both worth visiting if only for daytime lounging. A few kilometres west, don’t miss the incredible Green Cathedral kayak route, which takes about an hour to negotiate and is accessible from Gecko Village and Champa Lodge.
The peak of Bokor Mountain takes about an hour to reach from central Kampot by scooter, but the windy journey can be dangerous during the rainy season between May and October. Scooters can be hired in Kampot for US$5 (£3.86) a day – be sure to take extra fuel bottles and fill up at the petrol station before the main turnoff to the mountain, as petrol is scarce when you’re up there. Alternatively, every Kampot travel agent offers a Bokor Mountain day trip in a minivan, often for under $15 (£11.60) per person.
Bokor’s main sites are relatively well signposted, but it helps to download the Maps.me app, which you can use offline. You’ll pass a huge Buddha statue on your way up, then the Thansur Sokha Hotel, opened in 2012, on your right as you head to Le Bokor Palace. It’s worth stopping off at the atmospheric derelict church on your right between Thansur and Le Bokor Palace. There’s also a “waterfall” (more of a river, but still picturesque) area a few kilometres from the hotels, where you can take a forest trek from.
Le Bokor Palace: The Lowdown
Airlines including Thai Airways and Vietnam Airlines fly from London to Phnom Penh, stopping in Bangkok or Ho Chi Minh City. Many British visitors take in Cambodia as part of a wider southeast Asia trip.
Minibuses run from Phnom Penh to Kampot throughout the day, usually cost less than $10 (£7.75) per person and can be booked from bookmebus.com. The journey usually takes about three hours but times can vary wildly, as roads are in bad condition and traffic can get congested. A private car and driver for the journey costs around $50 (£39) and takes less time.
Alternatively you can take the extremely slow and fun train, which relaunched in 2016, takes about five hours to get to Kampot from Phnom Penh, and runs Fri-Sun. You’ll need to buy tickets in person from Phnom Penh Royal railway station.
Most people visit Bokor as a day trip from Kampot, during which you can visit Le Bokor Palace for a drink and to enjoy the views from the terrace at the back of the building – if the mist isn’t too thick. If you want to stay over, rooms cost from $466 (£345) per night. Rooms at the nearby Thansur Sokha Hotel are usually priced from around $70 (£55) per night.
Visit lebokorpalace.com for bookings and enquiries.