No going back

2000/7th July 2023

Despite ominous peals of thunder and some impressive clouds late yesterday, we did not get a drop of rain.

But the oppressive heat has abated.

Our wild garden is much happier.

But according to the weather oracle, we must brace for a cold front bringing flooding rain!


The pink tinges of last night’s cloud set me reminiscing again about long ago sunsets.


One of my more inspired educators, who was a nun, used to release us from homework occasionally, in favour of a short walk to the shore from whence we could witness the sun setting across the Gulf of Siam as it was then, behind the plateau de Bokor.


Not a day goes by that I don’t think of Cambodia as my eyes take in my father’s photographs that hang in my hallway.

The original prints in fact, that were made in Phnom Penh in 1957, still in good condition in the frames I had made almost 50 years ago.

Quality endures!


Some of the illustrations will be inferior scans of very small photographs.

Perhaps they will help set the atmosphere.

On 16th February 1957, while staying at the seaside resort of Kep, I was taken by my parents to that distant Plateau de Bokor. I know the date is accurate because it was my 9th birthday.

This is an essay I wrote a few years ago.


Thick clouds of swirling mist clung to the steep slopes of the Plateau. My father edged the Citroen quatre-cheveaux slowly forward as I held on mute in the back seat, breathless with fear, though whether this was fear of plunging off the road and down the mountain, or simply fear of my father once more losing his temper, I cannot at this long remove remember.


We were driving up to Bokor from the nearby town of Kampot. No one had warned us that it might be cold up here on the plateau, and my dad was not at all pleased as if there was an unending conspiracy against him. He feared being cold above all else, believing that he would be struck down with pneumonia and surely die from it. As a boy of six, in 1918, he had survived the Spanish Flu’, but never quite recovered from it, psychologically. It was to blame for everything that went wrong. His weak lungs kept him from getting the education he deserved, it drained the energy he needed to succeed as a film director, and so it went on.

My father may have been ill tempered and difficult, but he was a very good photographer.

My two favourites are from this day.

The route to the summit took us to the foot of the Popokvil waterfall, an attractive place to stop and watch the water sparkle as sunlight broke through the mist.  


Bokor Hill Station sits at 3,540 feet above the jungle, facing the South China Sea. The sun setting behind it daily paints a lurid water colour that verges on a religious experience. The nuns of Mater Dei apparently thought so too. On more than one occasion, we were released from our studies to contemplate the spectacle. In retrospect I thought that this was an unusually inspired gesture. If anything could have converted me, it would have been those sunsets.

Instead of becoming a Christian,  I became a complete devotee of the natural world and of the wonders of the Universe. The night sky was another mystical experience. As unpleasant as the boarding school situation may have been, the magnificent setting made it all worthwhile

“Construction of the Hill Station Bokor began in the 1900’s mostly using savagely treated indentured labour and costing some nine hundred lives. The Grand Hotel de Bokor was inaugurated in 1925 with 38 luxurious rooms. It boasted wide terraces and gardens, and a grand ballroom. It was extremely elegant and was exclusive to Western ex-pats and affluent Khmer.”


In 1940 the hotel was closed and used as a hospital during the First Indo China War. It then remained closed for many years. When I went there with my parents in 1957, the red painted edifice stood like a ghost among the encroaching weeds. Cold, damp fingers of mist fed lichen on the walls. It resembled an old Indian fort, its tall flat walls seeming prepared to withstand an assault. Battlement-like pergolas on the roof reinforced this notion  


A steep stairway in front took us up to a veranda, which led into the lonely building.  


We walked through what had been the ballroom, our footsteps echoing through the twisting corridors. It smelled fetid and dank from the constant humidity, bat droppings and bad things. Everywhere, people had scrawled messages in the mold and on the decaying plaster. I wondered who they had been and what had happened to them. This was not a place I wanted to be at night.  

No one could have foretold then how very much creepier this place would become.


Behind the hotel was a great terrace surrounded by a crumbling wall. I stood by it listening to the jungle thousands of feet below and imagined all the animals down there. The sound I heard was like an orchestration of all their murmurings and their muted voices, the rustling of the trees and the songs of insects. It was a very special composition that I shall never forget. Nature’s Symphony.

For how many species may it have been a requiem?  


Turning to look for my parents, I ran to catch them up. As usual my Dad was manipulating his camera and cursing about poor light conditions. He took a photograph of the abandoned Catholic Church, it’s cross standing out against the horizon. Ironically, as my dad was a confirmed atheist, this was one of the most wonderful photographs he ever took, in my opinion.  


My favourite of Dad’s photographs might not have been taken. As I skipped at a safe distance along the precipice, I spotted my father lining up his Rolleiflex to capture the perfect shot of a distant slope, meanwhile edging himself backwards toward a sheer drop. In the foreground is clearly shown the cliff he so easily could have fallen from. In the distance the forlorn hotel stands proud against the threatening clouds and at the centre of the photograph is the perfectly posed plateau, a slope descending sharply into the jungle, where a shaft of sunlight has broken through.  


Five years after our visit, in 1962, the Palace Hotel de Bokor was re-opened by Prince Norodom Sihanouk. Some other facilities were added to the resort and a casino was added. For another decade or so, the hotel remained open but did not flourish.

In 1964 the casino was closed after a number of gambling related suicides. The remote and poorly accessible location of the Palace Hotel made it the ideal location for nefarious activities and illicit liaisons. People became afraid of this mysterious place.  In 1972 The Khmer Rouge had already established a presence at Bokor and in 1975 they overthrew the Cambodian Government, with Pol Pot as their leader. Thus began the bloodiest episode in Khmer history.  The Khmer Rouge set itself up in the Palace Hotel, overseeing their ghastly dominion. There is little wonder that the hotel is regarded as one of five most haunted buildings in Cambodia. Many locals will not go there.


In 2018 it was again re-opened. To me it will always be that sad, derelict building I walked through so many years ago.  

It is a very poor commentary on human behaviour that tourists seek out places like the Palace de Bokor Hotel, just to gape at a place where our own kind sank to their very lowest, committing the vilest obscenities. Would that such places burn to the ground.  

 In total, I lived in Cambodia for three years. I loved the country, from the shores of the South China Sea, to the banks of the meandering Mekong. From the paddy fields of rice, swaying in the wind, to the mysterious and sad hill station. I even loved, to a lesser extent, the busy markets, the street vendors with the many good things they had to sell, and the oh-so-slowly rotating fans in the Le Royale Hotel.  

When reports came out about genocide in Cambodia, I could not comprehend it, nor can I yet. The Cambodians I knew were gentle people, Buddhists. How was this possible?

 I had always planned to go back to Cambodia, but when peace returned and the borders re-opened, I knew it was a journey I could not make. Each time I thought of it, I had disturbing nightmares. There would be so many ghosts and I would not find all I had known and loved. It was gone forever.

How did such gentle people become such monsters?  Was it the result of colonial times? Did people turn against those who they saw as descendants of the elite who had kowtowed to their colonial “masters”? Was this vengeance? It was beyond the capacity of my mind to process.  

But if it could happen there, it could happen anywhere.

I didn’t need to go back to see the memorials, now sordidly touted as tourist attractions.   I preferred to remember the gentle Cambodia of my childhood and keep the memorials in my heart.          


The link below will paint a very different image and perhaps it is best to not look back. 


5 thoughts on “No going back

  1. This post, Carolyn, is a revelation; you can write so beautifully, and the vivid picture of Cambodia from your childhood will stay with me forever. I am surprise that you don’t have the urge to write
    your memoirs, it would be a great loss if all those memories were lost with you gone.


  2. I can well understand the disbelief that so gentle a people can be stirred to such levels of horror but, sadly, it has ever been so, in all corners of the globe. Humans have always been the most violent animal on the planet and there are countless examples to prove the fact. This was a marvellous account of a part of your life Carolyn, a unique viewpoint, and historically of great worth. Thank you.

  3. Wow, those photos from so many years ago are real gems! And your description of your time in Cambodia is so clear, I can almost see the scene playing off in front of me. The brutality of history in Cambodia is also beyond my understanding (as are many wars in the world) … maybe it’s all about power and money? Your description of nature’s sounds – Nature’s Symphony – it is really beautiful.

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