CAMBODIA TALES 1998
Phnom Chisor Beckons
On my travels, I'd heard nice things said about Phnom Chisor and suggested to Sothy, my Khmer guide, that we should give it a try. "No problem" was his reply and we set off early one morning with Serey, our driver. Over the Chbam Pao bridge and out of Phnom Penh, we passed through the industrial Takhmau district and bumped southwards along National Highway number 2. It was hot and dusty, isn't it always, but the traffic was light and we made good progress. In a re-run of a trip to Oudong the day before, we passed by a suprising number of brand new temples at varying stages of construction. At the 35 kilometre mark, we noted the turn off to the popular weekend retreat of Tonle Bati, promising to return later in the day.
Twenty kilometres further on and without any warning, we left the road and pulled into the grounds of a modern wat and school. Immediately I realised why. Ahead of me were two ancient and crumbling brick towers, sandwiched between much more recently built temple buildings (above). Sothy explained that Prasat Neang Khmau or 'the Temple of the Black Lady' was a tenth century sanctuary, housing painted frescoes although the door to the best-preserved and taller of the two towers was locked. Unable to find the keyholder, we were left to admire the delicately carved lintels above the doorframes (left) before moving on. After a couple of kilometres, Sothy pointed out our final destination, a prominent hill in the distance and we took a left turn onto a dusty dirt road. Four kilometres further on, we arrived at the foot of the hill, where a handful of local women, their heads wrapped in colourful kramas, were chipping away at a pile of rocks by hand. I didn't envy them their task in the searing heat. Sothy directed me to a cement pavilion topped with a miniature replica of an Angkor-style tower and behind it, a wide staircase weaving its way up the 100 metre high ridge.
Fifteen minutes later, both of us emerged at the top of Phnom Chisor out of breath and in need of a rest. However, the view from our vantage point made our efforts worthwhile. Looking out from the western side of the hill, the pancake flat plains of Takeo province stretched out before us with only Phnom Chambok, a few kilometres to our right, slightly obscuring an otherwise breathtaking panoramic view of the countryside. Refreshed, both mentally and physically, the path led us on through the grounds of a modern Buddhist wat and alongside the partially ruined wall of the gallery surrounding the main temple. Turning a corner, I was again presented with a terrific view of the flood plain below. At the edge of the escarpment is the main eastern entrance of the 11th century Phnom Chisor temple. Laid out on the plain below, are the remains of two processional laterite gateways (Sen Thmol and Sen Ravang) and a sacred pond known as Tonle Om, all three forming a straight line up to the entrance of the main shrine, reminiscent of the Khmer temple at Wat Phu in Southern Laos.
Phnom Chisor was originally built by King Suryavarman I, who reigned for 47 years from 1002. To establish his authority he ordered the consecration of four major temple sites including the magnificent Preah Vihear in the north and Phnom Chisor in the south of present-day Cambodia. It was then known as Suryadri, 'the Mountain of the Sun' and was dedicated to Brahma, 'the Creator of the Universe'. The main temple has been altered several times since but still retains a great deal of its former glory, even surviving a 1973 bombing raid by US aircraft. As we walked through the eastern entrance pavilion, we were joined by a couple of youngsters, a boy and a girl, who were to be our constant companions for the next hour. In all that time, however hard we tried, they streadfastly refused to speak but did accept my offer of balloons and badges with beaming smiles.
Restoration work by the French earlier this century has been rewarded with a collection of intricate carvings, sturdy brickwork and Khmer inscriptions. The main sanctuary, two libraries and four towers are of a brick and laterite construction with some splendid sandstone lintels in situ above the doorways. The wooden doors of the main building are uniquely decorated with carvings of figures standing on the backs of pigs, whilst inside are countless statues of Buddha, gaily decorated with flags and banners. Although crumbling in places, the laterite walls of the roofless gallery are imbedded with inward-facing windows with naga heads, pediments and other sculptured pieces haphazardly sprinkled on the floor of this compact site. Leaving the temple, we climbed a few steps to yet another modern pagoda undergoing construction (left) before leaving the hill altogether by the steeper western stairway, 348 steps in all. At the bottom, our two young companions left us with a wave and a smile and scuttled off to a school classroom nearby. We rejoined Serey and our air-conditioned car for the return journey to Phnom Penh, stopping en-route for a picnic at the well-preserved Angkorean temple of Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati.
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