Somewhere beneath the dense canopy of the jungle, along the ridge of a mountain that marks Cambodia’s at times tense border with Thailand, lives a man…a man who hasn’t descended into the valley or villages below since the day he established his residence here; in a hand-chiseled cave in the rocky cliffside of the majestic Dangrek Mountain Range some 40 years ago.
(Apologies - images blurred for privacy and safety reasons.)
He’s a frail but healthy looking 63 year-old, who sits calmly, with his hands neatly folded over his knees as he gently sways back and forth on a black hammock tied to two thick branches planted firmly into the bouldered soil beneath his flip flops.
I slowly step forward, join my palms high up in front of my chest and bow down to this mysterious man. He kindly returns the gesture.
Located near an escarpment at about 500 meters above ground level, “he carved all of this by hand over four decades” I’m told by my friend and translator, Sopheak, as I marvel at the magnitude and beauty of a cave that stretches about 15 meters in width, a meter and a half in height, and about six meters in depth.
“This wasn’t here before” he says as I continue to gasp in amazement.
The man, whose name I need to withhold to protect his privacy and safety, was a once a soldier who escaped the massacre and bloodshed of the Khmer Rouge during its horrific rampage of this beautiful country and its people in the 1970s. He ran in and up this mountain range, and has been here ever since.
“I have a family” he tells us, but he hasn’t seen or spoken to his wife and children since their separation during the war. “Our good fortune ran out” he says.
While much of his personal history remains unknown, given that he has also chosen to live much of it in silence, he’s highly respected, by some - revered, and unofficially cared for and protected by a small unit of the Cambodian military border patrol that set up camp within a mere few meters from his cave and modest herb and pineapple garden.
“They share their food supplies with him” Sopheak explains as a group of four armed soldier rest next to their Kalashnikovs in their camouflaged wooden shack where we continue to talk. “He’s also seen as somewhat of a shaman here…he knows a lot, after reflecting on life for this long you know” he says, “Khmer people hike up to see him sometimes for advice, sometimes for healing.”
We met one such person on our way up; a 20-something year old man struggling to make his way down a steep trail after his visit with the solitary man - limping, barefooted, clearly suffering from pain as he paused for just a brief moment to rest and show us an odd puncture wound oozing with pus (possibly caused by a venomous spider or plant) on his severely swollen foot. “He hopes his visit with the hermit will help heal his foot” says Sopheak.
It was at that moment that I realized that I was about to meet an incredible human being…a man of few words - whose actions speak louder than most.
“I chose this life because I cannot bare the hatred,
violence and pain that man is capable of”
he said, alone, pensive, and at peace as he sat in his cave - as he’s done since he was 23 years old…helping those who seek his help, while clearly sending a message that this world needs to change.
I took one last look at this incredible man in the cave, pondering and admiring his unwavering commitment to simply being - thoughtful, meditative and at peace…moments before being thrust back into reality as we were ushered and escorted by armed soldiers towards the summit of a mountain that remains littered with land mines and tension that continues to plague this region, and this man’s mountain, until this very day.