by: Jon Bugge. Picture by : Jon Bugge ( August, 2002 Volume 2 No.8 )

In a province more famed for it's pepper and it's durian, there is a surprise. Sedimentary rock, in the form of limestone, is found in large areas. This is not something new, as is testified to by the behemoth factory that dominates the skyline along National Route 3. This carbuncle produces cement, using limestone as a key ingredient - cement is arguably the most environmentally damaging construction material to produce
Limestone, although providing cement, also offers something more aesthetic: karsts. This refers to the often-jagged outcrops of limestone, which protrude with near vertical walls to craggy summits. They can exist in either terrestrially or aquatically. In either environment they produce spectacular caves. Cambodia's karsts are no exception. The three main areas of these formations are: Kampot, Battambang and Stung Treng. Within Kampot province there are a myriad of caves with distinct features: around the provincial town and Kompong Trach. Even within the province of Kep there are several systems.
Referred to as the "Cambodian Cave System", this karsts phenomena in Kampot was listed, by the Karts Waters Institute as one of the top ten most endangered karsts ecosystems in the world. This report was filed at the start of 1999. It also sadly points out that: "No organizations have publicly expressed an interest in protecting these caves." The three major challenges facing these unique cave complexes are: limestone quarrying, calcite removal and guano collecting. Calcite is used to make very strong mortar - traditionally made in Kompong Trach. The guano is used as fertilizer but removes an important energy source from a limited source within the caves.

Phnom Kompong Trach

This hill is located in Dom Nakantout commune, Kompong Trach district. The cave system here has a myriad of entrances. The towering hunk of rock, that is Phnom Kompong Trach, rises like a gray skyscraper amongst the green plains. Inside the hill is riddled with passageways and caverns. A lunar landscape surrounds these outcrops, the gray rock with the occasional makeshift shelter made from a lean-to of dead palm leaves to fend of the unrelenting sun. This is the limestone extraction. Hundreds of women and children smash boulders into uniform sized pieces to meet the needs of the ever-expanding construction industry. Inside these passageways there are a plethora of formations. Rainwater over the years has carved its way into the heart of the hill, eating, eroding, gouging and solidifying along its way. The formations hang from the ceiling and are met by towers rising from the floor. A stalactite is an icicle-like deposit of calcium carbonate, which hangs from the roof of a cave. A stalagmite is the same but rising from the floor of the cave often to meet an opposing stalactite. Two caves of note within the hill are: La Ang Viel Stre 100 - cave of a hundred rice fields (the view and the name are explanatory) and La Ang Thmar Dos - the cave of the growing stone.

Phnom Sila

A door guards the entrance to this cave. A laywomen widow is the temple guardian. Inside there are two principal shrines: dedicated to the Buddha and the second seemingly venerating the rock itself. The cave is nestled in a lagoon of karsts whose jagged crags surround this sanctuary nestled high upon the hill. A modern temple lies at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the cave opening.

Prasat Phnom Chngauk

These troglodyte tunnels are in Trapeang Pring commune, Kampot district. This cavern complex contains one of the earliest recorded discoveries of Indian artifacts in the country. There is a brick prasat within the cave that dates to the Funan period (1st - 6th centuries). There are formations of crocodiles and elephants in the lofty green cathedral like cavern, in which the temple stands. The cave is filled with soft light from the opening and high skylights. The walls of the cave are smoothly carved: seemingly liquid formations organically worn away by a millennia, or more of monsoons The temple itself has a stalactite emerging through the roof to become the center of veneration. The stalagmite that accompanies this formation is the actual growth that is held sacred. It has over the course of millions of years grown into an almost perfect linga. This temple is dedicated to Shiva and provides the first example of solely Indian influenced architecture. The Indian style statuary that surrounds the hill attests to this.
The slow nature of calcium deposits indicates that this could have been a sacred site even earlier than the Funan period. Without further archaeological exploration it will he hard to ascertain for certain. Further within the karsts itself are countless passageways and crawl spaces some almost too small to fit. With the aid of local children you can be lead to sanctuaries deep within the hill where mica deposits make the caves sparkle like gold and diamonds. Further still, tubular bells are formed by stalactites; their resonant notes echoing around the chambers deep within the earth.

You climb up through the hill traversing root-encrusted passageways with occasional shafts of sunlight piercing the depths of the cave system. Providing the sole illumination for those foolhardy enough not to bring a torch. For those with a sense of adventure and a lack of claustrophobia these caves and the others in this region are well worth a visit. These caves provide a fascinating glimpse beneath the ground and a chance to see some of the staggering rock formations that nature has created. They have to be seen to be believed. All in all, there is something to be said about sedimentary rock.