Friday, September 2, 2011

Fog. Faded Glory. And the One About the Monk and the Mangos.

"A nun walks by a mango tree and sees a mango and decides to come back at night to pick it.  Then a monk walks by the mango tree and sees the mango and decides to come back at night to pick it.  At night the monk climbs the tree to pick it.  Then the nun comes and she tries to pick the mango but she picks the monk's mangos!!! [Hilarious laughter.] And do you know why the nun picks the mangos? She wanted juice. [Pause.] And it tickles the monk so he falls from the tree.  [Pause.]  Do you know? The monks mangos?  [Makes cupping gesture].  You understand?  Do you know why the nun tries to pick the monk's mangos?  She doesn't have a flashlight.  At night, when it is dark, we can't see, so the nun did not see that it was the monk's mangos and not the real mango. Yes?"
A visual aid to a very bad joke.  "Mangos!"
Glaser and I were at Bokor Hill Station, the hilltop ruins of a French resort town.  Shrouded in fog and literally falling apart, the ruins were a textbook example of extremely faded glory.  Our young guide had just finished explaining the history of Bokor, and after asking whether we had any questions or complaints of him, proceeded to tell us the "funny story" above.   It was really just the culmination of a truly underwhelming day.

For such a (potentially) idyllic place, Bokor Hill Station has a bloody and violent history.  It was originally built for French colonialists seeking an escape from the heat and humidity of Phnom Penh.  Hundreds of Cambodian laborers died during the construction.  It was abandoned by the French during the First Indochine War in the 1940s and then was again abandoned in the early 1970s as the Khmer Rouge came to power.  Bokor was the site of many clashes between the Khmer Rouge, Cambodian army and Vietnamese army in the late 1970s and remained one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge.  Today, the land is owned by the government but leased to a company that is redeveloping it into a huge hotel and casino complex.

With this redevelopment comes rules.  Rules like, you can only go to Bokor on an authorized group tour, not a private vehicle.  Dave heard the words "authorized group tour" and "faded glory" and "7:30 am start and 5:00 pm return" and immediately opted out.  Lauren and I pushed ahead.

The Tour:

Get picked up at 7:40 am.  Drive around for an hour picking up other people.
The giant pineapple statue is a major Kampot attraction.
That kind of sums up the level of Kampot attractions.
Arrive at the Park Ranger station along with another minivan.  Load into the back of a Chinese Jeep (their words, not mine) which is clearly not made for 18 Westerners and 3 Cambodians.
It was a crowded jeep.
[DSM: Is that a little Vietnamese man under that hat?]
Drive up a windy (but paved!) road, past extensive roadwork.

Stop at a random staircase headed uphill.  Hop out of the truck.  As the guide passes out water, he asks if everyone has bug repellant "because of the leeches."  Leeches?!?  Freak out.  Then hike uphill through dense, wet, slippery tropical jungle for 40 minutes, constantly checking your legs for leeches.
The hike started with weird steps cut into the hill
Are there any leeches on my legs?
Emerge from the jungle!  You are back at the road you were on before, and the jeep is waiting.  Get back on the overcrowded jeep.
Ummm.... weren't we just on this road?
Drive through the thickest fog you have ever seen.
Not a lot out there.
Arrive at the Bokor Palace.  Only you can't see it, because of all the fog.
Yep, there she is.
Oh, here's a much better view.
Ignore all of the "danger, do not enter" signs, and explore the epitome of faded glory.

Glaser posing in front of what we were assured was a spectacular vista.
Break for "picnic lunch" of veg curry over rice, somehow kept piping hot during the truck ride and enjoyed while standing.  Everything is soaking wet from the fog so you can't really sit.
Mangos! I crack myself up.
After the history lesson and funny story, walk down a road.
Look at two buildings.  We never found out what they are.
Another gorgeous view.
Building #1
Building #2
Nice spot to relax.  'Unt.
Walk back down the road to a Catholic church.  Visiting is incredibly awkward as it seems to be squatted in by some Cambodian families.  Look at the pulpit.  Look at their laundry hanging.
The church

Get back in the jeep. Ride down the hill.  Arrive at the place the hike up ended.  Decline, along with some chain-smoking Russians, the hike back down.  Learn that you will have to pay 2000 riel ($0.50) to the driver in order to skip the hike.  Roll eyes.  Then learn that actually, it is 1000 riel and it is a tax that goes to the local people.  Or a bribe that goes to the construction foreman.  Or a fine that goes to the construction company.  Roll eyes harder and find a quarter.  End up not paying anything because no one ever asks.
Ish don't think so.
Do the jeep-minibus-town transfer again and arrive at the tour company's office.  Kill the hour and a half before the included sunset boat tour starts with some iced coffee.
Streets of Kampot
The boat is nice, but it is still way too early for sunset.  Get dropped off at your hotel, which is on the river, and vow never to do that tour again.
A different, but similar boat ride.
Sunset, with a pup, from the pier of our hotel Les Mangueirs.
Why didn't we just hang here all day?
If you go:  Kampot is a nice little town, and Les Mangueirs was a rustic but peaceful and secluded hotel, with the most delicious homemade jams (our favorites: passionfruit and mango) and fabulous river views.  We can't recommend the Bokor Hill Station tour, though!

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