For centuries, Phnom Chhngok Cave Temple has been a sacred site venerated by the local people, but it was just only recent years that the site, filled with mysteries and magic, has been a popular holiday destination for multinational travellers.
Phnom Chhngok Mountain is located just about eight kilometres east of the quiet Kampot town, off the road to Kep, but travelling there on the winding dirt road, especially by motorbike, could be very tiring. However, passing past scenic views of the Cambodian countryside, featuring paddy fields, small farms and limestone formations, covered in dense vegetation, should suitably compromise.
The mountain is a hulking limestone karst, which houses many hidden chambers, rocky outcrops and stalactites, formed by calcium carbonate solution. The largest cave is the home of an ancient red brick temple resting under a massive rock formation resembling an eagle.
According to Dr Vong Sotheara, a professor of history from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Phnom Chhngok Cave temple was probably erected during the 7th century, particularly within a pre-Angkorian era known as the Funan period in Cambodia, but Sotheara has no idea which Khmer king built it.
“The carving of Makara, a mythical sea-creature, with a gem in its mouth on the temple’s architrave is a characteristic of the pre-Ankorian Art style,” he says. “Archeologists have also found a 7th-century inscription in the area.”
Sotheara says that the temple was built to honour Shiva, a prominent Hindu god, since there is a rock shaped like a lingam, his sacred symbol. He adds the fact that the Phnom Chhngok Temple was built inside a cave which represents the yet-to-be-born baby living in its mother’s womb.
“One of my professors told me when I was a student that the temple was a sacred place, and it gives great power to pregnant women, allowing them to a kill a tree just by touching it,” Sotheara says. “I cannot be sure whether it is true or not but people have been going there to pray and meditate in peace and quiet.”
Michel Tranet, another historian, also believes in the sanctity of the temple.
“Cambodian people have been going there to pray for luck and happiness,” Tranet says. “The drops of water from the ceiling are the holy water that brings people good health and prosperity.”
To reach the temple can be a perplexing puzzle. Visitors have to walk on a meandering dirt path, parallel to a chain of paddy fields, to the ticket counter at the base of the mountain and then go up roughly 200 stone steps to reach the cave which contains the temple. The entry fee is $1 for an expat and is free for the local people.
Near the main chamber is a passageway that leads to the interior of the cave. The path is slippery and dark, and filled with boulders, a stalactite resembling the head of a cow, and there is a pond filled with cool water and some tiny fish.
Every day, tourists come to visit the temple, to look at the legacy of the unique ancient Khmer architects and explore the other caves in Phnom Chhngok. They also go to nearby Phnom Sorsia Hill Complex, which contains Bat cave, which is filled with by thousands of the creatures, and White Elephant cave, which contains an impressive Buddhist pagoda and a number of small underground chambers.
Before the muddy footpath to the base of mountains, groups of broken-English speaking schoolboys stand in line, armed with flashlights and leap at the chance to offer their tour guide service hoping to bring home some extra income.
“Tourists usually don’t explore the cave on their own so they hire us to guide them,” said 14-year-old Pich Dara, who comes to do his work when he does not have classes.
“I believe in the sacred temple because it always brings my family luck. Plus, thanks to it, I have the money to buy books, notebooks, and pens.”