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Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings

 
 

Veal Veng was once just one village in a chain that stretched south from Phnom Kravanh town deep into Cambodia’s Cardamom mountains.

Now the village, a jumble of wooden and bamboo huts, is the only one remaining and serves as the gateway to a collection of rock paintings believed to be drawn as early as 2,500 years ago.

Getting to the site in Pursat province, described by experts in a paper released last year as a unique site deserving “special attention,” is no easy feat.

Traditionally reached along a single track by buffalo-drawn cart — which is still the only method of travel during the height of the rainy season — the 25-km journey between Phnom Kravanh and Veal Veng is mostly now done by motorbike. The recent damming of the small Stung Pram river to form a large reservoir, which according to local authorities is to aid farmers during the dry season, led not only to the destruction of a number of houses and farms, but has added a 30-minute ferry ride to the journey.

Driving slowly along the deeply rutted tracks, the only other travelers were loggers, brazenly harvesting the remaining valuable timber before it is destroyed by the reservoir. That, at least, is the excuse Veal Veng village chief Khvek Dim said the loggers are using. He laments the loss of trees and wildlife from his simple hut in the center of the village.

Mr. Dim has known about the paintings on the sheltered rock-face about 20 minutes south of the village, along the track that used to lead to the even remoter villages, for as long as he can remember. As a child he would sit by the paintings to shelter from the rain, tracing his finger over the depictions of elephants, deer and other unidentified animals.

He has no idea how old the paintings are, nor does anyone in the village, but the site has long been a site of religious significance, and plays host to annual festivities marking Pchum Ben, when Cambodians pay respects to their ancestors.

As to who painted them, local lore states they are the work of a mysterious group of people, who wanted to document the once common animals in the region for future generation to enjoy, but who fled after being repeatedly disturbed by the children from the village.

The village’s children have proven to be a persistent menace to the site, with smoke damage to the rocks blamed on fires lit in the past 20 years. At some point, children have also been inculpated for the appearance of chalk marks outlining some of the artwork.

In 1974, Mr. Dim recalls Khmer Rouge soldiers fighting with villagers for control of the region. He was a trainee monk at the time, and sadly recalls the loss of a silver elephant statue that had been in village for generations, and the destruction of the two large stupa next to the rock site to build a now abandoned dam.

After taking six hours to get to the site, which involved carrying motorbikes across three streams swollen with the first rains of the rainy season, offers to spend the night in the village were politely declined. With friendly wave from Mr. Dim and the sizable delegation from the 30 or so village families, the return journey took four hours — aided in no small part by the menacing grey clouds building overhead.

For now, the paintings remain safe. As the journey to reach the site proved, it is unlikely to rival Angkor Wat as a tourism destination any time soon. Instead, without preservation efforts from the government, “spalling, insect nests and trails, plant growth, lichens, moss, salt, wind and water erosion, various natural chemical processes [and] fading” remain the biggest threats, so long as the pesky kids don’t continue their contributions to the artwork.

Peter Ford is a freelance journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 

Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
Cave paintings near the village of Veal Veng are believed to be up to 2,500 years old. This painting shows people riding elephants, and until the disruption of 1970s the region was a source of elephants for royal use.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
The journey to reach the paintings is not easy. After 30 mins of driving along mostly smooth dirt tracks from the provincial town of Phnom Kravanh, the tracks run out at a newly formed lake, and a ferry is required.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
The Chinese-funded Dam 5 was completed in July 2015, and heralded by local officials as a way of ensuring adequate water for downstream farmers during the dry season. The creation of the lake forced the families who once lived there to move to the newly created village of Ksang 5 kilometers away. The freshly cleared land is on a sandy slope and offers poor farming.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
Octogenarian Um Koul lost hectares of fruit trees when the dam was completed, and says he is too old to try and recreate his former holdings on his new land.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
Crossing the lake takes about 30 minutes on the flat-bottomed punt. Our motorbike drivers for the trip were still blissfully unaware at this point just what kind of trails lay ahead.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
In addition to flooding the village, the lake has also destroyed large swathes of forest in the foothills to the Cardamom mountains. Using the excuse that the trees are being damaged by the water, illegal logging has increased dramatically in the past year.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
This couple was waiting for our boat driver to carry them across the lake so that they could sell their illegal timber at the market. Unabashedly, they said it was their first time doing such a thing, and they hoped to get $70 for the wood.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
Traditionally the only way to reach the more remote villages in the forests was via water buffalo-pulled carts. With cheap credit allowing more people to own motorbikes, the buffalo are now employed to transport the felled wood instead. During the daylong trip to the paintings, I saw more than 20 teams of loggers and buffalo (and two pairs of camera shy hunters with homemade rifles). According to village chief Khvek Dim, all of this is illegal.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
Despite being only 25 km or so from the district capital, most of the tracks are in terrible condition, heavily rutted by logging carts. This section marked one of the few spots we were able to go above 20 km/h.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
Much the journey, undertaken just at the start of the rainy season, was like this: waterlogged.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
At three points on the journey, the bikes had to be carried across small rivers.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
The hardy Honda Dream motorbikes, once the spark plugs had been dried, were good to go again straight afterwards.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
After five hours we arrived in the Veal Veng village, home to 30 families living in wood and bamboo houses. A short ride away is the site, where village chief Khvek Dim used to spend time as a child while looking after cattle. He he points out his favorite paintings – two elephants with riders astride.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
In recent years, village children have drawn around the existing images in chalk.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
Finding Cambodia's Ancient Cave Paintings
Despite having lived in the same district all their lives, the motorbike drivers had never heard of the paintings, and didn’t believe that they might be 2,500 years old. They were just as excited to reach the paintings as we were.
Image Credit: Peter Ford
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