I felt like I needed a vacation from Phnom Penh. Okay, not really, but I figured I’d get out of town a bit while I still had some flexibility in my schedule. What better place to go than the reportedly sleepy town of Kampot. It’s a riverside town about 150km (a three and a half hour bus ride) south of Phnom Penh. I chose the fancy bus for an extra $2 ($9 round trip), and booked a couple of nights in a guesthouse recommended by SLT1. After a tuk tuk ride to the bus station during which the driver sang at the top of his lungs half of the way, I was on my way.
Upon arrival, I spent a good amount of time just relaxing at the Ganesha Guesthouse, where I found kind people and decent food (the drinks? deeeeelish.).
But for the one full day I was in town, I decided to pay for a tuk tuk driver to take me to some sights in and around Kampot and Kep (a small town known for crab on the Gulf of Thailand). We stopped at the bank to break my $100 bill (damn ATMs), and now we were on our way.
Our first stop was Phnom Chhnork (but some locals wanted me to spell it Chhngork, so who knows..). You can read the generals about it from Lonely Planet, but just know that there’s a whole experience there that is NOT fully described. Lonely Planet describes the cave, saying, “A slippery passage, flooded in the rainy season, leads through the hill.” It’s rainy season, but evidently it wasn’t flooded. But I’ll tell you about the caves in a minute…
This day-long tour also included hours of riding in the tuk tuk through rice paddies…
a visit to Secret Lake (although many locals called it Hidden Lake – tomayto/tomahto)….
a trip to a pepper plantation (Kampot pepper is evidently world-famous)…
and then to Kep for some amok crab (a traditional Khmer steam-cooked curry in banana leaves, with fresh crab).
But the cave…
A 12-year-old with great English skills, Sai, greets me at the tuk tuk and guides me toward the steep hill (mountain?). We go up the stairs, which are not a problem, and there are great views at the top. There is an older white couple coming back down the stairs, something I won’t do, as I’ll come out another way — just wait…
Once stepping inside the mouth of the cave at the top of the stairs, there is a 7th-century brick temple with a wide stalagmite in the center. Being in the presence of this type of ancient holy structure makes me feel honored, and I say so. Sai says, “You take picture. I pray for you.” Thanks, brother. Buddha knows I need it. I also take pictures of the elephant-like figures in the walls, all of which turn out for crap. When I finish, Sai asks, “You want to see the bats?”
“Yes. Yes, I want to see the bats.”
“You like bats?”
“No. No, I don’t like bats at all. But let’s go see them.” We enter the cave.
He shines his flashlight haphazardly as I slip and slide undoubtedly through guano and mud in the pitch black (Lonely Planet did say it would be slippery…). His light shines at the ceiling while he says, “You step here.” Umm… I’m not Spiderman (or this cave creature he pointed out), but I try my damndest to guess where he means.This pattern of shining the light, then likely gesturing somewhere else but that gesture not being visible to me as there was NO light other than where he was shining it, kept happening. At one point, having already slid on my ass several times with the directions that, “You will stop at the bottom,” Sai now tells me, “You’ll just jump here.”
“Jump?” I ask, “Jump into that black hole there?”
“Yes. I go first, then you jump and I catch you.” Bahahaha! This diminutive 12-year-old will catch me?
“Sai, I’m afraid of heights. I’m not sure I can do this.” But I do. And it turns out this wily little bugger pushed and held me against the wall as I started jumping so that I slid down rather than free-falling off the 6-foot drop (which doesn’t sound far until you’re in the pitch black. with a 12-year-old boy. in a cave.). Clearly he has done this before.
At this point, with sweat dripping down my face and dripping onto my glasses as I aim my face down in futile attempts to see anything near my feet, I can barely see anything even when the flashlight is aimed where I need to go. We see several bats hanging in the cave and several flying around. I try to take pictures, but with my unsure footing and the complete darkness, even my flash and image stabilization can’t make this work.
Now we start climbing, with him saying, “You just go like this,” as he scampers up slippery, wet rocks in flip flops (have i mentioned that this kid is wearing flip flops???). Now my fear of heights has kicked in full-force because we are getting glimpses of light from the outside at certain points. I can see the 15-foot drops to the left of where we’re climbing, and I wonder whether it would be better to land on the flat rock at 18 feet or the jagged rocks at 15. All I can think about is the availability of medical care for severe head injury in Kampot. I am now sweating profusely and my respiration rate is more rapid than if I’d just sprinted this whole distance, because now I am vividly imagining what will happen if one foot slips. (seriously. my palms are sweating writing about this.)
“”Put this foot here…” (a one-inch lip on the rock)
“With this hand here…” (a rounded knob on the vertical wall that doesn’t really allow for a grip with a single hand)
“Then your next foot here…” (hip height from my other foot to a two-inch wide shelf at a 45-degree angle to the ground)
“Then this hand here…” (is there even something there to grab? it looks like a vertical rock face from down here)
And so it goes. I have to take his word for these directions, because once I start the momentum for these four- or five-step directions, I had damn well better not stop as it is likely my footholds will not hold well enough to support me for anything more than a brief push-off.
I ask, “Maybe we could go back the way we came in?” But no. Evidently that is not even an option. And, thinking about the slipping and sliding we did for that amount of time on the way down, I’ll trust this assessment of his.
I begin. I lunge upward, adrenaline coursing through my system. I make it to the first resting space, a rounded stalagmite, and shake. “Now you rest, madame.” But I feel so unsteady, my legs are shaking so badly, that I ask that we move on after I take a couple of deep breaths.
One of my protests sounds something like, “But I can’t reach that handhold from here.”
His response, “Not until you jump up.”
“With this one foot?” Dear sweet jesus. Jump from one foot from a slippery angled rock a quarter the size of my foot to extend one hand up to grab a rock with fingertips and pull myself up to get the other foot up to waist level. And if my right foot doesn’t make it up that high? I will fall.
This process of impossible-sounding directions followed by adrenaline-induced flurries of activity continue five or six more times. At one point, I say, “Sai, I am so afraid of heights right now.” He gently touches my back and says, “You are doing so good, madame. It is easy for you. Some people do not do so good, and I have to push and pull. But you do good on this.” I just laugh. He says, “No, you are strong. Your body is strong. Maybe your mind doesn’t think so.”
Well played, Sai. Well played.
I rest at the first place that is large enough to sit down and he says, “I take your picture, madame. You will see.” I sit in the dark and pull my camera from my pocket, honestly surprised it’s actually still there.
“From here now, it’s easy.” Which is only a half-lie. Now it is jumping across three-foot gaps to foot-wide pedestals, but I have Sai to take my hand when my legs wobble after each leap. We eventually get out of the cave and I say, “Sai, I thought I may die in there.” His reply? “Oh, I know you don’t die.” Well, thank god one of us had faith in that knowledge.
I tip him, thinking I ought to empty my wallet into this kid’s hands for keeping me alive, but I temper it with the thought that he’s the guy that led me into that cave in the first place.
It has been years since I’ve been that physically afraid. But I’d do it again in an adrenaline-fueled heartbeat.