TWELVE kilometers east of Kampot toward the Vietnamese border, the fear picks up
where the road surface ends.
Rubble-strewn empty lots abut shells of blasted buildings in the centre
of Kampong Trach
As the irregular stretches of potholed concrete that characterize the road to Kampong
Trach are abruptly replaced by a long, muddy trail linking deep pools of coffee-colored
water that stretch far into the distance, the first ting moung appear.
Scarecrow figures of cast-off clothing affixed to trees and bushes, the ting moung,
traditional Khmer talismans of last resort against impending evil, sickness and suffering,
regard passersby with blank, unseeing eyes painted on to coconut skulls.
But this year, the ting moung sentinels stationed in front of nearly all the houses
in this corner of Kampot Province guard against a threat far more formidable than
the usual bout of local food poisoning or rainy season malaria.
"A rumor started a month ago that all Khmer will die in the year 2000,"
a man traveling by taxi between Kampot and Kampong Trach said of the ting moung.
"The ting moung are a way for people to protect themselves from the coming danger."
Ah Kwang, a Sino-Khmer businessman in the area, confirms the origins of the regional
ting moung boom and adds that it's no accident that this distinctly-Khmer brand of
millenarianism has taken root in Kampong Trach.
The mountain-like karsts make a dramatic geographic counterpoint to the pancake-flat plains around them; within hundreds of caves, may be found the bones of victims of the Khmer Rouge, left, and Hindu and Buddhist shrines.
"It's just superstition," he says with a shrug. "But remember that
this town has been destroyed before. It's understandable that some people might think
that it will be destroyed again."
Mud and ruins
A short walk around the once-bustling ethnic Chinese trading center of Kampong Trach
offers compelling evidence that the town and its inhabitants have yet to recover
from the last time history played itself out on these now-rutted, muddy streets.
"This was a beautiful place, even more beautiful than Kampot," Ah Kwang
said wistfully, recalling the elegant river town of his childhood as a prosperous
community of neatly paved streets, French colonial mansions and traditional Chinese
storefronts. "When the Khmer Rouge came they destroyed everything [and] burned
down all the beautiful places."
Walking through the silent, empty spaces of what used to be Kampong Trach's business
district, little has apparently changed since the Khmer Rouge put the fruits of the
town's prosperity to the torch and drove its inhabitants into the surrounding countryside.
Rubble-strewn empty lots abut shells of blasted buildings, seemingly untouched since
their destruction almost a quarter-century ago.
The former town center, mostly abandoned by its human population, has become a patch
of semi-urban pasture where pigs, chickens and cows cruise shattered building foundations
in search of caches of insects and grass.
The recent withdrawal from Kampong Trach of demining platoons from CMAC's humiliated
Demining Unit 3 has only heightened the sense of decay and disintegration that permeates
The enclosure the deminers once occupied now stands deserted, evidence of their presence
as scant as official explanations for DU3's dodgy business dealings.
A child breaks rocks blasted from the karsts; rampant, unregulated quarrying
of the sides of the karsts has removed large swathes of the original rock faces.
"This was a major trading center with Vietnam, a real 24-hour town," Ah
Kwang reminisced fondly of pre-1975 Kampong Trach.
"There were buses and taxis leaving every fifteen minutes for both Vietnam and
The infrastructure that once connected this now-backwater to the wider world has
met the same fate as that of a long span of collapsed iron and concrete resting in
the nearby river shallows.
Once a large concrete bridge that linked the heart of Kampong Trach with a paved
highway to the Vietnamese border, its dynamited remains lie under a mantle of thick
vegetation, a ghostly reminder of days of paved roads and a functioning public transportation
Newer sections of Kampong Trach that have grown up around the old town center have
inherited the same aura of apathy and neglect embodied by the old ruins.
Wooden shacks predominate in stark contrast to the smashed brick foundations nearby,
evidence of the limitations of poverty compounded by a lingering fear that more substantial
structures could face the same fate as their predecessors.
The town's one hotel, a cavernous but permanently empty UNTAC-era edifice, removed
its sign when the blue helmets pulled out, a symbolic reflection of the prevailing
mood that better times for Kampong Trach were scarcely worth hoping for.
Although now effectively invisible to those few visitors that arrive by accident
or design, the hotel provides double rooms for 10,000 riel to those who can find
Caves of the dead
The main draw for those visitors who do make their way to Kampong Trach are the mountain-like
karst formations located two kilometers out of town.
A dramatic geographical counterpoint to the pancake-flat plains that surround them,
the karsts have acted as a magnet for local spiritual observance for centuries.
The first of the karsts, called "Bai Shan" (White Mountain) by the local
Chinese, is dotted on its more accessible lower reaches with numerous Chinese-style
graves, evidence of the superior feng shui (Chinese geomancy) of the site.
But the karsts are most renowned for the hundreds of caves that honeycomb the soft,
white rock of which they are formed.
Natural refuges of meditative retreat, many of the caves have served as centers of
both Hindu and Buddhist retreat and religious worship, with the more easily accessible
caves boasting shrines and small temples
The most striking of these Buddhist cave shrines is adjacent to Wat Kirisan, which
has been rebuilt upon the ruins of its pre-1975 site in just the last year.
Two small cliff-side caves, accessible by steep stairways carved into the side of
the mountain, have been reactivated as meditation cells for a small group of resident
At the base of the steps to one of these cells stands a memorial to a local chapter
in Cambodia's French colonial history: the grave of the native Vietnamese French
Secretaire of Kampot.
Interred with his wife in 1933 as the result of some long-forgotten tragedy, the
Secretaire's tomb has weathered the century better than that of his spouse, whose
headstone has fallen victim to the hands of nameless vandals
The jewel of Wat Kirisan is a modern reclining Buddha at the end of a 30-meter tunnel
at the base of the mountain. The tunnel leads to a bright, circular clearing that
is open to the sky above.
The elderly temple warden who tags along with visitors to the reclining Buddha site
has more on his mind than just safety concerns, however, sternly demanding a stiff
5000 riel for any photographs taken in the area.
To looters the spoils
Unfortunately, thieving in the area is not limited to the arbitrary "photo fees"
charged by the Wat Kirisan temple warden.
Mao Fuping, a former student at Kampong Trach's Chinese school, recalled the arrival
in 1996 of a pair of westerners equipped with a detailed map of the area.
Mao and a schoolmate were quickly enlisted to guide the two strangers to a particular
cave in one of the more distant karsts.
Upon reaching the cave, Mao said the two westerners produced sacks and large flashlights,
re-emerging more than an hour later, their sacks bulging with booty the westerners
preferred not to discuss.
Mao and his fellow classmate were given US$20 for their assistance, while the next
day the two westerners hired a team of local workers to seal the cave entrance with
While Mao's story may well be apocryphal, the potential historical value of what
lies within the caves of Kampong Trach is unquestionable.
A German caving expedition that explored a large number of Kampong Trach's caves
in 1997 indicated that several of the caves contained potentially priceless antiquities,
including several long-disused Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva.
Bones in the dark
Sadly, for contemporary residents of Kampong Trach, the religious significance of
the caves is dwarfed by their association with the horrors the community underwent
between 1975 and 1979.
"Those caves were the execution grounds of the local Khmer Rouge," explained
Chen Hwashing, a 17-year-old student. "Seven members of my family were all taken
[to the caves] and killed there."
The evidence of the role of the caves in the local Khmer Rouge's 1975-1979 killing
machine are difficult to overlook.
Several of the caves are stocked with urns containing bones and bone fragments of
some of the hundreds of local residents believed to have been murdered there by the
"Monks and nuns have collected these bones of the victims," explained Sopheap,
a Kampong Trach student who offers rough English-language tours of the caves around
Wat Kirisan. "But there are other caves where the bones are still all over the
ground where the people died."
A resounding boom and slight shudder ripples through the cave, a reminder that the
future of Kampong Trach's caves as both a memorial to the victims of the Khmer Rouge
as well a religious and historical site is under serious threat.
Rampant, unregulated quarrying of the sides of the karsts have removed large swathes
of the original rock faces, sweeping away caves, religious antiquities and human
remains with equal disregard.
The sounds of explosive charges designed to loosen large sections of rock face echo
repeatedly throughout the area.
Squads of laborers armed with picks and hammers hack away at the rock on numerous
work sites in the area, their backbreaking toil steadily erasing the karsts from
"It's good you have come here now," Sopheap mused. "In the future
the mountains may not be here."