Eyewitness The Woman Who Lives on a Disappearing Mountain
She told me that if I took her picture my camera would break, but I smiled and asked to try. Two weeks later my camera broke.
Lok Yay Phnom Sor, or Grandmother of White Mountain, has lived atop Phnom Sor, or White Mountain, a hill near the city of Kampot in Southern Cambodia, for the last nineteen years. She stands perhaps five feet tall, wears simple white clothes, and has a square face, with piercing eyes. When I first met her, she sat cross-legged before a tiny cave near the summit, about 500 feet up. She was meditating. But the peace of the environment was disturbed by a noise that she could not ignore—at the base of the hill, dump trucks and an excavator were hauling earth and limestone away from the place she calls home.
Phnom Sor juts straight up from the paddy and farmland surrounding it, at the very southernmost edge of the Cardamom range. Due to the geologic activity of its formation and the millennia of erosion—this region, millions of years ago, was ocean—the mountain is pocked with nooks and caves. Now, Phnom Sor’s rock is being hauled off to supply construction materials for Kampot city’s rapid development.
Although Phnom Sor is small, that doesn’t make it inconsequential. These limestone peaks dotting the region—called karsts—are unique ecosystems. Their isolation and geology provide a home for specialized flora and fauna. The porosity of the outcroppings protect and provide unique environments for a variety of plants. These karsts rarely get as much water as the land below, resulting in many species of cactus-like plants evolved from tropical flora. Andrew McDonald, a professor of botany at the University of Texas Rio Grande studies these karsts, and recently, in one short trip, identified several new species. McDonald believes there are many more waiting to be discovered.
Scattered throughout Kampot province, these karsts are especially imperiled due to the rapid development. Limestone is a key ingredient for cement, and local factories are struggling to meet demand. In 2016 alone, Cambodia imported roughly 1.19 million tonnes of cement, at a cost of approximately $85 million, said Seang Thai, a spokesman for the Ministry of Commerce.
Having lived in Cambodia and studied Khmer for four years, that day near the summit of the hill, Lok Yay Phnom Sor and I began to talk. She told me how she came to live atop the mountain, and I told her how I found her home. I would never have imagined that our stories, so unfathomably dissimilar, could meet, and more, become entwined in a setting such as this.
The morning before we met, I was awoken by all of the construction. While I drank a morning coffee on my front deck where I used to be able to see the river, I saw only houses. I counted twelve being built. It was only a year ago when much of the neighborhood was scattered trees and swampland; empty plots where local boys searched for crabs and fish to eat, but that’s all gone now. There is a construction boom across Cambodia; this neighborhood is not unique.
Traditionally, Khmer houses were wooden and set high on stilts due to the annual rains and resulting floods, but now a growing upper and middle-class is building cement homes. Accordingly, the first step in building a house anywhere that floods is to fill in the land with truckloads of dirt.
Where are the building materials—the dirt and rock—coming from? I jumped onto my motorcycle, and trailed one of the dump trucks trundling away. Dust billowed out the back of the empty truck bed as I followed it all the way to a haphazard open-pit mine, perhaps six football fields in size. The quarry abuts, and is beginning to creep up the side of, Phnom Sor.
I asked a group of five boys if there was a trail to the summit, and they led me to a small pathway that wound through thickets of bamboo and young trees. Large boulders occasionally jut out through the shallow canopy, and offered magnificent views of Bokor Mountain just west, and the surrounding farmland. I saw several types of butterfly, including my local favorite, the Fluffy Tit, whose wings have large, fuzzy tails, which it gyrates up and down; four species of bird, especially the Yellow-vented Bulbul, which is also common around my home; and finally a small brown snake, perhaps a Striped Kukri, which laid completely still as it warmed its cold blood in a small patch of sun. There seemed to be biting red ants everywhere.
All of this was to be expected. But nearing the summit, I was surprised to find a small hovel made of corrugated steel, surrounded by prayer flags and alters. The smell of incense wafted through the fresh air. I hadn’t imagined I’d find a human living there.
Not wanting to be rude, I called out a greeting and rested at the trail’s end. An elderly woman replied, inviting me to come around back. I walked through the outdoor kitchen and down some steps to a clearing at the opening of a tiny cave where Lok Yay Phnom Sor appeared to be meditating next to a small hammock. She dismissed my apology for intruding with a laugh: “People come here all the time!” she said. She invited me to sit down and rest. That is where Lok Yay Phnom Sor lives. That is her home.
When asked about almost anything Lok Yay Phnom Sor gave a long and roundabout half-answer. She often alluded mysteriously to her magical powers and dubious connections to the royal family. However, when I noted the diggers below, she focused. She said connected local officials were behind the mining of the mountain, but she didn’t seem worried. “Powerful magic protects this mountain,” she claimed. “It breaks their machines.” Before coming to Phnom Sor, she weathered the Khmer Rouge regime safely isolated atop another mountain in Kampot province. How could this be worse?
She also told me that if I took her picture my camera would break, but I smiled and asked to try anyway. Two weeks later my camera broke.
Locals regularly make the short climb up Phnom Sor to ask for her protection, guidance, clairvoyance, and healing. In exchange, they give her money and food. Lok Yay Phnom Sor claims to be ninety-five years old, having left Phnom Penh in 1962, seeking a more spiritual life beyond the corruption and money of the city. She smokes cigarettes constantly.
Whether her magic can protect the mountain remains to be seen. As we sat talking in the shade, the huge machinery below sounded like distant vacuums from up near the summit. Looking down through the trees, we saw large pools of rainwater, dyed unnatural aquamarine greens from the unearthed minerals. The trucks came and went, and at times there were three idling in line, waiting their turn to be filled up by the sole excavator.
For the end buyer, a truckload of dirt costs roughly fifteen dollars. Another truckload, another fifteen exchanged. I thought of all the life, including Lok Yay Phnom Sor’s, relying on that place. If the hill is destroyed completely, what would be their fate, and at what cost? Who has the right to sell such a place as Phnom Sor?
Land ownership in Cambodia has an especially fraught and complex history. The Khmer Rouge outlawed all private ownership, moving everyone out of the cities into the fields to work. When the Khmer Rouge were defeated by Vietnamese and Soviet-backed forces, Cambodians made their way back to their homes, but with nearly one-quarter of the population dead, many houses were left empty, and people simply moved in to what was left unclaimed.
It was not until after the Vietnamese and Soviet-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea ended with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia in the early ’90s that private property was really codified into law. In the 2001 Land Law, it was said that after five years of continually living in an unoccupied place uncontested, you could be granted rightful ownership of the land, a process which is legally referred to as adverse possession. But adverse possession is hard to prove with no land titles in corrupt courts where money can buy any verdict. Cambodia is ranked the most corrupt country in Southeast Asia.
This rapid growth, coupled with monumental shifts in property ownership, corruption, and a lack of documentation or standardized land titles made evictions and land grabbing all too easy, and very profitable. As a carry-over from the Khmer Rouge era, vast swaths of land were claimed by the government. Cambodia experienced the fastest rate of deforestation in the world from 2001 to 2014. Hectares upon hectares of the country were sold to the highest bidder, no matter if citizens had been living there for many years. An important exception here are the Buddhist temples, whose ownership the government protects.
Unfortunately for Lok Yay Phnom Sor, she doesn’t fit the criteria for protection. Although many come there to make offerings and pray, she is not the more culturally respected (male) monk, and her home is not a temple. Despite having lived on Phnom Sor long enough, it is a mountain, and therefore the government’s property. She carries no title, has no papers. So, while she claims that local officials are selling “her” mountain off by the truckload, there is little legal recourse to stop them.
Looking out almost due-east from Phnom Sor, I could just make out Cambodia Cement Chakrey Ting factory, which upon construction promised “to produce more than 3,200 tonnes of the building material” daily. Right behind Chakrey Ting factory is a much larger mountain, its top now completely flattened, and slowly losing altitude as truckloads are moved from the summit to the factory daily. Those tonnes mean the karsts, ground down, processed, and transformed into buildings; the likely fate of Phnom Sor.
As the geologic time that molded these mountains over millennia squares off with growing consumption, I cannot help but feel that we’re nearing a breaking point. If my neighbourhood has become entwined with the fate of this isolated little mountain, is it so hard to imagine that it works both ways; that its fate could be ours, too?
Amidst this construction frenzy, most of Kampot city stands only one meter above sea level, and the seas are rising.