"The monk there, he magic man. He meditate now, we cannot go through."
He points to the rough bamboo archway, decorated with colourful flags, which marks one trail leading up the hill to the left. One of the flags must be monk for Do Not Disturb. Reluctantly, we take the trail to the right. We see no more villagers dragging bundles of freshly cut bamboo, and the banana and papaya are replaced by dense, tall timber, vines and palms. We are above slash-and-burn country now, heading into the deep jungle. With a six-hour trek ahead of us, my shirt is already drenched with sweat after only an hour.
Up ahead, setting a cracking pace, is our Khmer guide, who speaks no English and smokes constantly. He wears long trousers and a long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt. Obviously it's a bit nippy for him this time of year. He's purloined my Wilderness Equipment backpack to store our vegetables, rice and extra water, and given me his smaller bag. Which, with its confusing pockets and worse than useless zips that continually burst open, is so annoying that i feel like flinging it into the trees. As i grope around fruitlessly for a water bottle in one of the hidden compartments, i trip over a vine.
As you may have guessed, i don't go trekking for the alleged fun of it. I'm chasing a story on the privatisation of Bokor National Park. Sokimex Petroleum, who are building a resort here, closed the only road in two months ago. The only way to get to the previously deserted French town of Bokor Hill Station, where the new development is taking place, is on foot through the jungle. The French colonialists built the outpost from 1917 to 1921 high on a mountain plateau, at an altitude of (my knees tremble at the thought) 1080 metres, as a way to escape the heat, the mosquitoes, and the lumpen proletariat. Many Khmer labourers died building the road up to the grand hotel, casino, post office, palace and night club.
Apart from the two guides, there are six others on this jaunt, who are apparently mad enough or bored enough to be taking this trek for pleasure. Apart from the two Ukrainians, who clearly just made a wrong turn somewhere on the way to their hotel.
Above the whoop-whoop of the gibbons, the birdcalls and the thrum of insects, we hear another sound. It is music, played on what sounds like a bamboo angklung. It's coming from the other side of the valley. We stop to listen. It's a magical sound.
"I thought you said he was meditating," i say to the guide. We press on. The two Ukranians are a decidedly odd couple. One of these Cossacks is wearing Thai fishing pants, high on his waist, with his t-shirt tucked into the waistband. His feet and ankles protrude from the bottom of his wide-bottomed trousers like stilts. The other one seems to have taken his style pointers from the Aki Kaurismäki film Leningrad Cowboys. The Ukrainians have made no attempt to communicate with the rest of the group and always stand slightly apart, whispering together like as though they were some kind of Communist fucking spies. The stilt-walker carries what appears to be a laptop satchel. The fat one in the cowboy outfit is constantly complaining to the skinny one. All the swear words are in Ukrainian, so i have no idea what he is saying, but i imagine it goes something like:
"This one more fine mess you gotten us into, Igor," Yuri says as he climbs another sandstone incline, struggling to remove a thorny vine from his cowboy hat. "How much further this gypsy fleabag hotel is? Where the godforsaken tour bus?"Still, it can't be easy booking a tour when you speak no English and the tour operator speaks no Ukrainian. Even i understood the part where he said we must wear sturdy shoes. These two are struggling along in thongs. Yuri mutters to himself as he negotiates another fallen log.
We lunch at a waterfall. A myriad of butterflies flit and sit on the flat, grey sandstone rocks, their wings upright like a flotilla of yellow sailboats in the shallow pools of water. After a simple meal of rice and vegetables, Daniel from Oxford lights an enormous spliff, which he shares with me and a young Californian who goes by the unlikely name of Troyce. We swim, wash off the sweat in the waterfall, and laugh as the Ukrainians stand and mutter about the decadence of the West.
The climb gets dramatically steeper, and under the influence of the profoundly strong ganga, things get a little weird. Visions from countless Vietnam war movies i'm sure i never watched begin screening in my head. Fallen trees are marked here and there by machetes, and there seem to be tripwires and ambushes at every turn. I put my hand around what looks like a sturdy tree, only to have it crumble away, and suddenly my hand covered with a swarm of small, red, savagely biting ants. Large, mud-like bees nests appear in the trees. Our guide points as a short, black snake slithers from view. Paul, a Yorkshireman and amateur botanist, points out what looks like your garden-variety palm, the kind of thing you would have by the pool – except for those clumps of two-inch long needles sticking out of its stem. Occasionally we hear the jet-like whoosh of air from the large hornbills wheeling invisibly overhead.
Suddenly our Khmer guide stops. We are standing in a piece of jungle which looks a lot like all the other pieces of jungle we have pushed our way through. How can he tell where he is going, i wonder. It is when he begins backtracking that i decide he probably can't. It was disconcerting enough earlier in the day, when two members of our party, along with our translator, caught up with the rest of us at a rest stop, looking even more sweaty and shaken than usual. "Are we glad to see you," said the Englishwoman. "I thought we were lost." The English speaking 'guide' nodded his head. "I was sure we were lost," he said. "I was calling out, but i couldn't hear you." How very reassuring.
The Khmer guide stands motionless, looking up another trail. Then he nods his head and barks something to our translator, beckoning us over. "Is OK," says the translator. "He know a shortcut."
"Is two hours from here instead of four. But is steeper." Steeper? How the fuck can it get any steeper? We soon find out. Yuri mutters to himself as he scales a vertical pile of rocks ahead of me. I pray he doesn't slip in those damn flip-flops because he will take me out with him on the way down. Higher up i see our erstwhile guide, walking casually up the scree, using his hands not – like the rest of us – to find purchase in a handhold, but to light another cigarette, which he puffs on gaily as he disappears from view on his sweat-free ascent. Hours later, as we emerge drenched and exhausted to sprawl our weary bodies about on a mountaintop trail, he stands waiting like a polite elevator attendant. I take off my shirt and wring out the sweat
We trek across an open plateau to reach Popokvil Falls, "the waterfall of the swirling clouds", where a truck from the ranger's station is supposed to pick us up and drive us the remaining eight kilometres to Bokor. Of course, it doesn't turn up, because Sokimex Petroleum have long since banished the rangers from their base in the old hospital at Bokor Hill Station. Or, as it is now officially referred to on the Cambodian Ministry for Tourism website, "Bokor Resort". Which sounds much like Sokha Resort, where the owner of Sokimex Petroleum, Kem Sokha, privatised the best beach in Cambodia. Another curious fact i noticed on the Ministry's website was that there is no listing for Bokor National Park under the 'National Parks' link. If you click on it you get a page which reads "under construction". Later, when i photograph the cement factory built within the national park to supply concrete for the new development i realise just how accurate this is.
Not surprisingly, no truck arrives from the non-existent ranger's station. But we do get one man on a battered scooter. He begins to ferry us, one by one, up the horrendously pot-holed and boulder-strewn "road" to our accommodation. I do some calculations and figure that even going as fast as he can, on that road, it will take about six hours to get us all to the station. We can walk it in about two.
We start walking. The man on the scooter returns, this time accompanied by another man in camouflage gear on a red scooter. He wears an RCAF badge. Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. He is army. So i am not surprised when i later learn Sokimex Petroleum have the Cambodian military working as private security on this project. And that, under their company policy, we are not supposed to be here at all. The army officer looks us over carefully before continuing on his way.
The accommodation is basic. Three double bunks in a room. Given there are seven of us, plus the guides, it is fortuitous that two of our party are a couple, or two of us very soon would have been a couple.
After exploring the hill station we lie, exhausted, in our bunks. Apart from Paul, who sets off on a quick jog around the lake. That way madness lies. Yuri, having successfully negotiated a six-hour jungle trek through some difficult terrain wearing thongs, falls and hurts himself climbing out of his top bunk. I learn some more Ukrainian.
At dinner, Yuri is unimpressed by the simple fare. Rice, steamed vegetables, and a bit of beef. The rice and vegetables are delicious. I don't know about the meat, because Yuri serves himself first, carefully spearing all the beef from the large bowl with his fork, and piling it up on his plate. He spends his dinnertime complaining to Igor through mouthfuls of beef.
"This hotel very bad, Igor," i imagine him muttering. "My backside very sore from scooter. Why we come here, Igor? Falling down buildings here everywhere. Everywhere, these falling down buildings. Why we come here? We have same falling down buildings at home, in Ukraine."We don't know when we are due to leave in the morning. It depends when the bribed driver of the steel-tray truck can make himself available to torture and pummel us on a bone-shattering judder down the pile of rocks that passes as a road to the mountain trail. We sit on the steps of the ex-ranger's station, looking out across the excavated lake to the abandoned hotel, casino, church, and the rest. Crumbling into the thick foliage of palms, vines and wild, thorny raspberries. The water tower, like a spacecraft that dropped this strange, vanished civilisation onto this remote mountain plateau. The original casino, perched high on a sheer cliff which drops off into a mist-shrouded jungle, was moved to a building closer to the lake. Too many people were losing all their money at the tables, buying one last drink, and taking a lonely walk outside into oblivion.
We sit and look at this abandoned playground of the rich and suicidal. We discuss the proposed resort, which would redevelop these buildings and build a huge, 5-star Vegas-style hotel and casino in a large tract of cleared land between the church and the monastery perched on the cliff in the distance. Our translator goes inside and returns with a glossy Sokimex Petroleum calendar, filled with artists' impressions of the impending resort. The colourful, airbrushed view across the lake shows bright, renewed, Lego-like buildings, a promenade peopled by happy and rich strolling couples, a Vegas-style casino, a fake Disneyesque waterfall and - believe it or not - an artificial volcano, complete with exploding red lava.
Yuri looks, incredulous, from the lurid calendar to the desolate scene before him. He looks from one to the other and back again, again and again, before shouting something at his comrade in Ukranian. I'm not sure, but i think it went something like:
"You see, Igor? They think we fools! This place nothing like brochure."