Simon Worlding wins £200 for this eerie tale of a motorbike journey in search of the ghosts of Cambodia’s colonial past
It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road every time I caught sight of the decaying architecture which is so common in Kampot, Cambodia. Bright colours had yielded to time and faded away, revealing a dull concrete grey, but the distinctive European style remained.
France had nearly a century of influence in Cambodia before independence in 1953. These villas were former holiday homes to the wealthiest Europeans. With the Khmer Rouge’s brief but devastating presence in the Seventies, these buildings fell into disrepair.
They were seized by senior military figures after Pol Pot’s reign of terror came to an end. In some respects, they are frozen in history, but the effects of time are clearly wrought on their facades. Only the influx of tourist dollars, as in Thailand, will release them from this stasis, for good or ill.
I pointed the motorbike away from town, towards the Bokor Hill Station, situated near the top of a range of hills in a nearby national park. The route comprised a series of winding curves which were joyous to lean into. As I neared the top I was immersed in the clouds, and temperatures dropped while the winds rose.
Bokor Hill Station was a colonial retreat, a playground of sorts for wealthy interlopers. There is still a resort at the top of the mountain, where I sought shelter from waterlogged clouds. They brought with them a constant damp air at best, thin drizzle and driving rain at worst, obscuring nearly everything. Blasts of wind briefly blew a window of clarity through the vapours.
An abandoned church clung bleakly to the misty horizon, looking like the embodiment of desolation. I rolled carefully in its direction but, with the horizon ever shifting in and out of view, it was impossible to locate the approaching road. In the claustrophobic cloud cover I began to feel my movements were guided by an unseen hand, rather than my own disorientation.
Denied the church, I turned my attention to finding the abandoned casino. When I chanced upon a parked car I asked the driver if he knew where I could find it. He smiled, pointed over my shoulder, and I turned just in time to see the great hulk of a building emerging from the fog like a ship in the night.
The empty shell of this former site of opulent privilege was also constituted of bare concrete. Floors were covered in water, rippling underneath insistent dripping from the breached ceiling. The echoing screams of distant Asian tourists were probably joyful, though I could take them for something other very easily.