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The ghosts of Kampong Trach

The ghosts of Kampong Trach

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 town.

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

Phnom Penh."

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

Buddhist nuns.

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

Khmer Rouge.

"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

the landscape.

"It's good you have come here now," Sopheap mused. "In the future

the mountains may not be here."


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