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Phnom Chisor

A rarely visited but well-preserved mountain-top temple in southern Cambodia

While the majority of the best-known and, of course, most frequently visited, Angkorean temples are situated in Siem Reap province and northwestern Cambodia, the well-preserved, hill-top sanctuary of Phnom Chisor, located in the opposite – southeastern – region of the country, is a reminder of the geographical extent of these fabulous ancient temples.

Spectacular and often still intact, ancient Khmer temples are scattered far and wide across Southeast Asia – corresponding to the extent of the medieval Angkorean empire – including sites such as Wat Phu in present-day southern Laos, Phanom Rung and Phimai in eastern Thailand (Isan) and UNESCO-listed Preah Vihear on the Cambodia-Thai border as well as literally thousands of smaller ruins and temples. Both the former and the latter are thankfully now classified as World Heritage sites with Phanom Rung on the tentative list and all do see a trickle of foreign visitors. Additional sites in modern-day Thailand are found as far north as Si Satchanalai, west to Muang Sing (Kanchanaburi Province) and south to Phetchaburi.

Thailand World Heritage Phnom Rung
The spectacular Phanom Rung Temple in eastern Thailand

Regrettably, however, many of these sites – including Phnom Chisor – which, traffic-permitting, sits only a 2-hour drive from Phnom Penh – see very few tourists. The early 11th-century, sandstone and brick sanctuary, generally assigned to the reign of King Suryavarman I, is located atop the eponymously named hill, commanding spectacular views of the surrounding area. The landscape is flat, paddy fields as far as the horizon, dotted with the occasional sandstone outcrop. Phnom Da – site of the earliest known pre-Angkorean capital at Angkor Borei, (assigned to the Funan culture) – is visible to the south while views to the east stretch across the Bassac and, on a clear day, Mekong Rivers as far as Vietnam.

Phnom Chisor
Looking east along the ancient road

The temple appears to have been the focal point of a large, fortified settlement and stretches of a surrounding moat and embankments are still clearly discernable to the east. An ancient track leads from the foot of a vertiginous flight of laterite steps on the eastern side of the temple across the ancient settlement site to a causeway over the moat. Beyond the moat, the ancient path leads to a reservoir – presumably serving the ancient settlement site – while immediately to the west is a still-standing temple known as Prasat Sen Thmol which served as the gopura or entrance to the city. Along the same axis, and close to the foot of the steps, another, relatively well-preserved temple, Prasat Sen Rovieng, reveals laterite walls with decorative sandstone elements and carved lintels.

Prasat Sen Thmol
1000 year old lintel at Prasat Sen Thmol

While the main site of Prasat Phnom Chisor receives few enough visitors, these ancillary temples with their 1000-year-old carvings see virtually zero.

The temple itself is relatively small and somewhat architecturally confused with a large number of structures tightly squeezed into a tiny, flat, hill-top area enclosed by a laterite gallery. A series of towers within the central section is tightly packed with little or no space between adjacent shrines and show differing states of repair and even occasionally differing architectural styles. While the overall layout and decorative features certainly suggest an early 11th-century style, (classified as the Khleang art style), it is likely that certain elements pre-date and possibly post-date the principal construction period.

The interior of the central courtyard is a confusing jumble of brick and laterite structures

The main entrance is to the east with a secondary gopura in the west while pairs of ‘side doors’ also feature in the east and west walls. Fortuitously, a large number of lintels and carved elements have survived – many in situ with come now on the ground. The majority of these are what is termed ‘heraldic’, featuring a single deity surrounded by floral patterns, rather than ‘pictorial’ designs which depict mythological events or – as seen in later period temples – historical and even everyday scenes.

Heraldic lintel depicting a seated deity above the head of the demon Kala

As such a single, invariably small, seated deity is hard if not impossible to identify although a pediment with Shiva and Uma mounted on the sacred bull and lintels with Indra on Airavata and Krishna raising Mount Govardhan as well as defeating the naga Kaliya are all readily discernable. Additional figures are likely to represent Yama, god of the underworld, and Vishvakarma – the ‘architect of the gods’.

A popular lintel subject - Krishna defeating Kaliya
A popular lintel subject – Krishna defeating Kaliya

It is a bit of a climb to reach the summit but there’s no rush and the views as well as the ancient vestiges make it well worthwhile. Phnom Chisor is featured in both our Beyond Angkor tour as well as our 4-day Kep and Kampot extension.