Kirirom National Park
Kirirom National Park

A ghost town in the hills of Cambodia

Hidden away in Kirirom National Park are more than 100 abandoned homes

Nathan A. Thompson
Tuesday 17 May 2016 11:51
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The cave is full of bats. The smell of guano and bad tempered chittering emanate. Mick, my guide, throws a stone, hoping to rouse the bats and justify the punishing uphill trek and subsequent clamber halfway down a cliff to where we now stand, precariously, on an outcrop of rock. Behind us, the flat, hot plains of Cambodia stretch into the distance.

The bats are unmoved. Mick shrugs and starts to climb back up, his flip flops bending on the rock edges. I stick a toe in the cliff, grab a fist-sized lump and haul myself up after him. The lump crumbles into dust. It wasn’t a rock, just dried mud. For what seems like several seconds I’m suspended in mid-air like a cartoon.

The likeliest outcome flashes through my mind: another disappeared foreigner, last seen driving a red Keeway motorcycle into Kirirom National Park, southeast Cambodia. He wanted to see the pine forest, they would say. And the ghost town. Such a tragedy.

I land, flat on my back, several feet below on a large rock lodged between two split seams of cliff. Air wrenched from my lungs. I check myself. Fine. I check my camera. Also fine. The bats chatter feverishly. Mick peers down and grins, “God must look after you,” he says.

I had arrived at the outskirts of Kirirom National Park the previous evening having driven four hours from the coastal town of Kep. Its home to Cambodia’s only high-altitude pine forest and peaks at 1,000 metres above sea-level. The late King Norodom Sihanouk first came here in 1944, riding an elephant. He renamed it Kirirom (Happy Mountain) and established a resort.

Today, all that remains of Sihanouk’s palace is the monolithic fireplace. It stretches high into the trees. Scattered jasmine flowers and incense burn at the base: prayers for the old king’s soul. Mick says there are about 150 abandoned or ruined villas built by Cambodian elites in the 1950s. After the genocidal Khmer Rouge was toppled in 1979, surviving fighters established a stronghold here and smashed the villas as symbols of the hated king and his bourgeois followers.

The fireplace in the king's old palace

Today, the forest is absolutely safe as long as you don’t go climbing down cliffs looking for bats. That afternoon Mick and I decide on a gentler mission - to explore the ruined town. Some of the villas are barely visible through the green static of the forest. They’re shells, craggy as castles. I run my fingers across old bullet holes. Others are intact. They look as if they’d only been abandoned months ago. We go inside another one of the king’s old residences, downstairs into a cavernous basement. It’s so dark I use the flash on my camera to get a sense of space – it’s huge.

I’m staying at Kirirom Mountain Lodge, a hotel in one of the few 1950s villas that has been restored. Its whitewashed concrete, swooping design and mountain top location are reminiscent of a Roger Moore-era James Bond location, and while it gets busy on weekends, as it’s Monday, I have the place to myself.

The next day, I sip my morning coffee on a chair outside my room. The cool air and ambrosial pines make me feel like I’m in the French Alps. If it wasn’t for the whir of cicadas the illusion would be complete.

The grounds of Kirirom Mountain Lodge

I give Mick the vague instruction to take me to “the secret places”, and soon we’re pushing through furry pine branches, waist-deep in grass. It’s the dog-end of the rainy season and my trousers are soaked. Butterflies, yellow as banana milkshake, explode from the undergrowth.

We emerge at a cliff top. It’s bare; the forest drawn back as if afraid of falling. Below, stretching for miles are the Cardamom Mountains, one of the last old-growth rainforests in South-east Asia. It’s home to countless rare species including the pangolin, dubbed the “world’s must hunted animal”, and a family of elephants.

Before leaving we visit a waterfall. Well, it’s more of a mountain stream that bulges into a lake moments before escaping back into the trees. Wooden shacks surround the lake, and I think about complaining that’s it’s not really secret, but decide to go with it. There are stalls selling local snacks: salted green mango, fresh coconuts and deep-fried river shrimp. The water is empty apart from a few children screaming and stamping in the shallows, and although I’m grubby from the morning’s trek I decline the opportunity to swim; I have no trunks or towel.

I ride my motorbike back to the city, The temperature rising as I descend. Pines give way to broad-leaved species, then palms, and finally it’s only emerald green rice fields. Two hours later I’m back in the chaotic capital, a world away.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Indirect flights from the UK to Phnom Penh are offered by carriers including Thai Airways (thaiairways.com) and Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com).

Taxis and minivans leave from various spots in Phnom Penh; pickups and fees best arranged through your hotel. Small cars cost around US$40 each way and large minivans US$120 (Cambodia has a dual currency system; US dollars are accepted along with the local riel currency.

Lucky Lucky Motorcycles, Phnom Penh (00 855 23 212 788) rents motorcycles; a good dirt bike costs US$15-30 per day.

Staying there

Kirirom Mountain Lodge (kirirom.asia). Doubles from US$35 during the week and US$60 on weekends and national holidays, including breakfast.

Visiting there

Mick (00 855 90 351 188) offers bespoke tours.

Red Tape

British nationals can buy a one-month, single entry tourist visa on arrival for US$30. Bring two passport photos.

More information

tourismcambodia.com

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