bokor mountain – From his bird’s-eye view out the helicopter window, Cambodian business tycoon Sok Kong can see only lush, green treetops as the chopper nears the top of Bokor Mountain. But he says he has no problem imagining the “tourism city” that is planned.
The first phases of the $1 billion development project have been under way atop Kampot province’s Bokor for a few months now, and while Sok Kong certainly has his work cut out for him—the 33-km road up the mountain is still largely in disrepair, and the concrete plant responsible for paving it has yet to be built—he is not shying away from the challenge.
“A city will be created on the top of the mountain with high buildings,” he said Sunday during a tour on the mountaintop attended by about a dozen journalists.
A span of two and a half years has been pegged as the window for the first phase of the project, which is to include bettering the road, developing infrastructure— such as wind-electricity and a water-filtering system and restoring many of the more than 30 colonial-era buildings on the summit—such as the famous hotel perched right at the mountain’s edge.
The Bokor Hill Station, which was founded by the French in 1922, was abandoned in 1972 when the Khmer Rouge were fighting against the Lon Nol government. Many of the buildings, such as the famous casino and hotel, have fallen into various states of disrepair.
Aware that a project of such magnitude thrusts him—and by extension Sokimex’s various gasoline, garment and tourism endeavors—into the spotlight, Sok Kong is making a concerted effort to reach out to interested parties.
In a Feb 15 letter to Unesco country representative Teruo Jinnai, Sok Kong pledged his commitment to preserving Bokor as a heritage site and requested advice on how to proceed in restoring the run-down buildings, so as to “ensure that our development maintains the historical value.”
According to Unesco’s March 10 response letter signed by culture program specialist Philippe De-langhe, Unesco consultant Azedine Beschaouch found “the existing dilapidated hotel and casino…in very poor condition” and recommended that Sok Kong “conserve the general planning of the area,” and maintain the external walls while demolishing the insides and reinforcing the foundations.
“Keep the shell, as they do for so many buildings in Europe, Australia and in the [United] States,” Delanghe said Monday.
“It’s a site of national importance, not only as a heritage site from a colonial perspective, but also more recent history,” he said, citing specifically the well-known battle between Khmer Rouge forces staked out in the hotel and Vietnamese troops posted in the nearby church.
Delanghe said he is very pleased Sokimex approached Unesco for advice and, though it remains to be seen how development on Bokor will proceed, he hopes it will serve as an example of responsible development for others in Cambodia.
“It’s rather unusual that we are asked to give our opinion on a non-World Heritage site,” he said. “It seems like a very positive step.”
“Also here in Phnom Penh and in Battambang, there is quite a bit of urban heritage around, and not much is being done to preserve it,” he said, adding that costly renovations are “easier said than done.”
Sok Kong said he wanted to get advice from Unesco but would have tried to save the buildings he could no matter what they said.
Sok Kong described how ultimately, modern buildings will stand side by side with the restored structures on the mountaintop, and residential developments in two plateaus at lower altitudes will follow in subsequent stages of the project. A golf course is planned for the mountain’s base.
“In the next 10 to 15 years, thousands of people will live here, so we need the foods, fruits and anything to supply them. And we need the people from Kampot to do this…. In Bokor, it will employ thousands of people,” he said.
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