Wow! The Phnom Chhngok Cave Temples is one of Kampot's finest treasures, its not so much a well kept hidden secret of Kampot but somehow they really made it an epic challenging journey to get there!!!
With almost impossible muddy roads to negotiate, broken bridges and mudslides it felt like a quest from an Indiana Jones movie.. However even though it was tough to get there.. the destination and the prize was definetly worth the journey! It was amazing and my experience was a perfect combination of adventure, nature and spirituality.
Just 8 kilometres away from Kampot I thought this would be a walk in the park...However as soon as I got off the main road and found myself ankle deep in mud I realised this was going to be a mission.
With no WiFi or Google maps I got that sinking feeling, literally, maybe this wasn't a good idea. But as I persevered through the mud I was blown away by the breath taking natural beauty of the countryside.
The amazing quilt of rice paddy fields and farms with the elephant mountains rising up beyond.. All along the way I was greeted and encouraged by the amazing smiles and laughter from the beautiful locals. There was no turning back.. I was determined.
After what seemed like an eternity I finally came upon a sign.. Like an oasis in the desert.. It read "Easy way to the Phnom Chhngok Cave temples" I was full of excitement and anticipation and thought I'm there.. I've arrived.. the finishing line is within reach!
I couldn't have been more wrong!
After yet even more muddy "roads" I finally came across a pack of jubilant school kids welcoming me dancing and screaming standing next to a bridge... "the Caves... The caves!!" they shouted.. The bridge was old and rickety and disappeared underwater after 5 or 6 meters. WTF
It became obvious that this was the end of the road as far as me and my trusted scooter was concerned. So I parked up and was mobbed by the kids leaping at the chance to offer their services as tour guides to the cave in the hopes of bringing in extra income for their families.
We waded across the water, knee deep where the "bridge" used to be. Boots held high trousers rolled up.. hand in hand with these wonderful elves we finally arrived at the base of the elephant mountains. We were greeted by an old man who gave us a ticket and pointed us towards a break in the rocks..
One of the boys gave me my shoes.. "On.. On", he said... "Close.. close", he said. Then I saw the base of the stairs.. 208 to be exact.. I started to wonder if this was the easy way to the caves...what was the other way like!!!
And then we arrived at the summit.. After catching my breath we descended Inside the cave to be greeted by the 7th-century brick temple dedicated to Shiva. Wow! Protection from the elements has allowed the temple to stand for centuries, virtually unchanged and unspoiled by the passage of time.
The cave temple has been used for centuries as Hindu and Buddhist worship. The kids proudly pointed towards the main cavern where a large rock formation glitters with mineral deposits of stalacmites and stalactites.
Various incredible rock formations were pointed out and I had to guess the animal, without a doubt it was a remarkable effigy of an Elephant.
Many locals and tourists alike paid homage, lit joysticks and prayed to this wonderful natural sculpture of Ganesh, the God of beginnings the remover of obstacles the patron of art and sciences. The Lord of good fortune who provides prosperity and success.
Deeper inside the cave we discovered another temple, the bricks of this which dates back to pre-Angkor times around 500 AD, are stained green while others are more pink in shade.
Hindu temples outside the Angkor site at Siem Reap are unusual in Cambodia and those in caves are even rarer. Not much is known about the early history of Cambodia before the emergence of Angkor but the civilisation in the Kampot area is known by the Chinese name Funan and was influenced by Indian Hindu culture.
The cave temple is today tended by the elderly Loak Ta Neak Sohl, or "Grandfather White Dragon". He oversees and performs the rituals on the special holy days. I was lucky enough to meet his nephew, Nov.
"He(Loak ta Neak Sohl) came to this area 12 years ago to devote himself to the Buddhist dharma and meditate," Nov told us.
"At that time not many people knew about this temple; there were no steps up to the cavern, only forest and rocks. With my uncle's encouragement, the villagers pooled their money to build stone steps up to the temple."
"During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge used the soil in this cave for the rice paddies nearby because it was full of minerals," he said. "Later, Vietnamese soldiers hid in the caves, but the Khmer Rouge found them and killed them. Some Vietnamese officials returned to collect the bones, but many of their bones still remain in deeper, more difficult to get to, caverns.
NOV chuckled as he saw all of the tourists with our phones and cameras... "..Many electronic devices such as cell phones and watches cease to work in the cave, and that even airplanes and helicopters never fly over the site, as it interferes with their controls."
One of the older school boys, Tao, 14, who comes to the cave and offers his services as a tour guide whenever he has free time, told us "If people want to go, I take them up, I'm proud to show our culture.. Our story.. This is the story my grandfather told me.. And if I'm lucky I will be married and have children and they will continue to share this story for many generations to come."
Ten metres on, the channel opens up into a wide clearing, a hidden garden open to the sky and surrounded by towering walls of limestone.
Local legend has it that Magical powers exist in these caves.
"Years ago my auntie Diep was very sick and she had a dream that Loak Ta Ey Sey, the spirit of the forest, told her to come here and pray and she would get better. She obeyed and immediately got better, so now people come here to pray to the forest spirit for health, wealth and better life," Tao told us.
The journey through the cave and out to the rice fields below and behind the mountain is easily negotiated by the young boys who hop effortlessly through the obstacles like they are playing hopscotch in a playground. But it is not an easy trip for first-time visitors I can tell you.
After an hour or so hanging with the boys we descended the stairs and I was invited to join them for an incredible local speciality Kuy Teav which is a beef noodle soup with onions and vegetables washed down with a delicious glass of iced green tea plucked straight from the fields.
I jumped on my bike and bid farewell to my new found friends... The thoughts, revelations and memories of my adventure coupled with the relieved cheering locals, who seemed happy to see I made it back, made the journey home fly by.
Time for a hot shower and clean the mud off my boots.
Next time I'll make sure i wear the right shoes...
😂 😂 😂
What an incredible day!