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Kampot's forgotten Karst formations

An Indian-style statue at the base of Phnom Chngauk.

A narrow mud path winds its way through a Kampot rice field. The path snakes across

the shadow of a hill, its jagged limestone cliffs reaching skyward. At the end of

the path is a tiny pagoda outside a cave, which is guarded by an old man.

Here at Phnom Chngauk, nature and culture converge - the unique shapes of the vast

limestone hills, known as Karst formations, stand out in an otherwise flat landscape.

Inside this natural formation are ancient temples that date back to the sixth century,

where the merger of animist and Hindu belief systems can be seen.

Light and life abound inside: greenery pokes through cracks in the rocks, roots furrow

into crevices, and narrow sun beams cut through the darkness. The religious importance

of the cave is evident from puddles of candle wax and burnt incense sticks.

But these unique Karst formations are slowly being chipped away. From dawn until

dusk, manual laborers remove the limestone and sell it to the construction trade.

The material is an essential ingredient in cement, and the fact that five cement

factories are being planned in Kampot's rugged landscape has some people worried.

Dr Michel Tranet is under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture and Fine

Arts (MoCFA). He says that despite the small amount of money required to preserve

the few ancient temples, his ministry has shown little interest in doing so.

He maintains that he alone has sufficient passion to conserve the structures, which

remain a vital testament to the country's enigmatic religious past.

"We have to preserve these caves - it is the duty of the nation," he says.

"If we don't protect them now, we can't preserve for the future."

Phnom Chngauk is one of three hills which contain caves with particular religious

significance. The cave temple houses a lingam stone, which represents the male phallus.

The formation was worshipped in animist times as a source of life and energy. Hinduism

also incorporates lingam

worship as a representative of Lord Shiva.

"It is important to understand the development of Khmer art, and these caves

are very precious as evidence," says Dr Tranet. "It shows the evolution

of Khmer art from the beginning to Angkorian times. It is very important and very


Just how much longer these ancient sculptures can last is a question that troubles

Dr Tranet. Humidity in the caves is slowly destroying the ancient sculptures, a particular

frustration given that consolidation work to preserve the monuments could cost as

little as $1,000.

"I feel sick when I see the attitude of my ministry because they don't take

care of this temple," he says. "[There is] no intention to preserve and

repair it ... they spend too much but for nothing."

It is not just Phnom Chngauk that is in danger in the province. At a similar Karst

formation in Kampong Trach, children guide the occasional visitor through claustrophobic

tunnels and damp caverns. Inside are stalagmites and strange rock formations, lit

eerily red by the guide's flaming torch.

Even from deep within the cave, the constant noise of limestone miners can be heard

as their hammers hack away at the hill's rocky exterior.

The banging is coming from hundreds of local farmers, who come here in their spare

time to make a little extra money. Carts packed full of stones are taken away for

sale to build homes and roads. Many of the area's limestone hills show the scars

from this daily assault.

The miners are technically breaking the law, says an official at the Ministry of

Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME) who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity.

But, he says, the local authorities are unwilling to stop them because they are just

trying to make money to live.

"We allow people to do it ... because they are poor," he says. "The

people are farmers, but often they have free time, and they sell the stone to buy

food and clothes. The revenue they earn for the limestone is around 3,000 riel per


But as the hills disappear, so will the incentive for tourists to visit them. The

government has long made clear its desire to have tourists staying longer in the

country, and preserving and developing areas of potential interest is recognized

as important.

The Minister for Tourism, Veng Sereyvuth, says he is shocked at the damage wrought

by the destruction of the limestone cliffs. He says local authorities need to manage

the problem to ensure the landscape is preserved.

"Surely uncontrolled like this, it will destroy the place," says Sereyvuth.

"There is cultural value [here]. Our job is to preserve this for the future."

But he also stresses that Kampot falls outside the tourism ministry's current priority,

which he refers to as 'triangle tourism' - developing the infrastructure between

Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville. Kampot, he says, is simply not enough of

a draw to warrant significant investment.

"To have [tourism] alone, [Kampot] will not survive," he says. "The

supply and demand are not high enough ... Nobody is going to put massive investment


In fact there is some investment going on in Kampot, but it is likely to exploit,

not preserve, the Karst formations. The province is suffering a predicament common

to developing countries: industrial progression against environmental conservation.

Although the area's sole cement factory closed recently after years of tearing down

the limestone hills - it could not compete with cheap cement imported from Thailand

- more factories are set to open.

"The factory was established in 1962, so the machines and equipment were very

old," says the official from MIME. "The production costs were very high

[but] Thai cement used new techniques so the production costs were lower."

The empty cement factory now stands deserted in front of the Karst hills. A quarry

built into the rock can be seen from the site of the factory, but the only activity

now is a few cows grazing on the grass that has taken over the tracks of the cement


MIME says that four new cement factories have been granted licenses to open in Kampot,

while a fifth operating out of the site at the derelict factory should be granted

a license soon.

The industry ministry official says environmental impact assessments have been carried

out, and the Ministry of Environment (MoE) has reportedly approved them. Any environmental

concerns, he says, must be balanced against the opportunities the factories will

offer the local community.

"Many people will have jobs," he says. "When the factories open, people

in the area can go and get work and make a salary rather then taking a safety risk.

At the moment they could get blinded crushing the stone."

At the MoE, Minister Mok Mareth is concerned at the possible environmental impact

such factories might have, but feels Kampot still has the potential to attract tourists.

Mareth says an eco-tourism scheme in the province could provide an alternative livelihood

for the part-time manual laborers currently chipping away at the hills.

"We have an initiative for eco-tourism development. [We would like to implement]

traditional cultural tourist development, such as traditional facilities like ox-carts

to carry the tourists," he says. "The MoE supports a project for eco-tourism,

not a cement factory."

Whatever the present reality is, the future of Kampot's unique Karst formations and

ancient temples remains hazy. For Dr Tranet at MoCFA, the ancient contents of the

caves are an irreplaceable part of the country's culture and must be preserved. But

he is not optimistic.

"After me there will be no people with the same feeling," he says gloomily.

"We will lose the soul of the nation because it is unique. I'm sure one day

it will be destroyed."



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