The Ride to Phnom Sor Seah
27.08.2012 37 °C
As a teaching volunteer in Cambodia, long public holidays enabled me to venture further afield. On this occasion my teaching colleagues and I headed south, to the old French colonial outpost of Kampot.
It was our last day off with the motorbikes we had rented and the seven of us agreed that we should go and explore further outside the town. Pleased with our newfound confidence on the country’s bewildering roads, we asked at the bar of our guesthouse if anyone knew of anywhere challenging we could ride to. The bar’s few regulars gave us many (and thoroughly dull) options in the form of eco-villages and handicrafts centres, but we were eager to do something away from the main tourist routes. Pressing the Australian owner, Joss, for better ideas, she told us of Phnom Sor Seah, or the White Mountain. It was said to be the home of an old mystic whom many locals venerated as Kampot’s true witch. She was rumoured to live at the top of the mountain, in a chaotic hut of palm and corrugated iron amongst the rocks. Excitable glances flashed around our small group. This was exactly the sort of adventure we had come south for.
There was an expectant, giddy unease around our party. We had all sorts of questions, ranging from the sensible (would she expect a donation for the shrine?) to the inane (was she more likely to be a Slytherin or a Gryffindor?). Directions were drawn out on the back of a faded drinks bill.
Kick-starting my sparkly-gold rental Honda, I left the dirt courtyard of our riverside guesthouse and set out with the others to seek the truth behind the story of the Witch of Kampot, humming over the new bridge into the busy heart of the town. Driving through the rainy chaos of a Cambodian market town is fantastic training for anyone wishing to improve their evasive driving. Tuk-tuks and the strange kuyon ‘cow machines’ wound chugging strands in the seething, wheeled sea of the main market and it was, in short, terrifying. In such places there is always the busy noise of movement and the quacking haggling; it is the smell however, that defines Kampot’s busy hub. Even living in Asia for several months had not prepared me for the heady aroma of countless durian mixed with the heavy musk of old blood from the meat market in the middle of the square. Bright rows of new shirts huddled in between bolts of cloth and dark clouds of shiny shoes, mere inches from mucky drainage channels and splashing gaps in the low tarpaulin.
Escaping the discordant droning of the town, we buzzed out on our little bikes, like seven metal flies abandoning the larger swarm. Following the loose directions received from the Australian bar owner, we went in search of the trail that would lead us to the Witch of Kampot. An ornate temple arch eaved with gold naga marked the spot where we left the highway, riding onwards down the pitted red of a village track above the glassy shine of numberless paddy-fields dotted with green shoots. Brief flashes of Khmer life sped by us; a tiny shack selling petrol out of a jerry can into antique drinks bottles; betel-chewing widows stopping to cackle and rest their gnarled feet on plastic chairs and small children in checked krama wraps jumping in to the brown water of a reservoir.
By early afternoon, one hill had grown above the others and loomed in front of us, until it seemed too large to call a hill anymore. Could this be Phnom Sor Seah? To the side of the road, a gravel stack from a new reservoir dig looked like a good vantage point to investigate from.
Dropping gears and opening the throttle, I rode the gold Honda quickly up the slope as loose gravel chided the plastic fairing and the sides of my shins with sharp raps and flicks. Pausing on top of the dirt-pile, I took my first proper look at the slopes of the mountain.
Short trees covered a lumpy slope, capped by a crooked, blunt top hidden by lush foliage. Calling down to the other six riders, I was filled with excitement. ‘It looks like an ugly, bushy way up; but if I were a witch that’s exactly where I’d live. It has to be the White Mountain! ’.
Skidding down the loose pile, I rejoined the others and after a short, spirited chase past plodding ox-carts and waving children, we stopped at the site of a flight of stairs near the base. Dismounting in the ruddy, Kampuchean soil we could make out a stone-paved terrace beyond one of the trees. On a central dais sat a plain, unpainted statue of a Theravada Buddha, hooded by the likeness of a huge, five-headed Naga King upon a tall altar. Definitely a Slytherin, I thought. At the base, there were small, round trays of tributes and offerings: many were decayed or else covered in dust of years. It did not look like there were many visitors to this place.
To the left was a flight of concrete steps embellished with a pair of painted snakes to an easy, modern spirit shrine. No, that could not be it: the Australian had spoken of a hut of jagged metal strewn with totems. I was moments away from turning back and cursing her for bad humour when I saw it: a cluttered grey line, scrawled up the side of the mountain. A stairway!
Reaching them hurriedly, I could see that the narrow steps were at severe angles and they looked almost impassably steep. Many were eroded away or missing entirely. Who could have built such a difficult route, so long ago? Eager to seek the truth of the legend, we ascended the broken stairs to the point where they snaked and crumbled into the mountain.
There was an unwelcome presence to this middle place, manifested in both the landscape and the creatures that inhabited it. Angular boulders lay thrown down like the litter of some ancient catastrophe, forming a challenging series of giant levels that almost mocked our previous efforts on the spiteful little steps behind us. As we pulled ourselves up the heated stone shelves, the dust and crumbling chippings wrote dry dirt over our clothing; even as the hot tropical air sought to paint us in a contradictory sweat. We would occasionally chance across skittish, grey hunting spiders with incomprehensible, paddled mouths; or a huge brown millipede trundling its segments around the darker corners of our ascent, like a giant, armoured cigar. Curved and ugly trees might have looked like good resting areas but we knew if we stayed too long against them, then patrols of fire-ants would appear on the bark and crawl over us in search of softer places to bite.
Later, as we scaled the blunt corners and shifting dirt close to the top of the White Mountain we paused, as a spray of loose chippings and soil pattered down upon us from the next few ledges above. I caught the faint sound of high-pitched giggling. Moments later, a trio of slender Khmer boys in their teens jumped down. They had very highlighted hair, or elaborately shaved designs at their temples and wore sparkly t-shirts and tiny jeans. I was surprised by how delicate they looked, possessing none of the season-forged hardness of the other Cambodians in the area. Coy glances flashed between the three; we got the standard ‘hah-lao’ and they hopped down the boulders with a practiced ease in their colourful shoes, disappearing from our lives as suddenly as they had arrived, like a few beautiful and gaily-painted butterflies.
The last few footholds lay ahead and we pushed ourselves up these with renewed vigour. Cresting the final rock, we were met with a sight that filled us with dread and apprehension. Perhaps we should not have come here.
A mad melding of wood, palm and old sheets of corrugated iron formed an impossible dwelling that gave the story an immediate and eerie prescience. Both squat and spread-out; flimsy yet obstinate, its wrong angles and arbitrary holes left us in no doubt that this was no ordinary home, but the house of The Witch of Kampot. Looking around, our assumptions were reassured at every detail encountered. There were hundreds of prayer rags tied to every nearby bush and branch; they snapped and fluttered like multi-coloured lizards’ tongues. The multi-striped flag of the Theravada sect flew from several high points, but offerings to other forces were apparent in a few ramshackle spirit houses and subsidiary shrines with burned out incense sticks inside. Offertory bowls and trays were everywhere, containing food wrapped in banana leaves, soft drink cans and many damp, brown-filtered cigarettes. Empty whisky bottles also testified to the great times to be had in the ghost realms, and small bowls of plain rice were also placed inside the shrines.
We shouted greetings into the doorway, but were met with nothing but the faint creaking of metal and the whisper of the wind at altitude. At the very top of the house, an old megaphone nailed to the top of a wooden post seemed ready to scream spells at us, were we to intrude.
Slowly, I took a step forward into the dark interior of the main hut. ‘Su-as’dey’ – hello? No one answered.
Our group looked around for more signs of her whereabouts, utterly unsure of what to do should we find a genuine witch. To one side, a trail of old cans and plastic wrapping abrased the hillside vegetation. Even at this remote eyrie, it seemed as though there was no place escape the litter endemic throughout Cambodia. Eventually, we agreed that the Witch of Kampot was not here; Steve suggested dryly that, in the 21st Century, even witches may have discovered flexi-time.
After taking in the spectacular view of the surrounding Kampot countryside, we began the drop down the rocky overhangs and boulders, wondering if the witch was still alive. I was one of the first to reach the end of the broken steps; deciding to investigate the larger altar at the base before heading back to my bike. I had my camera when a throaty, hacking cry stopped me in my tracks. A tiny old woman in a dirty white robe with a huge metallic talisman around her neck was shifting angrily towards me; throwing complicated, flicking and twisting hand-gestures in my general direction. Her eyes blazed and she had the wavy hair of many of the Khmers, though now greying with the passage of many years. Her face was wrinkled like a small prune and the snarling mouth was visibly lacking a number of teeth. She continued to mutter in her staggered dialect, pausing only to spit to one side with a sneer. I was left cold by the sudden appearance of this short hag, and her disturbing approach. I must be in the presence of the Witch of Kampot. Simmering, she pointed to the summit of White Mountain and back to the Buddha shrine down in front of me. After repeating the gesture with stabs of her white sleeves it became apparent that she wanted some form of tithe, or tribute. Recovering my wits, I defaulted to politeness: I smiled, said sorry in the Khmer language and addressed her in the Lowk Srey, or highest ‘madame’ form; calming her somewhat.
It happened that we had little local money or smaller denomination Dollars; in this remote location would revealing the larger bills put the group at risk of being stopped? I looked around. The few other haggard attendants of the shrine were closing around the three of us, a regarded challenge in their dark and suspicious gazes. Among their number were three feral, unblinking children who seemed the very antithesis of the smiling youths we had earlier encountered. Nevertheless, the sheet-wearing little crone needed placating somehow if we all were to avoid a hasty routing.
We had nothing other useful to give to the witch and her retinue, bar the keys to our bikes and a few drops of water, but even this was losing its value in the face of a looming thunderhead. I could not see an easy way back to the bikes without giving her something.
Then, I was struck by the memory of the offering trays outside the witch’s mountain shack. Many cheap cigarettes had been left for the Witch and the spirits of the dead. And yet, how was it that of the entire offertory at the summit there was not a single white cigarette? A mad idea skated at the edge of my thoughts. Perhaps it would work. Carefully and deliberately, I unclipped my cargo pocket and withdrew a single, white menthol cigarette. I had reckoned then that the others might think me completely mad for doing so – and I would not have blamed them. Almost on cue, a panicked gasp came from the two volunteers following behind me. ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Now is really not the time to light up!’ validated my presentiment. I strode up to the witch, gave her a full sompiah bow, then lit up. The old dear looked completely bamboozled. Good. It would seem that I was not the only slave to minty cigarettes on the White Mountain.
Without stopping to see what she would do, I fished out the distinctive white/green parrot packet of ARA’s and held it out for all to see. The muttering and cursing coming out of the wrinkled mouth stopped immediately, replaced by a greedy little sparkle in her eyes. Hurriedly, she accepted three smokes from the packet and eyed the four I had laid on the offertory tray with the sort of latent intent that guaranteed there would be no cigarettes near the altar by tomorrow morning.
By this point the old spellcaster was happily puffing away next to me, the ARA Menthol bobbing up-down-up-down in her gap-toothed grin, like a tiny white wand. Her anger quenched, the witch seemed smaller, possibly dirtier. Bemused by our presence at her shrine, it became clear that she did not receive many visitors and spoke no English or French. After some lengthy sign-language she agreed to having her picture taken with me, posing in the formal way of this country with a quick adjustment of her hair for the camera, then checking the pictures on-screen afterwards with a laugh. It was surprising to get such a glimpse of this very womanly and normal side to such an incredible character, dispelling the earlier menace that I had felt from her.
Before we parted, the aging woman pressed her hand into my shoulder in a strange way and muttered some secret words into my ear, before returning to a well-concealed hammock in the trees. Mounting my bike and strapping my helmet on, I wondered what the gesture had meant and was troubled by the almost aching memory of it in my shoulder. I was left with no doubt that the old woman we had encountered was the Witch of Kampot. By now, the fading, rosy light was highlighting the metal and reflective parts of our machines along the road back to Kampot. The red Cambodian mud trail felt like time-travelling back to the present day as we left the world of totems and witches and the ancient villages flashing past us became more and more real, until they only slightly touched at the previous century of boxy cars and tin containers.
Upon our return through Kampot town the market lay exhausted and dormant. The smell and commotion was subdued by headlights passing in the night, like the ghosts of the day’s earlier traffic. Heading back to the guesthouse over the narrow bridge, we felt accomplished. Though we had come here to teach, the mystery of this forgotten countryside had left us with a lesson to challenge our own hasty preconceptions of the magical in our fast and electronic world.