By Alison Bate

I went up a mountain today, and came down much the wiser.

It was a glorious sunny day in Kampot, too hot as usual, and I hoped it would be cooler at the top of the mountain.

As we started up the winding road to Bokor Hill station, our Cambodian driver/guide said casually: “My grand-grandfather helped build this road. Nearly 1,000 people died during construction.”

Whoa. I stopped gazing at the view as he explained that harsh working conditions, backbreaking labour and malaria all took their toll on the prisoners/indentured servants before the road was finally completed in 1925.

We learnt some chilling history about the plateau. After the inauspicious start building the road, Bokor became a pleasant retreat for the French colonials and King Sihanouk to escape the relentless heat in Cambodia. But a few years after they left, the Khmer Rouge moved in and planted thousands of land mines at the base of the mountain to protect themselves and ventured out to intimidate and massacre the villagers below.

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The old Catholic church at Bokor in 2017

It took the Vietnamese invading Cambodia to bring about the end Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. The two sides fought at the top of Bokor Hill, trading fire between the Palace Hotel and Casino (pictured above) and the old Catholic Church (right). The Vietnamese eventually succeeded but outstayed their welcome, remaining in Cambodia for 10 years after toppling the Khmer Rouge.

Afterward, the starving villagers came up to plunder anything they could get hold of, stripping away wood and fittings from the sturdy buildings. The road fell into disrepair and the buildings continued crumbling.

Even on a sunny day, it’s still spooky to see the derelict Palace Hotel and Casino, the old Catholic Church and the graffitti-covered remnants of the Black Palace, the summer palace for the Cambodian royal family.

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Temple at the top of Bokor Hill (Pix: Alison Bate)

There’s been a renaissance of sorts. A good tarmac road up the mountain was rebuilt in 2003 and at the very top, temples are being repaired and have a wonderful view to the coast and beyond, with Phu Quoc island visible offshore. Sadly, new buildings nearby jar horribly with the faded beauty of the older buildings and classic temples. The Sokha Thansur Resort hotel is soulless and a new convention centre  under construction looks like a giant aircraft hangar.

It’s the scenery and history that attracts tourists like myself for day trips from Kampot, just 36 kilometres away, and from the beach scene at Sihanoukville.

Halfway down the mountain, it started to pour and we laughed in sympathy as our minibus driver let out two young Germans to meet a dripping guide, ready to hike the rest of the way. Like many other visitors, they’d come over from the beaches at Sihanoukville to see Bokor Hill Station. Bracketing beaches and hiking with learning about Cambodia’s terrible past.

Later in the week, I was in Phnom Penh, deciding what to visit. On Trip Advisor, the top two most popular things to see were the Choeung Ek Genocidal Centre (the Killing Fields) and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, code-named S-21.

I went to S-21, a high school converted into a prison and interrogation centre by the Khmer Rouge. At least 12,000 people died here and only a handful survived between 1975 and 1979. The buildings were remarkably similar to a high school I’d taught at in Hanoi, Vietnam the previous year — French colonial cookie-cutter school, I imagine.

It seemed ghoulish to be visiting these places. But then I looked around at the continuous stream of mostly 20-something backpackers listening intently to the audio guides as they walking quietly around the buildings or sat on benches.

A generation who weren’t born when the Khmer Rouge killed one-quarter of Cambodia’s population. Learning and bearing witness. I came away saddened but heartened at the same time.