At its height, the Khmer Empire stretched far and wide across mainland Southeast Asia. In contemporary Cambodia, its former magnificence can be seen everywhere, and this is true for Phnom Penh and the surrounds. Near the capital are a number of Angkorian, and earlier era, monuments. Just south of Phnom Penh is one such place, Phnom Chisor.
To get to Phnom Chisor is straightforward by tuk tuk or taxi from Phnom Penh. The more intrepid traveller could hire a motorbike. But remember to take into account that it can be a dusty trip.
This mountain-top temple is located in Sia village, Rovieng commune, Samrong district, about 50 kilometres south of Phnom Penh or 27 kilometres north of Takeo town. The way from Phnom Penh is well sign-posted. To reach the temple, take National Road 2 to Bati district and Neang Khmao temple, or the temple of the Black Virgin, which is inside Wat Neang Khmao: it is easy to spot as it is next to the highway. This is an Angkorian temple, so stop and take a look.
Nearby, turn left at the sign for the site and head down the dirt road for about five kilometres. On the way, stop at the monk training centre which is at the bend of the road as you make the final turn to Phnom Chisor.
Phnom Chisor Temple
The temple is perched on a 130-metre-high solitary hill. So, when you visit be prepared for a long climb to the top. People usually climb the staircase on the west side of the mountain, which has about 400 steps and descend by the south-side staircase. The original set of stairs in front of the temple links the temple to an avenue which leads to the baray of Tonlé Om. The west staircase starts with a broad 7.5-metre entrance and narrows to 5 metres at the top. Look for etchings of rabbits, elephants and other animals in the concrete as you climb the long staircase.
Also, try to get to Phnom Chisor early in the morning or late in the afternoon, as it is a sweaty climb in the heat of the midday sun. As you scale the mountain, you’ll pass other visitors taking a breather on the ascent to the temple, in fact, quit a few. Once you get to the top take a deep breath, there is a lot to take in for a smallish temple.
At the top, you’ll be hit with a $2 entrance fee for foreigners. Phnom Chisor is also very popular with locals, especially during festivals and on weekends when it gets very crowded. So, it is best visited during the week.
The main temple stands on the eastern side of the hilltop. It was built in the early 11th century by King Suryavarman I, who ruled from AD1002 to AD1050. This king practised Brahmanism, and he dedicated the temple to the Hindu divinities Shiva and Vishnu. The original name of the temple was Sri Suryaparvata, “The mountain of Surya” or “The mountain of the Sun”.
Phnom Chisor is constructed of sandstone, laterite and bricks with carved sandstone lintels. The complex is surrounded by partially ruined walls and a 2.5-metre-wide gallery with windows. Inscriptions found here date from the 11th century. The temple is 60 meters long and 50 meters wide and the surrounding structure is in fact two galleries. The first gallery is 60 meters long on each side. The second, smaller gallery, is in the middle, where there is the main worship place with two doors and a wooden statue. There are exquisite sculptures on the lintels and pillars.
Apart from three entrances to the east, and three to the west, the outer walls are closed. The principal entrance is to the east. Inside are six towers, a mandapa, and two fire shrines. The towers open to the east, the fire shrines open to the west. It was built on a typical Angkorian east-west axis.
Tonle Om Lake
In front of the temple, a set of stairs link the temple to Sen Chhmos temple, Sen Phouvang temple and Tonlé Om, a lake considered sacred by Brahmans and used for washing away sins. All three of these form a straight line from the pond to Phnom Chisor in the direction of Angkor. During rituals held 900 years ago, the king, his Brahmans and their entourage would climb the steps to the temple from this direction. These original steps are rarely used these days. It is possible to visit these places, and this is where a motorbike or tuk tuk come in handy.
A view from the top
From the top of the mountain there are superb views of the countryside. Stretching out in front of you is Takeo Province with its rice fields, rivers and lakes. The view is best during the rainy season when the rice fields are green, and there is a lot of water and clouds.
After descending the steps from the temple, local vendors have stalls, complete with mats and hammocks, set up and ready to serve food. A favourite dish is lean free-range fried chicken or the light and lemon-grassy soup.
There is also a mountain cave, Vimean Chan, located about 150 meters south of the temple. It is a quiet place for Brahmans or ascetics to meditate. During the Vietnam war, the USA bombed the site, dislodging several large rocks that have blocked the entrance to the cave.
After Phnom Chisor
If after a visit to Phnom Chisor you feel like visiting some other places then head to Takeo town. This out-of-the-way place is rarely visited by foreigners but has a surprising number of places on interest: Khmer Rouge’s Ta Mok’s prison, Phnom Da and you can try the delicious freshwater prawns. There are also other places of interest in the area such as Yeay Peau temple and a wildlife sanctuary. Check it out.