Although “Phnom” normally is translated as “mountain,” it is something of an exaggeration to term Phnom Chisor (also spelled “Chiso”) as other than “Chisor Hill.”
That said, the hike under the noonday sun up approximately 400 laterite steps to the temple at the peak last Sunday was a true challenge. It left virtually all of our ragged band of more than two dozen hikers pausing and panting at numerous intervals as they hauled themselves up.
Some 62 kilometers, or 38.5 miles, from Phnom Penh, the temple was built a millennium ago, and the years have not been kind.
Travel agent Mai Channeang has been offering hikes to areas outside Phnom Penh every two weeks for years, but I’ve just tuned into them; this one was my first. He charges $16 for the chartered-bus ride, a virtual Khmer banquet for lunch and his spare guidespeak. To my mind, that’s darn good value for nearly a full day’s experience.
My friend Amanda had been on two or three of the excursions and characterized them as more like walks than than strenuous hikes. Not so this one.
On the way down by a different route with steps easier to navigate, we passed a jumble of enormous boulders with sheer sides covering a cave. Locals call these massive slabs a crocodile because two of the things are angled so as to suggest the creature’s open mouth. Not knowing how the collection of stones, which mystified me, came to be, I unfortunately failed to photograph them. However, I subsequently found online an illuminating short description of Phnom Chisor and there learned how the blocks came to exist:
In addition, there is 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 Americans’ war with Vietnam, the site was bombed, dislodging several large rocks that block the entrance to the cave today.
Had I known, I would have photographed them. Had I been able to locate images of them online, readers might have thought them to be intriguing, too. Sorry.
The two photos on top of the three immediately below show pretty much where the hike started. When we saw the hill in the distance, one of our group said that must be where we are going. “Oh no,” I replied, “that’s too far.” I was wrong: The temple is on the top of that hill.
The ruins below are of another historic structure, this one in the middle of the rice fields on the way to the hill. The frescoes are certainly not original.
We walked and walked some more to reach the hill, on the summit of which you might be able to make out the speck that was our destination. The fellow with the hat is the travel agent who organizes the excursions. Typical of Cambodians, he covers up to avoid getting brown, which is associated here with farm life and a poor segment of the population.
Phnom Penh is one of only two hills rising improbably on the plains that surround it in the province of Takeo. Although I asked their origins, no one could explain their presence like dusky Sno Balls on a banquet table.
The ancient carving below was created on one of the sandstone lintels found elsewhere on the site, but the structure is at the foot of the hill. The building materials were otherwise laterite, which only resembles volcanic rock, and brick.
Our ascent began in the near distance, framed in the photo below and progressing upward via steps that grew improbably high. They are fashioned of laterite, characteristic of Angkor-era temples.
Evident below is the toll that the centuries have exacted on all the surviving structures. There is virtually no hope that they will be reconstructed and no indication of a serious attempt to preserve them.
Because the wall tilts as such an extreme angle, we strolled trepidatiously through the narrow space in the image on the left below. Outside, right, it is especially clear how perilously the wall leans. None of us could figure out why it hasn’t tumbled.
Lunch at last, our reward for surviving the climb. As shown, service began modestly yet quickly threatened to overwhelm the platforms, which are standard at recreational destinations. However, our platforms lacked hammocks such as those enjoyed by the Cambodians beyond us. (A third of our contingent was across the way, also bereft of hammocks.)
The temple blends Vishnu and Buddha. Buddhism is Cambodia’s official religion, but it is practiced in a hybrid form.
The plaque notes the United States contribution to a temple reached up yet more steps on the way back to our bus and thus ignored after a strenuous morning. The pools now filled with lotus flowers are close by. Can you spot the lone blossom in the large photo?
Yep, graffiti is everywhere in the world, the ones below appear near the “crocodile” collection of boulders.