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In Kampot, a war-scarred grotto turned ‘moon cave’

Tourists bathe in the ‘moon cave.’
Tourists bathe in the ‘moon cave.’ Chhim Sreyneang

In Kampot, a war-scarred grotto turned ‘moon cave’

Locals and tourists alike are discovering Kampong Trach’s limestone karsts

In the mouth of a cave overgrown with vines and moss, men and women splashed in a clear emerald pool. As the cool water sparkled in beams of sunlight, it was easy to see how locals came to dub this twinkling corner of Kampot the “moon cave”.

A little way off National Road 3, the highway that connects Cambodia’s capital with sleepy Kampot province, lies the town of Kampong Trach.

Once a bustling centre of commerce populated by ethnic Chinese, the town was devastated by the Khmer Rouge and today consists mostly of rice paddies and dirt paths that turn to oozing mud-flats in the rainy season.

Kampong Trach’s primary draw is a series of limestone karsts found about two kilometres from the old town centre, or three from National Road 3. Looming over the paddies, they make a dramatic contrast to the pancake-flat landscape.

Limestone karsts in Kampong Trach.
Limestone karsts in Kampong Trach. Chhim Sreyneang

Most visitors come to explore the series of caves carved into the stone, and especially the watery “moon cave”, the daytime dip spot that is becoming increasingly popular.

“Kampong Trach increasingly attracts both local and international tourists,” said Soy Sinol, the director of Kampot’s Department of Tourism. But the name “moon cave” is unofficial, he added. “It is only the name given by the villagers to make it sound beautiful.”

These caves were once used for executions by the Khmer Rouge. But on a recent afternoon, a group of men and women propped up foldable chairs outside them and tucked into a seafood barbecue. A stereo blasted Khmer pop and an ice bucket stocked cold drinks.

Local boys and girls on bicycles rushed to introduce themselves in the hope of being hired as a tour guide. You might need one – if you don’t have a flashlight – because the caves and tunnels are dark. Some contain shrines, testament to the religious significance of the area. In others, the rock has formed animal-like shapes.

But with increased footfall comes all the associated detritus. Since visitors started to arrive in bulk, rubbish has started to accumulate in the caves, and the de facto tour guides have taken on the responsibility of cleaning it.

They clear the entrance to the “moon cave”, and the pool itself – often sullied with floating trash – daily, only to see it reappear the following afternoon.

“It is difficult to tell the tourists to stop littering and destroying nature,” one of the guides said.

Generous tourists might offer an extra two or three thousand riel for cleaning duties. For this small fee, the guides scoop out the rubbish, the water is clean again and it’s time for another dip. Better yet – when you go, make sure to leave only the moonlight behind you.

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