Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Borei Keila

Not many people stop to wonder about the meaning of place names, some are easy enough to figure out, like Tuol Svay Prey, hill of the mango forest. I never even thought about the name Borei Keila until recently. Nearby is Bak Touk high school, Bak Touk was one of the few original Khmer villages that were in the vicinity of the capital as it first developed. Borei Keila became the local name for a whole run-down neighborhood of dilapidated 60s era apartment blocks, not unlike the Tonle Bassac buildings to the south.
Keila means sports in Khmer, and Borei has various meanings, city, town, urban, populated or center, in this instance center is probably most appropriate, so Borei Keila means Sports Center. From an older, 1920s map we can see that there had been a Pagode Annamite, or Vietnamese Temple at the same location.
The apartment complex was built as a sort of Olympic village, with an athletic track on the grounds at the same time as the nearby stadium was developed on old sports grounds. Because the Asian sports event the stadium was originally built for was cancelled the complex never got used for its planned purpose. I don’t know what happened to it in the period after that, I’d imagine that like the Tonle Bassac buildings it was rented out to badly-paid civil servants. In the 1980s the area became important as the Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Health, Prime Minister’s Office, Council of Ministers Building and various other government facilities were located nearby. One of the blocks within the estate became the State Secretariat for Women’s Affairs building for a time.
Many of the blocks were used to house police, soldiers and other officials on the lower end of the pay scales. Decoration wasn’t always a high priority, especially while most residents were struggling and probably trying their best not to stand out. The blocks ended up looking pretty rough, with crazy amateur brickwork extensions, wires and pipes poking out all over the place and a nice tropical coating of moss and plants. It has to be said that it was one of the less attractive areas around town a few years back.
It’s pretty much all changed now, but it’s been slow. Many of the residents of the old decaying blocks signed up to a deal where they got an apartment in one of the new blocks being erected. The new buildings are very much the standard Chinese shop-house style, if a bit higher than usual. This type of building usually has individual entrances rather than the long balconies and hallways common in some older developments, so security is generally better. There was some controversy around the redevelopment of the area and some of the less-fortunate residents ended up relocated to extremely bad conditions on the far outskirts of the city. Apparently their conditions have improved somewhat since an NGO got involved in the situation.
Nowadays, as well as the new residential units there is a new Ministry of Tourism headquarters on the site, along with a new university campus and many other commercial premises. There is a new huge Council of Ministers building nearby, along with the equally grand new Prime minister’s office. Between these new buildings and the recently refurbished Ministry of Defense still lie a few of the decrepit old blocks that used to be common in the area, I wouldn’t imagine they’ll be around for too much longer.

The first picture shows some of the remaining buildings from the old development, the next is a map from 1928 and the last a map from the early 1970s.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bokor Post Office

This was a strange-looking stilted structure; it had an arched concrete roof, with a sort of false angular eave built above it with brick. A footbridge connected it with the nearby road. There was extensive damage to the rear of it, there had been a lot of fighting on the plateau in 1979, and this building was the most obviously war-damaged. Many stories tell of a battle between Vietnamese/Salvation Front soldiers fighting Pol Pot troops who had taken refuge in the church. The post office was directly in the firing line, and most of the back wall was knocked out by a mortar round.
There are conflicting reports on the damage to all the buildings on the plateau, which have all been stripped completely bare, with channels cut out to scavenge copper electrical conduits and almost all woodwork gone. As per usual, this gets blamed on the “Khmer Rouge,” as is almost anything that looks old and broken. Although the combined Vietnamese and Salvation Front managed to wrest the plateau from Pol Pot’s forces in 1979, in later years the Kampot area became a hot-bed for resistance forces and Bokor changed hands many times.
One ex-resistance fighter who lived in the area from the late 1970s till recent times claimed in an interview that the hill-station was preserved in good condition during the Pol Pot regime, and it was only later that Vietnamese troops who were stationed there scavenged everything. Blaming the other side is par for the course but it doesn’t really matter, war tends to destroy everything anyway, whether by direct damage or the poverty and desperation that inevitably follows.
In the early 1970s, as the area became caught up in the war, and B52 strikes were pounding coastal parts of Kampot, the resort was abandoned again. The manager of the Bokor Palace Hotel had enough foresight to see what was about to happen, and took the entire contents of the hotel’s wine cellar down the hill to nearby Kep, where he hid it. He returned from exile more than twenty years later, in 1993, and recovered the untouched wine from the stash-place, and managed to sell some for a good price.
Anyway, back to the post office. It was recently demolished, along with a few other buildings up on the hill. The developers claimed that it was in a very dangerous state, which seems reasonable enough as it was one of the more wrecked structures. The Bokor Palace Hotel/Casino itself is due to be refurbished, good news as there was an initial period when it wasn’t clear whether it would be kept or not.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Cambodia has seen many influxes of foreigners over its long history. Traders from India visited early on and their influence carries through to this day. Malays and Chams, and of course the Vietnamese and Thais who gradually migrated south made their marks too. Chinese have been moving steadily to the region for hundreds of years too, while various groups of hill tribes have drifted down, in many cases relatively recently.

The first foreigners from the west to arrive in Cambodia turned up in the late 1500s. Hailing from Portugal and later Spain, they were a mixed bunch of missionaries and freebooters who made their presence known very quickly. One particularly notorious pair almost managed to convert the Cambodian King to Christianity, but when he was deposed they followed him up to Laos, and after raising an army they fought their way back into Cambodia and got rid of the usurper. There is an excellent book written by a Jesuit Priest that goes into detail on this, but all didn’t go well in the end for the Europeans. After a period of calm when they were able to establish their own quarter in Phnom Penh, but after some problems with the Malay residents, who were made up largely of mercenaries employed by the King, they were all slaughtered one night and their houses were burnt to the ground. There were also later English arrivals who settled near the court which was then at Oudong.

A small community of Portuguese-Khmers remained in Phnom Penh, in an area of what is now part of Russei Keo district by national route 5. Although many of these had converted to Christianity, they took on local habits and assimilated to such an extent that they became virtually indistinguishable from any other inhabitants. Portuguese family names were common enough till at least the 1950s, and it seems that European features are visible in some locals, but this may be coincidence.

It wasn’t till almost three centuries later that the next large bunch of Europeans turned up, this time French. In the early years most of the colonists were a rough crew, it was a tough posting in a hot country ravaged by tropical diseases, and in the main only the desperate turned up. Many of them took up with local wives and lifestyles, and their “going native” became an issue for later French administrations. However, as the administration expanded, many of these malcontents who had in many cases been struggling for years found lucrative posts.

In the years that followed, long after the ground work had been done by these “desperados,” it was married, respectable and wholesome people who were more likely to be found manning the higher posts in the protectorate.

After independence, many French people stayed on in Cambodia, and they have a huge if quiet presence these days too. The first few years of post-independence Cambodia were boom years, and with various aid projects underway and a free atmosphere, the place was popular and many foreigners enjoyed living here. This wasn’t to last long, and afterwards a period of stagnation saw many small businesses closing and many foreign residents leaving.

After the 1970 coup and the war which started to kick in straight afterwards, a lively crowd of advisors, journalists and aid workers moved to Phnom Penh. Most accounts tell of a heady, surreal atmosphere where despite there being a war just outside the city boundaries, many wined and dined and had a good time while the country burned. All remaining foreigners were rounded up and expelled via the Thai border after Pol Pot’s forces took Phnom Penh in April 1975. Francois Bizot, a French archaeologist helped round up some of the stragglers. In his book “The Gate”, he tells of one amazing incident where a couple of French Academics working at the University of Phnom Penh refused to listen to his advice. They were Marxists, and had decided to stay and help the revolution, and had already donned black pajamas and red kramas for this impending role. Two days later they were picked up by combatants and dumped at the embassy. A Scottish surgeon was so annoyed by their clothing that he decked one of them and told them to change clothes, which they did.

There are some stories about U.S. soldiers who went AWOL and one McKenzie Phillips did settle in Cambodia with his local wife back in the early 1970s. He was apparently very popular in the village as he wasn’t work shy. Unfortunately the Khmer Rouge didn’t share this enthusiasm and he was later executed. The sole westerner known of who did live in Cambodia in the late 1970s is Laurent Piq. A Frenchwoman who married a Cambodian scholar in Paris in the late 1960s, she made her way to Cambodia after the revolution, where her husband was now a high ranking political cadre. She received little in the way of favor, had a miserable time, and eventually had to flee across the Thai border as a refugee.

After the fall of the Pol Pot regime, a very small number of aid staff was allowed to move to Phnom Penh, were most were quartered in the Samaki Hotel, now renamed Le Royal, and their movements were strictly controlled. It wasn’t really till UNTAC hit town in 1991 that large numbers of foreigners turned up again. Obviously the first were military guys and officials but many NGO workers, journalists and increasing numbers of private businessmen too. The Lido was a popular bar with legionnaires, and unwelcome faces were often unceremoniously thrown off the balcony. Nowadays it is the location of rather safer Sharky Bar.

Some of these characters from UNTAC time stayed or later returned here, but they are rare to come by. Many more people rolled up on these shores as the 1990s progressed, and obviously with a dusty, crazy town these weren’t always the most wholesome types. With the surrender of the remnants of Pol Pot’s army in early 1999, peace finally returned and since then the whole country has changed immensely. In recent years many of the foreigners deciding to stay perhaps seem more well-heeled and sophisticated than before. Echoing the situation with the later French arrivals in the 19th century, the groundwork was already done for them. If the going got tough, I’d imagine most would get going sharpish, leaving behind a few oddballs and maniacs who wouldn’t know where else to go anyway.

The top picture is the "Fete De Club Nautique" in Phnom Penh, 1955. The second was I think actually taken in Laos in 1955, I had to post it for the dodgy expressions on the foreigners. The third picture shows a mixed bunch of foreigners displaying cultural insensitivity on an early version of "Pontoon." The last is someone waterskiing in front of the Royal Palace.

Friday, December 17, 2010


A few strange looking statues I've seen around, the first is at the  pagoda near the Tonle Bati ruins, showing mythical figures riding on Chinese zodiac animals. The second is a Neak Ta or guardian spirit that in this case looks like a monkey, on Oudong mountain. the third is a semi-naked woman and a bear or something at a restaurant near Takeo city, and the last is an old man getting chased up a tree, again near Tonle Bati. There's a story behind this one but unfortunately I don't know it.