bokor mountain, Kampot province – The din of birds and cicadas wafting up from the jungle canopy below are no longer all you can hear from the cliff behind the old Catholic church on Bokor mountain.
These days, the rattle of excavators widening the roads linking the old Bokor Palace Casino to the post office building and forest ranger station are a reminder that in Cambodia today, development can happen just about anywhere.
This eerie, broken place, a potent symbol of French colonial hubris, is to become a flag-bearer for the type of brash, shiny new development that many argue will be the future of Cambodia’s tourism industry.
Some have dismissed Sokimex CEO Sok Kong’s $1-billion plan to transform the former hill station into a major hotel and casino complex—where tourists would flock for the cooler climate, breathtaking scenery and blackjack tables—as a fantasy, but there was no question Monday that one way or the other, it is now underway.
In just a few weeks, the 30 km road that winds its way up Bokor mountain, and previously famous as a challenging dirt-bike trip, has been leveled and widened almost the entire way to the top. Petrol tankers emblazoned with the Sokimex name dot the route, fueling the numerous excavators that are hard at work.
Dynamiting and paving have barely begun, which means that the bulk of the work remains for the Taiwan Cambodia Malaysia Co, who have been contracted to build the $36-million road. Nevertheless, work is ahead of schedule.
Sokimex’s head engineer for the project, Taing Bunnarith, estimated that by the time the road is officially opened in two years time, two new 500-room hotels will be at the top of it.
And that’s just the start.
As well as numerous casinos and hotels, villas, parks, restaurants, a shopping center, hospital and school, there are also plans to construct a cable car system bringing tourists from retired King Norodom Sihanouk’s former hillside residence, which is lower down, to the top of the mountain within the next 15 years, Taing Bunnarith said.
According to Sok Kong, progress so far has been smooth.
Reversing the previous policy that tourists would be kept from going up the 1,000-meter-high mountain until the development was complete, Sok Kong said Wednesday that the road would be reopened from this week.
Forestry officials would work out a plan whereby on days where no dangerous construction was taking place, the road could be used by cars, he said.
Taing Bunnarith, 40, is leading the team of engineers that is currently thrashing out the nuts and bolts of the project.
“I am very excited at this project,” the Russian-educated engineer said. “Especially that it is being done by Cambodian people themselves.”
As well as the 100-hectare site around the Bokor Palace Casino, developers ultimately hope to build on the Pov Pokvill area, which covers another 300 hectares to the northwest, and on Sre Moeuny Roy, 3,000 hectares of rock at the east of the mountain, according to Taing Bunnarith.
He’s quick to emphasize though, that all possible care is being taken to ensure that the protected forest in the areas will not be encroached upon.
“We will only build on land which is already deforested,” he said. “We won’t touch any of the land which isn’t.”
Bokor National Park Director Chhay Youthearith, the man charged with protecting the 140,000 hectares surrounding the building site, said that he saw no problem with Sokimex’s plans.
“We are not worried that this will disturb the wildlife, as there already was an old settlement up here,” he said. “As far as I am concerned, our country needs to be developed and the location is a very attractive one for tourists, so this is appropriate,” he said.
Taing Bunnarith said that ultimately the project will prove easier than many expect.
“We have come up with solutions to many of the difficulties,” he said, adding that issues with transportation and the shipping of building materials will ease in time.
Soil sampling has suggested that anything up to six stories high should not be a problem, he added.
A water system framework used by the old, abandoned resort is to be utilized for the new developments. For electricity, the group is hoping to utilize wind turbine technology, and a weather forecasting group is to measure the strength and consistency of winds atop the mountain.
The road is key, he said. From there, according to Taing Bunnarith, it should be straightforward.
“The foundation for a lot of the infrastructure is already here, he said.
Of the buildings already on the mountain, the one that attracts the most attention architecturally is the Bokor Palace Casino.
Initial tests of the structure have not been encouraging, Taing Bunnarith said. A tour of the building, whose mold-covered turrets and creepy ambience have long fascinated visitors, revealed how the metal framework examined by the engineers is crumbling.
This is due, he said, to bad building practices at the time.
Sok Kong said he had already submitted a request to Unesco asking the UN body for advice on how to maintain the casino.
“We do want to keep this building, as it has a great history,” he said.
Taing Bunnarith said it will be far harder to save the casino than the Catholic church—which is being renovated so that tourists can get married here—or the second, much less impressive casino and hotel building near the ranger station.
Just a few meters away from the ranger station, a small pile of uncovered UXOs is a stark reminder of the not-too-distant past, and how much work is ahead for Taing Bunnarith and his colleagues.
“We may be able to renovate [the Bokor Palace Casino], but doing so will cost more than building a new one,” Taing Bunnarith said.
“But I believe it would be worth it to try.”