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The Caves of Kampot Province

By: Charles Usher Posted: October-16-2010 in
Click for more photos - Photo Credit Olivier Belloy
Charles Usher

Before we've even pulled out of the bus station by Psar Thmei the Khmer family next to me is offering their son to sit in my lap. He's a little too big for that sort of thing and, fortunately, too shy, but when I offer him a seat on my backpack in the aisle he makes himself at home. By the time we've passed through Kep and arrived at Kampot four hours later Nimol has climbed up on the seat next to me, given me half of his mango, and, through missing teeth, steadfastly refused my offer of a peanut bar.

Kampot, 150 km southwest of Phnom Penh, is easily reached from the capital by twice daily buses 7:30 and 13:15 that drop you off near the centre of town and into the waiting maw of the local guesthouse operators, making finding accommodation a simple, if self-defensive, proposition.

The Prek Kampong Bay River runs along the west side of town and, along with Phnom Bokor, gives Kampot a beautiful and relaxing setting. Naturally the riverfront hosts Kampot's nicest bars and restaurants, ranging from Kmer at Ta Eou, next to the new bridge, to Sri Lankan at Bamboo Light, where house remixes of old jazz classics back the very sleek setup of linear wood chairs, white tablecloths, and cream walls, a welcome respite from the bamboo and rattan decor repeated ad infinitum throughout Southeast Asia.

When global warming turns Sweden into the newest beach destination this is how things will look. For an after-dinner drink stylish Coco House offers a respectable wine list and a good vantage point to watch what passes for nightlife in Kampot: ten-year olds piled five-deep on a moped joyriding back and forth along the riverfront.

Shortly after I get into town I'm on the back of a moped driven by a thick-haired employee of my guesthouse who instructs me to call him Kak I've been in Asia long enough that his choice for an English name doesn't strike me as all that odd. We head out of town and turn onto a coppery dirt road, holding our breath and squinting whenever dust is kicked up by a passing truck. On either side of us are broad rice fields the colour of cornhusks. The flat south Cambodian earth pincushions tall straight palms, and every so often a large rocky outcropping disrupts the planar surface, announcing a likely hiding spot for one of the area's numerous caves. It's for one of these, Rung Domrey Saa (White Elephant Cave), that we're headed.

On the footpath up to the cave Kak stops before a simple concrete stupa. On and around it are a dozen little kids playing and chasing each other. 'During Khmer Rouge there was killing field here,' Kak explains.

I bend down and gaze through a meter-high opening in the base. Inside there is a small pile of skulls and bones. A couple of kids dart through the stupa's opening. It's been repurposed to serve as a fort.

At White Elephant Cave I'm met by a boy and girl who serve as guides and confidently inform me that it's precisely 203 steps to the cave and that the small temple inside is 700 years old. Somewhere around 203 steps later my guides are using a couple of plastic plates they picked up off the shrine to fan Kak and me while they point out the various animals hidden in the rock. There's the elephant stalactite that gives the cave its name, but there is also another large elephant formed by the cave wall, a tortoise, an eagle, and a headless crocodile. While it's only granitic animals that hide there now, that wasn't always the case, as Kak informs me that the local populace once used the cave to hide from the Khmer Rouge.

Back outside Kak leads me through rice fields to a second cave, Phnom Chhnork. The rice is heavy and bowed. It will be harvest time in two weeks.

At this cave my guides are a pair of brothers, one about nine, the other about five. The cave is like a lava rock: filled with tiny pockets, smaller holes, and some tunnels I question if I'll be able to corkscrew through. But the kids lead me over, under, and through everything, the older making his way through quietly and methodically, the younger one a dark little kinetic ball and not so much speaking Khmer as chirping, squeaking, and prattling the entire time. 'This your brother?' I ask the nine-year old.

'No, not brother.'

'Yeah, I wouldn't want to admit it either.'

When, sweaty and filthy, I finally see daylight I give each of the kids a dollar, which thrills the little guy to no end. It puts me in pretty good spirits too, as Kak informs me that it'll pay for eight hours of English lessons. I worry, though, about Junior's ability to sit still for that long.

As we drive west back to town I let Kak borrow my sunglasses. The sun is setting just above Phnom Bokor, thick and orange like a mango.


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