KAMPONG TRACH district, Kampot — Sheer rock faces rise just meters from Sok Chea’s shop, where she sells flowers, coconuts, snacks and drinks.
In August, the caves at Kampong Trach have just reopened to visitors, and a bus unloads dozens of tourists in mid-morning. A flock of children gather around, offering guides of the caves that tunnel through the rock faces.
Chea says the caves are a sacred place, and visitors believe in its power.
“People like to come to wish for good luck,” she says. “If they want to sell their property, like land, they will come to wish to make a deal happen sooner and to get a good price for their land.”
Covid-19 has quietened the tourism site, but there’s also land speculation happening all around the province.
A couple weeks prior, a man visited to pray for a new car so he could work as a taxi driver, Chea says. Not long after, his wife returned with an offering of fruit and headed into the caves. “That meant the man had bought a car,” Chea says.
Steps lead down to the entrance of the main cave — initially a dark cavern, which then opens up to a large shaft of light. Statues are placed around the opening, and women sweep leaves and dust off the stone floor.
Sochey Mongkul, 36, says it’s his second visit. He says he is just sightseeing — no prayers.
“I really like this place. Especially inside the cave,” Mongkul says. “It’s really fresh and cool.”
But when he first came four years ago it seemed more magical, he says, the cave walls appearing to sparkle. “It seems different now,” he says.
Caves continue on through the rock. In the dark, candles are lit, and some supplicants kneel to light incense. Other visitors sit on rock, relax, smoke cigarettes. The caves eventually emerge through to the other side, where visitors turn around and take photos of the cliffs.
Nearby, a smaller path leads up to a rock pool. From there, one can climb to a small temple burrowed high on a cliff face, where the vista stretches far across green fields, toward hills in the distance.
Kampong Trach is special for visitors, says Pu Sao, 42, who offers horse rides around the rock formation for tourists. Most visitors are from Phnom Penh, and they’ve never ridden a horse before and enjoy the novelty, he says.
Tourists are now coming back a little, he said by phone last week. He’s lived in the area all his life, so the landscape is just part of his life, he adds.
He does not really believe much in the religious side of the Kampong Trach caves himself, but the pleas seem to work for some, he says.
“A lot of people who like to pray for something, they always get what they wish from the cave, like buying a car or selling land,” Sao says. “For me, I only pray for peace and good luck.”