Before a couple of weeks ago I never knew Kampong Trach existed. For the first time in years, I took a bus for inter-province travel to get from Kep to Phnom Penh. The bus took an unusual way out of town and headed along the 33. The way was beautiful. Lush rice fields extending from the bases of jungle covered mountains. After about 20 minutes, a clear mountain range appeared with dramatic features. I screen grabbed the location to make a closer look later. That closer look came and went yesterday. By chance my dad and I ended up visiting the water cave rather than the mountain park first. When we got there local kids surrounded the car and poked their heads through the open window and began spewing information and offers for a tour for 1000r. It was a little overwhelming and I declined their services. On the way up, two kids tagged along anyways. Bright-eyed and masters of the land, they knew how to make the bats fly and pass effortlessly over honeycombed rock. I had an amazing time. Though politics of space kept itching at the back of my mind. Visiting a rural natural landmark in the US isn’t the same as Cambodia. I don’t have to feel the economic inequality between me and the folks facilitating visitors as much. Noticeably, it’s not just foreigners around. Large groups of nationals — young people two to a moto and families in cars — populated the scene.
Following this lovely experience we drove over to the mountain park and as soon as we got there we turned around. It was like the Angkor Wat of my childhood. Merchants urgently flagging your car, loud chatter and disabled and elderly folks lining the floor of the entrance seeking financial support. I first came to Cambodia in 1999 as a seven year old. And the same uncomfortable confusion as then flooded me but this time as a 28 year old I had the agency to say no. Why didn’t I get out of the car, as the other Khmer tourists were, and walk through a crowd of people seeking my business or donation. By this time, I should be more comfortable with the facts of life and take considerate ownership of my privilege. I chose to be comfortable rather than be confronted by 10 people asking for 25 cents in the course of 15-30 minutes. What would 25¢ do? It’d be half way to a bowl of soup or one deep fried banana or two Chinese donuts. It’s embarrassing I don’t even know 1000 riel’s weight in rice. I could say, “I don’t need to know, so why should I care to learn?” Sometimes I gesture to myself how the materiality of life is like the sensation of trying to feel air between my fingertips. When I think this thought and stare at my thumb passing over my fingers my hand becomes an assemblage of lived experiences: attempting to stretch my ability to grasp. So what’s the importance of 25 cents weight in rice?
When I first saw the mountains from the bus, the defaced hill sides lurched my heart. Metal towers and machinery turned the greenery into rubble and cement. Like a butterfly, I imagined the lifespan of a bag of cement. What did the human neighbors feel when they looked up and saw mounds of gravel in the place of robust life? How does it feel to live around constant construction? Maybe it doesn’t feel any sort of way. Or maybe it looks like opportunity — a new car or home improvements. Cement is a foundational component of the built environment here, including in the accessibility of natural sites/sights. My late aunt’s family are artisan cement workers, building features for temples. They know more about the impact and possibilities of cement than I do.
I didn’t research Kampong Trach before I went. It’s a testament to the allure of the place or maybe a representation of my affinity for jagged peaks. After the fact I took 30 seconds to do a Google search. What follows is an excerpt from Phelim Kyne’s article published by The Phnom Penh Post 15 October 1999.
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 l 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.