Posts Tagged 'abandoned buildings'

Photo Essay: Kep’s Abandoned Mansions

Before the war, beach-side Kep was a fashionable get-away for Phnom Penh’s well-heeled. Opulent homes were built into the cicada-buzzing green slopes, washed in the smell of salt and seafood. They were all abandoned, of course, in 1975; as the war reached on into the 90s, the facades crumbled and the green grew up in the cracks. It’s pretty much stayed that way since.

Kep is on track to regain its by-gone glory. For better or worse, bulldozers lumber across construction lots where crisp new buildings arch up behind shotty scaffolding. For now, Kep is a mellow mix of vacationing Cambodian families and independent Western travelers. Fishermen reel their nets, women season crab in fresh Kampot pepper and their adolescent children serve you at beach-side shack restaurants. You can hop on a boat and cruise out to Rabbit Island, where hammocks and coconuts and ramshackle bungalows will lure you away from any noble ambitions to trek to the top of the jungle-y island.

And of course, you can traipse through the remains of Kep’s past.

Makes my heart flutter

The squat toilet shall never die

The tile survives

View from the former second-story balcony

Peeking out: view from the street

Looking up

Looking out

Between the trees

Rising up

The walls of some of the buildings were covered, not in traditional graffiti, but children’s scribbles: faces, indiscernible Khmer, dirty drawings of women. It somehow made it sweeter, lent an innocence to the rubble that made you think of it, not as a relic of war and the country’s painstakingly slow march towards recovery, but instead as a child’s play place, a fantasy land, safe and hidden.

It’s hard to know what to say about Kep. The urban explorer in me was pretty stoked to traipse through abandoned building after abandoned building, surveying what was left and what was gone and what was growing up amid the crumble. But you couldn’t help but feel a sadness, adventuring around in this way you love, because you knew the reason for it was so heart-breaking.

It’s also hard to know what to say about the new development, the sure wave of resort tourism it will bring. It won’t be the same, that’s for sure, but will it actually go back to being something more similar to what it once was, before the war?

There’s no way to know right now. But I will say it’s a damn good place to hole of for a few days, eating crab and swimming in the ocean and climbing through ruins.

Battambang, Abandoned City

Battambang is a dingy balcony over a deserted street. Battambang is a tangle of electrical wires sagging in the heat, is a patch of sand between busted-up sidewalk, is discarded amusement-park bumper cars fading in the sun.

Cambodia’s fourth largest tourist attraction felt post-apocalyptic when we arrived, mid-afternoon during the biggest day of Khmer New Year. We wandered through nameless, signless streets, past shutters and padlocks and beach umbrellas with no one under them, looking for a guesthouse. We ventured out for coffee, through the wilted market, strewn stalks of sugar cane and vegetables rotting in the heat. The open lot across from the evening carnival, sleeping in the mid-day sun, reminded me of an old Freddy Kueger movie, dogs sniffing around the menacing clown smiles on the front of bumper cars.

While this impression isn’t entirely accurate—it would be like coming into any US city on Christmas Day—it did prove an apt opening to two days of wandering around the city and its surroundings. Battambang was, I’d learned, a major hub for people making the journey to Thailand in the post-Khmer-Rouge days, where they’d trade gold and hire shady guides to lead them through forests and mountains, landmines and bandits, that only some would survive. It’s probable that my friends’ parents passed through Battambang, and my friend, in a sense—in utero, sleeping inside the warmth of his mother.

It was hard with the holiday to get a sense for the city as it is today. And the coolest stuff we found wasn’t the temples, where monks chanted into megaphones, and it wasn’t the bamboo norry trains that have now turned into a shameless tourist trap—a police man with a crooked smile and a limp handshake, “$5 per person.” The coolest places in Battambang were the abandoned ones.

We walked down to the abandoned train station, a sweltering sidewalk lined with New Years decorations that look like tinsel pentagrams. During colonialism, the French built a train system in Cambodia, and it was still used through the 70s. I’ve read accounts of people who, early on in the Khmer Rouge reign, were transported to various work sites by train. At some point the system disintegrated, and the Battambang train station is proof of it, the clock out front permanently frozen at 8:02—a time that comes twice a day, like a train passing, but a year and date that remain silent, that will never pass by again.

Like everything old in Cambodia, there’s nothing to stop you from poking around the lot of rusted engines, boxcar carcasses, tracks obscured by long grass and cow dung. People live there now, poor folks in thatched huts, where once the wind of the train might have blown them down, but now they only have to worry about the ghost trains passing—the wind, I suppose, doesn’t blow so hard from those. One man had set up a home in an old warehouse; I glimpsed him, through a crumble in the wall, bathing in his sarong.

You’d feel funny walking through a place like that in any other country. In the US, it’d be dripping with graffiti and crackheads. But in Cambodia it was people just living their lives, sitting on bamboo platforms with their families, small children exclaiming, “Hello!” and giggling joyiously when we responded. You couldn’t help but feel welcome, though you weren’t sure why you were welcome, why they all greeted you so goddamn graciously. Something in me felt I didn’t deserve it. I smiled anyway.

The next day I went out solo to explore the abandoned Pepsi factory. It’d been shut down, I read, when the Khmer Rouge came to power in 1975—frozen like that, like the clock at the train station. I grabbed a tuk-tuk, a man who insisted I pity him for having to work on New Years. We rattled out there, dirt roads lined with kids throwing small plastic bags of water, a New Year tradition. They smiled at me, waved, but none of them threw a bag at me. I wondered why.

The Pepsi factory was a faded concrete building with a well-tended garden. It struck me as a curious juxtaposition—the crates of bottles I could spy through the windows, waiting for a delivery that never came; the burned-out remains of a warehouse further back, where a fire had once raged, fixtures hanging from holes in the ceiling; the barefoot children that wandered around, peeling back strips of corrugated tin and disappearing inside the blackness. All that, next to trimmed grass and perky flowers, a yard free of rubbish, where a couple of families picnicked in the shade of a tree.

My tuk-tuk driver wandered over to me, as I balanced up on a ledge, beside shorn hedges, trying to get a photo of the inside of the factory. “All the machines are gone,” he told me in surprisingly fluent English. “They went to Vietnam.”

The factory, he said, had sat empty during the Khmer Rouge regime. When the Vietnamese came in 79, they’d dismantled all the machines and took the parts back to Vietnam. Now it was just crates of empty bottles, a silent loudspeaker with its wires disconnected, exposed.

“Why is the garden so nice?” I asked him.

“Oh, it’s a man who lives here. He’s very old, 80, I think. He used to work at the factory before the war. After, he had no family, nowhere to go, so he came back. The government let him keep the grounds. He lives back there.” He waved his hand back towards the burned-out warehouse, where I’d seen laundry lines and pieces of cooked rice sitting in the sun.

“That’s him,” the tuk-tuk driver said casually, gesturing towards an old man who walked slowly with his hands clasped behind his back. He wore an Angkor Wat t-shirt and a krama scarf loosely over his shoulders. You could tell by the way he sucked his mouth that there weren’t hardly any teeth left. The lines in his face were a fine webbing, like wrinkled laundry.

I smiled and bowed for our awkward introduction. What do you say to a man like that?—a man who’d seen all those abandoned places alive, who’d lived it himself, who’d set up a home amid the ruin and spent his days tidying what was left, memories green as grass?

“The garden is beautiful.” The tuk-tuk driver translated and the old man smiled a sunken smile, no teeth to stretch it taut. I bowed again.

Battambang is a dirt road and a child waving, an old man nodding to himself as he walks away.

God on the Walls: Abandoned Monastery Outside Grottaglie

If you walk far enough down a dirt road outside of town; if you stalk through the weeds and sweatshirt-snagging thistles; if you scramble and heave and hoist yourself over a crumbly stone wall and follow the dent in the foliage that has become a path, you will find it: an abandoned monastery covered in art.

You will be on the roof. You won’t be sure how you got there. The storm will be moving in, and the countryside, the heel of the boot that is Puglia, will stretch out beneath the gray: plastic tarps over vineyards, farms, the coughing plumes of the factories of Taranto.

You’ll circle the perimeter of the roof with your new friends. You found them all—you found each other—like a rag-tag team of adventurers in some cartoon: Rebecca at a cafe, Pedro as you walked through the Old Town, then Greg as he feverishly rode a bicycle away from a herd of grazing animals (“Were they rabid?” “No.” “What were they doing?” “I dunno, they were just in the road. It was some weird country shit.”). You’ve all come alone, all flown from your various big cities to Grottaglie, for nothing more than the love of street art. And adventure.

And you will have gotten there. You’ll have gotten to the moldy, peely, crumbling core of What It Is You Came For. Over the last three years of Fame Festival, the abandoned Convento dei Cappuccini has amassed works by visiting artists on its decrepit old walls. It’s become something of a museum of anarchic awesome—where you crunch through the broken glass, through rooms and rooms with bleeding walls; down dank stairways where the mosquitoes buzz and the light don’t shine; down into the guts and internal organs of an abandoned holiness left to rot, left to reborn in the last gasps of its decomposition, its swallowing-back-up by the earth, by the weeds, by the green; left to the artists and the vandals and the punk little kids with bruises on their knees, to the foreigners that don’t speak the language but know that urgent lonesome in the howling of the wind, the coming of the storm, as it blows through the broken windows and walks alongside you.

Pedro on the roof

Courtyard

Panini break in the cockroach room

Cockroach close-up

Where two walls meet

It’s not so much about the art, not the monastery or Fame or the streets of Grottaglie. It’s about the spirit, the breathing of new life into the forgotten, the love of the forgotten, saying, “Yes, yes, you can still be something beautiful to me.”

It’s exceedingly tender; it’s exceedingly unexpected that you would find this here: this vision of yourself in the walls of an abandoned monastery outside a small Italian town. As though every painting and stencil and shitty little tag were a message of love, saying, “Even in your wreckage, your falling-apart, your scars and wounds and ragged flesh—something can still love you enough to take the time, to do something beautiful.”

It’s what you like to think of God as. It’s how you’d like to treat yourself, as if you could love yourself as much as an abandoned monastery.

And it’s even more unexpected that you would find three friends to tromp around with you, to be as stoked as you, to love this place and this town and this art as much as you do.

You pause; you take a moment to take it all in, to file it away in the card catalog of your heart, to be able to call upon in those certain difficult times ahead, when you need something, just a little something, to remind you What It Is You Came For. You look around, smile, tuck it under the slot labeled “Best Travel Moments.”

And then you walk into the chapel.

For a far better visual representation, check out Bablegum’s video of their trip to the monastery. The music doesn’t really fit the experience to me—but in those moments when you hear the wind howl, that’s closer to what I felt in there.

Tower of Rubble, Kotor

The crumbled bones of a building rose up, tower some six stories, broken glass and exposed beams, cement like dead flesh. Covered in faded graffiti scribbles, a little bombed-out passage gave a dim glimpse: rubbish piles, sleeping stray cats, green growing from the tumble of rubble, left there as though bombed not some 20 years ago, but just a few months ago.

And laundry lines. Satellite dishes. People were living there.

Kotor was kind of a let-down. The guidebook gushed, but the city was boring to me. Sure, it was beautiful, but it was a manicured beautiful, a theme-park quaint—ancient wall uplit, facades restored, stones scrubbed clean—all in an effort, it appeared, to lure Western tourists an hour south. A new Dubrovnik.

And it appeared to be working. October, and the streets of Kotor’s Old Town were filled with busloads of snapshot takers. It was beautiful, beautiful, but there was nothing for me to hold on to, dig in to, grab ahold of. It felt slippery, like swimming.

So I walked to the bus station to see when the next bus out was. I saw the building—or rather, what was dirty and ragged and left of the building—and thought, Now this, this is something interesting.

Poking my head in didn’t suffice. I needed to see more.

I went around the building’s backside, a dirt road, squat brick structure covered in green foliage and gray tarps, huddling up alongside the tower of crumble. Run-down cars and makeshift workshops, the buzz of machinery and the yap of roped dogs, the slowness of people living their everyday lives.

Two people stood in a doorway, staring out at me. Not hostile, but observing, in that way we observe outsiders that are observing us—suddenly aware, self-conscious of our own reality. This is my life, the arms crossed over the woman’s apron seemed to say.

I smiled and shrugged sort of, pointed to the tower rising up behind their roof, a shadow or a ghost or a dingy kind of demon, a relic. The man, seemingly more amused, walked up to me.

He pointed to the tower, then around him, then right down to the ground he stood on, we stood on. “Bosnia, Serbia, no Montenegro.” He made the shape of an explosion with his hands, big, calloused, oil-stained hands, fingers arched wide, as if trying to contain a growing cloud. “NATO,” he explained, then pointed back to the blown-out tower.

I nodded.

He looked at me, and nodded slowly. We stood there like that, in the silence, having gone as far as our linguistic capabilities would allow.

I pointed to my camera. “Okay?” I asked.

The man nodded. The woman in the doorway laughed, shook her head, turned and went back inside.

I wandered further. I passed a man chopping wood. He stood between two massive piles, one cut, the other uncut. He paused to observe me, nodded slightly, went back to work.

I didn’t want to photograph them. I didn’t want to photograph these people I saw, living beside and inside this huge crumbled building, a relic of destruction, going about their tasks, looking out from their doorways at me. I didn’t want them to feel like they were on exhibit, like they were amusing or exotic to me. I just wanted to see them, to see what was really there, how people really lived in this town, what their lives really looked like.

A small face peeked out, blazing eyes around the pillar its body hid behind. I smiled at the boy. He turned away, as though he’d been caught, watching me observe his world.

I poked up a small ladder, peered in through the broken window—a makeshift carpenter’s studio, desk and a pile of wood, two stories. I gazed up through the gaping wound in the center of the building. Dim light came through ceiling, so many stories up.

I climbed back down the ladder. The little eyes were still watching me; I smiled and turned to walk away.

He came out behind the pillar. He glanced over at me, as if to say “watch me,” and I did. He ran up to the ladder. His small feet scampered up; he crouched down to crawl the fangs of glass.

He stopped, paused, only for a moment, to look back over at me. His eyes seemed to say, “Look. See. This is my life. This is my world. See me.”

I did. Or I tried to. I really just stood there and watched.

The boy ducked down through the window and was gone—him into his world, and me into mine.

Boiler Room, Angel Island

Abandoned by time but not escaped from it. Rust and debris, peeling paint and the pages of old magazines, broken glass so old its become smooth. Like some dim chamber of our hearts, we climbed into the boiler room.

Angel Island is full of abandoned buildings, the crumbling concrete and sagging frames of old military structures. A big mound in the middle of the Bay, smack in from the Golden Gate, the island is more than brown grasses and hiking trails. It was a detention center/”immigration station” during the Chinese Exclusionary Act, then an Army Post during World War II, later a missile center. Now it’s a state park, filled with picnicking families, kids on field trips, tourists on Segways.

Summer in San Francisco...

It’s nice to spend a day roaming around, out in the middle of the Bay—packing a sandwich and riding the expensive ferry and taking the long, gentle walk around the perimeter. But what I love most about Angel Island are the abandoned buildings.

Some are open to the public, stairways smashed out so there’s no chance of climbing up into the desolate upper stories. You wander around the ground level, the empty gutted rooms, staring up past the chicken scratch graffiti, wishing you could poke around the dusty remains above, crunch your sneakers through the silence.

Other buildings are fenced off, doors bolted and windows shuttered, large signs warning of the repercussions of trespassing. The grass grows up around these buildings, consuming them; sometimes you catch shadows in the broken windows and they look like your own.

We circumvented a large, fenced-off building, found a spot relatively hidden from the main path. It’d been a long time since I’d hopped a fence, wedged my toes between chainlink and landed ankle-sharp with a laugh.

We tiptoed towards the building.

The boiler room. Heavy, huffing machinery now silent, steamless, bellies swollen with the memory of a howl. Old basins and the criss-cross of empty pipes, useless and buckled. Nameless parts of an old operation. A map on the wall of where tools once hung.

We crunched around, slats of wood and indistinguishable debris, the flattened beer cans of some lost era. There’s something about crumbling places that make you whisper, a kind of reverence—not just for what has passed, but what has remained, aged and weathered and somehow still standing.

It reminds you of your own ragged heart, those places you’ve closed off, chained off, boarded up and shut. But they’re still there—forgotten, maybe, but not empty, bloodless pipes waiting, dreaming of steam.

And sometimes, something goes traipsing on in there, flicking lighters and echoing voices and leaving new footprints, in a place you swore no new footprints could go. A place you swore was sealed shut and secretly dying.

We trespassed into the abandoned boiler room, then stepped back out into the dim squint of a fog-heavy noon—our lives.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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