The tiny temple is nestled in the saddle of a small two peaked hill that thrusts
up from the flat rice lands around it. Local people believe that Phnom (mountain)
Sawsia is a place of great power. They say it is the only place in Cambodia that
the Khmer Rouge fear. That the temple survived the Khmer Rouge's campaign to destroyed
Buddhism and Khmer culture is undisputed, but how it did is a matter of some difference
of opinion. Sadly, the mountain is now under threat from a different kind of assault,
one it may not survive.
From the road between Kampot and Kep the only hint that there might be a temple on
the mountain are the three white spindles that can be seen among the trees. But clustered
among the flowers and Frangipani trees are three tiny "chapels", a main
temple, and to the rear, a mysterious cave.
On one peak is an elaborately decorated stupa. The chief monk, Tu, says that it contains
extra equipment for the Wat. But local people say that it contains a bone of the
Buddha. They believe that this is the source of the temple's power.
The temple itself is simply beautiful. It's inner walls are covered with paintings
depicting the life of the Buddha. To one familiar with the recent history of Cambodia
it is surprising to find a temple in such good condition; it is nearly as it was
when built in 1968.
Of course there are many Wats in as good condition in Cambodia, but they have been
returned to that condition after the depredations of the Khmer Rouge, who ruled the
country from 1975-1979. The government has lent a hand- some say for political reasons-in
this campaign to recover a damaged, but central part of Cambodian culture. But for
the most part, support for the campaign comes from the people of Cambodia, recently
more prosperous, who have not allowed Buddhism to die in Cambodia.
Tu says that the Khmer Rouge were afraid of the power of this location, and that
preserved it. The local legend is different. The people say that the Khmer Rouge
did attack the site, and when they approached the temple huge snakes came out of
the mountain and killed them. Tu says only that the power of the site comes from
the strength of the local people's belief in Buddhism. The bullet-riddled arch-way
on the level of the rice fields gives testimony of an earlier battle. Perhaps it
is the one of legend.
Amid the blossoms that lie scattered on the ground is a path that leads to the second
peak. Here is the opening to the system of caves that riddles the mountain.
Within the cave is a natural rock formation, a massive stalagmite. It is an elephant,
and the mineral deposits that form it are white. The cave is called simply the White
A small altar has been placed on the level rock floor that the monks have been building
at its base. The government has promised cement to finish the floor, Tu says. Local
legend says that the Khmer Rouge were killed and driven off by snakes that came from
this cave. Tu, when pressed, only reiterates that it is the power of the people's
belief that preserved the temple.
The cave can be followed, with some difficulty, to where it exits to the rear of
the mountain. On the tree covered slope is an indistinctly marked path that runs
to the base of the mountain. Here you see and hear evidence of a different kind of
assault on the mountain. The ringing of hammers fills the air. Men, women and children
are slowly reducing rock chunks blasted from the mountain to small stones to surface
This labor intensive operation nets the people a dollar a day. In this poor country,
it is enough to live. But the operation is a slow but inexorable assault that the
power of the temple may not be able to hold at bay.