Phnom Da is a low hill featuring a couple of well-preserved old temples and when combined with nearby Angkor Borei, it makes for a two- to three-hour boat tour.
The hill is around 30 kilometres’ or 45 minutes’ away by boat and while neither Phnom Da nor Angkor Borei would be worth a trip in their own right, combined and with the boat trip through picturesque scenery to get there and back, the trip is more than worthwhile. During the monsoon, water stretches as far as you can see in every direction, but the channel the boat takes, which leads dead straight and due east, is actually an all-year round human-made canal which was built during the Funan period; indeed the entire region is crisscrossed by a 1,500-2,000 year-old canal system, much of which is still in use today.
The Funan civilisation’s success was largely due to their ability to control the waters—marshes, channels and floodplains—of the upper Mekong Delta region they’d decided to make home. Some 2,000 years ago this region was a huge inhospitable swamp. A vast system of canals and reservoirs tamed the landscape, providing for drainage and irrigation when necessary as well as transportation of goods, passengers and troops. Canals radiated from their main port at Oc Eo, in what is today Vietnam, and spread into the interior to their inland capital at Angkor Borei. Archaeologists have identified canals up to nearly 100 kilometres in length. If you’re getting restless sitting in the speedboat just bear in mind that this entire landscape was created by people two millennia ago.
Settlements then grew up on and around the occasional sandstone hill that emerges from the watery land and ancient Chinese, trading with Funan, referred to its rulers as “kings of the mountains”. Any of the area’s hills is therefore an archaeological site, with Phnom Da being one of the best preserved and easily accessible.
The hill actually has two low peaks and you’ll see from a distance how it got its modern name Da, meaning breast in Khmer. You’ll disembark by a small tourist information and ticket office at the entrance to a small village. There probably won’t be any information or ticket collector, but they’ll find you at some stage for the $2 entrance fee. Take the track to the left around the foot of the hill, which leads you to a naga-lined staircase of recent design passing several cave shrines on its way to the top.
At the summit of the mercifully low hill, aside from the spectacular views you can glimpse through the rather overgrown vegetation, you’ll find a massive solitary laterite and brick tower. It’s in relatively good condition, though lacking much in the way of carvings as well as its top section. The temple was dedicated to Shiva and dates from a later period—probably 11th century—though you can tell from the piles of bricks lying around there would have been much earlier temples on the site.
Behind the tower another set of stairs leads down through the trees on the north side. Follow this down and bear left around the foot of the hill where at the bottom of the second small peak you’ll find another temple. Known as Ashram Maharose, this is a much more remarkable temple and of a much earlier date. This small square temple of unusual design dates to the late sixth century and the reign of Bhavarvarman I. In the interior of the sandstone structure a second wall was added, forming a central cell and leaving a narrow walkway within the interior between the two walls. There isn’t a lot of decoration but considering it is more than 1,500 years old, the Ashram is in excellent condition.
Even more amazing is that certain historians have identified the sandstone as originating in Kompong Cham province, suggesting that the temple was transported here in kit form and assembled in situ. The unusual layout is typical of a short period during the mid to late sixth century and to date three other similar sites have been identified. These are at Han Chey in Kompong Cham, Sambor Prei Kuk (north group) in Kompong Thom and at far off Wat Phu in Champasak, Laos. The latter site is considered Bhavarvarman I’s birthplace before he moved south with his followers to create a new capital at Sambor Prei Kuk.
The king is credited as being one of the founders of the Chenla Kingdom, which filled the power vacuum left by the decline in Funan during the sixth century and was the precursor to Angkor itself. From a historical point of view, this temple represents Bhavarvarman stamping his presence in the old Funan heartland and the shift in power from the old Mekong Delta trading ports to an inland kingdom dominated by ethnic Khmers. Again, if you’re finding a pile of old stones underwhelming, just bear in mind you’re looking at the cradle of Khmer civilisation here.
How to get there
Phnom Da is best approached by small speedboats seating up to four foreigners and costing a flat rate of $35, the boats leave from the eastern waterfront road close to Stoeng Takeo Restaurant. Be warned that the boats lack roofs or life jackets (most water is a maximum of waist-deep).
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 3rd February, 2017.
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