Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The view from Phnom Chisor

We were in the car and out of town on National Highway No 2 before 8am on Sunday morning. It was P'chum Ben and a long holiday weekend so traffic was relatively light and it was a quick 45 minutes before we turned off onto a dirt road that headed straight towards a looming 'phnom' (hill) between rice paddys. We bumped laboriously along the road slowing to pass riel notes to sets of small children who raced from under the shade of trees to dump hoe lots of dirt into ruts and puddles to 'smooth' our way.

The bottom of the 500 or so steps to the temple on the top of Chisor is marked by platformed shacks stocked with bottles of water, cans of syrupy soft drink, a variety of barbequed titbits and -bizzarely I thought- chewing gum. Most of the evidence of the gum scattered around the path and through the surrounding trees was the distinctive green Wrigglys wrapper and it's silver backed lining and not the chewed part. Do Cambodians swallow the actual gum?

Like Odong the top of the Phnom is reached by climbing about 500 steps under the dappled shade of the hills trees. Less touristy than Odong, the climb up Chisor could be made without the constant chatter of Cambodia's youngest members of the workforce as they padded up beside you 'guiding' for 'one dollar'. There were, however, a few kids at odd intervals who stuck out their little hands and said simply, 'sumoney' - which I would have gladly given had they picked up some of the rubbish that carpeted the forest floor. We handed a dollar instead to a blind man sitting cross legged and chanting under a canopy about halfway up the steps.

Arrival at the top of Phnom Chisor came without fanfare, the steps just stopped on a flat stretch, the view obscured by trees. This was not, it seemed, quite the top. To the left, on a knoll, was a small wat with story painted walls. We took our shoes off and walked around the veranda drinking in the breeze and finally a view but still couldn't see Phnom Chisor's ancient temple.

'Look more stairs', I nudged.

We backtracked the few steps to the top of the original climb and, after paying our $2USD each, collected a 'Visitting ticket for foreigner'.

'Takeo tourism office would like to thank you the customer your support for the maintaining PHNOM CHISO site and take care for sanitation environment'.

The stairs to the left of the ticket seller led to another little sanctuary, a stupa and a flat cleared area with a large ceremonial pool filled with green opaque water(in the foreground of the picture above), a small shrine containing a concrete boy and his cow, a gold painted statue a typically Khmer style roof protecting it from the hot sun and a small round empty pool containing two entwined concrete hooded naga (just seen in the far right of the photo). It has been pretty difficult to find out anything about these particular structures.

Here is the boy and his cow, Prasat Preah Ko Preah Kaew, who were according to one legend the off spring of a woman who gave birth to them after she fell out of a mango tree presumably in the area.

The many shrines or spirit houses, called Neak Ta, that you see around temple compounds, in fields and in villages, are not strictly a part of Buddhism but rather animist beliefs that have become so intwined with Cambodian Buddhist beliefs the result often resembles a new kind of Buddhism. The rituals and practises surrounding P'chum Ben, for example, are not all Buddhist but take place in the grounds of the wat under the guidance of the monks.

This Neak Ta was within the crumbling ancient temple walls of Phnom Chisor's 11th century temple. The shrines of Neak Ta contain at least one statue- the words 'neak ta' mean an old man- as well as other objects that represent land, water and spirit elements such as incense. Some even have carved bits of one of Cambodia's many ancient temple ruins. People visit these places with a mixture of fear and reverence to make offerings to ask for protection and good luck.

Originally known as Sun Mountain, Suryadri, (or Suryagiri) Phnom Chisor was used in the eleventh century by Suryavarman I to build Prasat Boran to house one of four sacred linga he installed at temples on the boundaries of his kingdom. Constructed of pitted but eternally durable laterite, bricks and the more readily carvable sandstone for lintels the temple stands on the eastern most side of the 'mountain'.

It's partially ruined walls dotted with large square windows and gopuras surround a two and a half meter wide gallery which houses a variety of sanctuaries and parts of now decayed structures.

The inside like many of the other structures on Phnom Chisor were decorated for P'chum Ben with gold paper and fabric banners and pendants.

Sadly the inner courtyard smelled like a public toilet in a rarely used railway station and watching where one placed their foot was all too necessary. The reason for the 'sanitation' message on the ticket was immediately and consistently evident although I doubt it was the 'foreigners' who were responsible for the desecration of a still sacred site.

The double east wall has a gopura (gate or doorway) and two gate houses leading out onto a gloriously unobscurred view across the green (it's the rainy season) plains of Cambodia and onwards to the boarder with Vietnam.

At the bottom of the steep steps is a sacred pool, Tonl Om and two other temples. The closer and more wrecked Sen Thmol and even further to the east, Sen Ravang.

During rituals held here nine hundred years ago the King his brahmans and entourage would approach Prasat Boran, on top of the phnom, using these much more precipitous steps rather than the more gentle approach taken by most of todays visitors facing west- the direction of Angkor Wat.

Phnom Chisor was teemimg with people, mostly local Khmer, thanks to the holiday but it is also a modern Buddhist compound complete with monks quarters and a school classroom. We bought some 'vi', pronounced 'vee' (the Samoan name- I can never remember what the Cambodian word for them is), like a hard green pear, which the woman skined and scored to make easier to eat and strolled around the rest of the compound.

Past a doorway neatly laid with shoes of the faithful who were being blessed in quiet rhythmic tones inside...

... and the monks quarters.

A reclining new Buddha watched over by a nun in white and a gold painted Buddha sitting on a naga in the middle of a lotus pond.

We made our way back down the steps to the car in the now much hotter midday sun thankful we had made the early morning start.


Natalie said...

Beautifully researched and informative! I hope someday to see these places.

Shalini said...

Sounds like a really lovely exploration.