Monday, September 17, 2007

The Cave Temples of Kampot

The Cave Temples of Kampot
For an unusual diversion from the everyday attractions of Kampot and Kep, try the cave temples that can be found in Kampot province. These are large limestone caves where in pre-Angkorean times, brick temples were erected within the cave itself and where these temples have remained hidden to outsiders until recent times. As far as I’m aware, these are the only cave temples in Cambodia of this type.

If you are based in Kampot, aim for the farthest away first. It’s called Phnom Trotung and is located beyond the village of Tuk Meas and near a cement factory. 200 steps up the hillside will lead you to the cave entrance and behind the modern shrine is a square brick tower in remarkably good condition. Accompanied by the squeal of bats, you can see a large stalactite descending into the top of the tower, which despite having no decorative carvings houses a badly worn lintel on the floor near the doorway. The lintel style indicates the tower was from the late seventh century.

The second cave temple is considerably more difficult to see and is located between Tuk Meas and Kompong Trach. It’s called Phnom Khyang and is located behind a school and on the side of a small hillock. You have to descend a rickety ladder into the mouth of the cave and then squeeze through a small gap in the rock formation before you gain access into a larger cavern. The brick tower is in fantastic condition with recesses built into the tower wall to house fruit offerings from local worshippers. Beware, the cave floor can be slippery, it’s sweltering hot inside and I recommend you take a good torch with you.

Stop in Kompong Trach town and head for Wat Kirisan, at the foot of a rocky limestone outcrop called Phnom Sor. There you can gain access to a series of caves which lead into the heart of the outcrop that is open to the elements and bathed in sunlight. It’s a lovely green space, complete with birdcalls, a reclining Buddha in one corner and rock formations in another. The formations have been given a series of names to identify them and include a huge fish, an elephant and a monkey, as well as one hundred small ricefields and musical stalactites that resonate when struck. Back on the road to Kampot, a turn off near the Cham fishing village will take you to Phnom Chhnork and the third cave temple. Another 200 steps up the hill takes you to a wide cavern entrance that leads down to a larger brick tower. In good condition and a popular shrine for local families, there are some detailed carvings on the 7th century brick temple walls and a half lintel still in situ. As with the first cave temple, a large stalactite is growing into the roof of the tower.

Another series of caves that are popular, though don’t house an early brick temple, can be visited on the road from Kampot to Kep, at Phnom Sorsia. There’s a small wat and school at the foot of the holy hill and a path takes you to several major caves. The biggest is White Elephant cave (Rung Damrei Saa) with a stalactite formation in the shape of an elephant’s head, while the cave of 100 Ricefields is actually a peep-hole of terraced paddy fields. There are some nice views over the surrounding countryside and other smaller caves to investigate, most containing colonies of bats and small shrines.

To read about my own visit to these cave temples, click here.


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