I love Angkor Wat, just not the large amount of tourist that lingers there, packed together like sardines in a can, where breathing fresh air is a luxury. I prefer to get off the beaten track, to feel more like an ancient explorer, not a tourist. Lucky for me, 50km from Phnom Penh lays a hidden gem from Khmer history, older than Angkor Wat, and relatively unknown to tourists; Phnom Chisor Temple, also known as Sri Suryaparvata or Suyagiri (Mountain of the Sun God) in the Angkorian period.
Ascending The Mountain of the Sun God
Although it is named Mountain of the Sun God, it was not dedicated to the Sun god Surya but to Shiva the destroyer, and Vishnu the maintainer, or preserver of creation. The name “Surya” is an abbreviation of the founder’s name, Suryavarman I. He ruled Angkor during the first half of the 11th century, and was one of the most significant Kings in the Khmer history —he contributed much to the development of Preah Vihear in northern Cambodia.
Cambodia Travel Guide: Exploring Phnom Chisor Temple
Ascending 390 steps that lead towards Phnom Chisor Temple in sweltering late afternoon heat is a mission, but the serene atmosphere of the ruin and the rare view of the surrounding countryside from the mountaintop make the effort well worth it. Standing on the edge of the steep cliff, you can see other remains of Phnom Chisor surrounded by fields and fields of rice paddy.
The main temple that stands on the eastern side of the hilltop is constructed of laterite, a reddish clayey material, and brick with carved sandstone lintels.
Like most Angkorian temple built under King Suryavarman I, during a period when Angkorian Empire was powerful and on the rise, this temple is Hindu. Dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu, scenes depicting Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu are visibly carved on some of the sandstone lintels and pediments, many still in great condition. Taken by this ruin, I spent much more time up here than planned, enjoying the views and studying every carving of the temple.
Once I was done playing an archaeologist, it only took a few steps to reach an interesting modern temple. Prasat Preah Ko Preah Keo, or the Sacred Ox and Sacred Gem temple, is dedicated to two brothers of legend, one an ox and the other a man, believed by the locals to bring peace and prosperity to the area. There are more than 12 temples gracing this mountaintop, and many of these ancient temples are still active; Buddhists make regular pilgrimages on religious occasions. Walking around the area, you will be able to see monks’ quarters and their school. Unique carvings decorate the door of the main temple, and finely detailed carvings of Hindu deities can still be seen on the towers, and at the libraries.
Cambodia Travel Guide: How to Get to Phnom Chisor
Phnom Penh and Takeo province are linked by the National Highway No 2, which remains in reasonable condition with a few potholes. There are regular bus services and in theory at least one of these buses could drop you off at the turnoff for Phnom Chisor which is a good 1.5 km from the main road along an unmade road. However, the most convenient way to reach Phnom Chisor is by taxi. Standard fare for a taxi between Phnom Penh and Takeo is $30-35 for the whole car or $5 per person for a shared one. You can usually find taxis from Phnom Penh in Phsar Daum Ko or Psar Leu.
There is an admission charge for foreigners, which you find out about once you reach the top of the stairs. There are two sets of steps (stairs), climb the staircase on the west side of the mountain, which has 390 steps, and descend the south staircase, which has 408 steps. Under no circumstances try to use the pre-Angkor era stairs as they are very steep, and you could break your neck or worse. You may notice that the staircase leading up to Phnom Chisor are set up in a straight line. This perfect line points directly to the giant temple of Angkor Wat, which is 300 miles away.