It was late afternoon and I had just returned from Bokor national park, the trip which turned out to be quite a bakar (dud). Though I wouldn’t complain the ride was fun, particularly the bit at the end where I had to rush to get to the petrol pump. The Honda motor bike I had rented guzzled fuel like a seasoned drunkard.
Since, I was spared with almost half a day with nothing much to do, I decided to head to Phnom Chhnork. It was one of the many caves thrown open to tourists. The Phnom Chhnork cave houses a Shiva temple built somewhere in the 7th century. Though, I had no idea what to expect really but the whole concept of a Hindu temple in a rural mountain of Buddhist country was quite intriguing. I was in.
I kick started my (rented) Honda and 123… Go.
You might think that it went all smooth and all but here is the caveat, I didn’t know how to reach there. I mean, I knew the cave was situated on an offshoot road of the NH33 which goes to the popular beach town of Kep, but that’s that. Where do I go off from the road? Is there any trekking involved? How long the hike takes?
I fired the Google map and followed the direction. I drove as fast as I could on the dirt road, it was getting dark. The bright blue sky began to fade as violet and purple lights began to dominate. The countryside looked even more scenic, the farms and the farmers, the sounds of cowbells, the children waving from a distance and wave of cool crisp air gushing inside my helmet.
After riding for about 45 minutes, I finally reached on the road from which the trail starts but it was all so confusing in the dark with no signs anywhere.
“Do you want a guide?” Asked a young girl of age around 11-12 who approached out of nowhere, seeing my confusion,
“Maybe” I replied smiling.
We negotiated a price, and boy did she drove a hard bargain?
She helped me park the vehicle and in no time I was surrounded by a bunch of kids. All shouting in Cambodian mixed with broken English words. A little one pulled my shirt while two other hopped on the mobike.
My little guide led the way and I followed her like a sheep; I tried to hurry up the kids (who kept on asking my name) as it was getting darker every passing minute.
I had to cross a small canal on nothing but a narrow piece of log. An imbalance, a slip and you’d go straight into the water. You’d not drown or anything if you slip but would be super soaked. Children giggled as I crossed the log with carefully measured steps of Ballerina and then they came running after me to the other side. Kids, huh?
The bunch left me near the mountain and the girl pointed me in the general direction. I climbed up the short flight of stairs, only to descend into a dark cave. There was absolute silence around, it was all so deafening.
I switched on the flashlight, from the top of the stairs it wasn’t possible to see the bottom. I had a weird feeling run up in my stomach, but I shook it and marched on.
Toward the right of the entrance of the cave stood a small temple, an old red brick structure. I removed my shoes and went inside. I moved my flashlight around and was stunned by what I saw. There, right at the center was a natural rock Shivling about couple of feet or so high. The Shivaling looked natural, seemingly a part of the cave itself.
It was soaked in water, perhaps people still came here to pray. But a Hindu God in Buddhist country?
I shone my flashlight on the ceiling and was completely taken aback, it wasn’t at all something I expected. How could it be even possible?
Phnom Chhnork was considered to be a very old temple, how could it then still retain its old charm? From the ceiling hung a stalactite from which water dripped slowly on the Shiva ling. Magnificent view! Undoubtedly, if it were in India, this would have been a major pilgrimage site.
I spent some more time taking in the beauty before offering my prayers and taking off.
Kids had already left and I got lost in the dark. I followed some random path and eventually found myself near the house where I parked my motor bike. The kids surrounded me once again, their energy was so infectious.
I paid the little girl an extra tip, and emptied my pockets for anything I could find to eat and gave them to the other kids.
I kick started the motorbike… 1 2 3 … Go.
The kids ran after my motorbike for a while, waving goodbyes and shouting with joy. This can’t be the country torn apart by decades of war; Cambodia was all about smiles and so many happy faces everywhere.
PS: In Google map you can check the exact point from where the trail starts. The map is 100% accurate.