After chasing a tip from an aging former Khmer Rouge soldier, treasure seekers left Pursat province empty-handed last week despite three days of continuous digging.
Scorched water bottles and charred wood piles continue to litter temporary camp sites in a remote area on Dak Preah mountain, in Pursat town’s Roleab commune. An abandoned hole measuring four metres deep and six metres across remains nearby, adorned with a carefully placed statue, a spirit house and incense.
Penh Sethamony, a member of the Roleab commune council, said four people from Phnom Penh had arrived in the area on May 15 after receiving information from an ex-soldier who lives in Pursat and who claimed to know where Khmer Rouge troops had stashed cases of gold.
Enlisting the help of a local man, the group led 16 workers up a secluded trail for nearly 10 kilometres before they eventually found the site they had been looking for.
“They believed that treasure had been buried near a big tree in the mountain, but they did not find it,” Penh Sethamony said.
Rumours of buried treasure have long been circulated in rural Cambodia since the fall of the Khmer Rouge, who abolished money and even blew up the country’s central bank after they took power in 1975, forcing soldiers and civilians alike to stow away their wealth.
In August last year, a group of about 100 police and soldiers descended on a pagoda in Pailin town – on orders of provincial governor Y Chhean, local residents claimed at the time – in an attempt to dig up gold and jewels that some believe were buried at the site by Khmer Rouge cadres following the overthrow of the regime in 1979. Monks and villagers blocked the dig, however, for fear of damage to the pagoda.
In Pursat, too, the treasure hunt was cause for concern for some residents. Police and local officials formed a 30-member committee to travel to the site and monitor the situation, Penh Sethamony said, though the treasure hunters paid them little heed.
“From my observation, the group will come back to dig for the treasure one day in the future, because they still think the treasure is there,” he said.
Pursat provincial governor Khoy Sokha said the excitement earlier this month was “not the first time for this rumour in Pursat”.
“We have heard this information before, but we have never found buried treasure,” he said. “I think if these rumours spread again, the authorities will have to take action to defend the state’s property. We will not allow them to dig illegally.”
Chhun Samnang, a 31-year-old villager who lives at the base of the mountain, said this month’s incident was the second time people have come searching for treasure in the area in the past year, recalling a similar dig around this time in 2010 that was eventually halted by local authorities.
“Those people make so much noise along the way, both day and night,” Chhun Samnang said.
“Last year, authorities forced them to stop digging and confiscated buckets, hoes and water containers from the site.”
When asked why more villagers didn’t participate in the search for riches, Chhun Samnang said many are not interested because they are too busy with daily work on their farms and plantations.
Another villager, 61-year-old Chan Hoeut, said locals are also reluctant to climb the mountain because they are afraid of tigers and snakes. She claims to have seen a tiger last year while looking for her cow
in the forest near the digging site.
“Even armed police felt scared when they were guarding the area from diggers. They saw traces of tigers, and I think that also frightens those treasure diggers,” she said.
As rumours of hidden gold continue to circulate around the mountain, Blung Snar, 33, remains sceptical.
“Those diggers found nothing and there is no treasure buried here,” he said, looking around the freshly dug hole.
Others, however, believe that treasure hunters will continue to converge on the area.
“In the future, I guess they will come again,” Chhun Samnang said. “I believe that there is treasure over there. Why else would they try to dig again and again?”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID