Few visitors venture to the spectacular hilltop temples of Takeo province, which provide a quiet window into the region’s fascinating past
The pre-dawn light picks out the edges of clouds emerging from the indigo night. Soon, a beached cargo boat nestled in a blanket of water hyacinth is revealed. Behind the vessel’s high prow, an arrow-straight canal shoots off across the floodplain of the Mekong. And out toward the dawn, perched on a faraway hill, stands our first destination of the day: the 11th-Century brick temple of Phnom Da.
We’re in Takeo town, at the edge of the Mekong Delta – 39,000 square kilometres of billiard-table-flat landscape spread across Vietnam and Cambodia. Roads are less practical here, the annual rise and fall of floodwaters defining their functionality. Canals and watercourses crisscross the landscape, taking the place of tarmac. Soon, even the banks of this canal will be under two metres of water.
After a couple of false starts, the driver fires up the engine of our long-tailed boat and we speed off down the canal for the one-hour trip toward Phnom Da. Despite the early hour, the waterways are teeming with life. A fisherman heads to market with his catfish catch, a boat filled with Cham Muslims branches off down a side channel and a grinning farmer in
a wide floppy hat steers a craft with a motorised plough strapped to the deck.
Between these encounters there is a sense of peace. A light mist softens the edges of the view and the reflections of trees reach towards us. Egrets flap along, flying low across the seasonal rice fields.
A couple of sharp turns into smaller canals take us nearer to our destination. The banks come closer and the vegetation becomes thicker. As the boat slows to negotiate a bamboo fish trap, kingfishers dart around, the morning light catching their vivid blue plumage.
We tie up next to a bridge and head uphill by foot, a cement path leading the way through woodland dotted with the unexpected stems of flowering cacti. Halfway up the slope stands the basalt hulk of Asram Moha Russei, a sandstone hermit’s shelter dating from 700CE, which shows similarities to temples in far away Java, Indonesia.
Though we are hundreds of kilometres from the spectacle of Angkor Wat, this area is rich with history. Man has traversed its environs as far back as the Neolithic period and the region was home to the pre-Angkorian kingdoms of Funan and Chenla during the first millennium. Indeed, just across the border in Vietnam lies the Funan-era archaeological site of Oc Eo, where artefacts from Chinese, Indian and Roman civilisations have been found, revealing its importance as an entrepôt on the ancient Silk Road.
On top of the hill ringed by flame trees sits the red-brown mass of Phnom Da temple itself. Initially constructed in the 6th Century and rebuilt in the 11th, the majority of its best carvings have been carted off to collections in Phnom Penh, Paris and beyond. But it is still a delight, with flowery decorative flourishes and a graduated base and roof. Although an important historical site, the temple receives but a small fraction of the visitor numbers beating a path to the temples of Angkor.
Even fewer tourists make the trip to Phnom Bayong, the next temple on our agenda, which lies an hour away from Takeo by car. The base of the hill it stands on is easily accessible by road but from there it is a hot, hour-long hike to the 300-metre-high summit. For the less enthusiastic, it can also be reached via a 10-minute motorbike ride on a sandy trail.
At the top, you are in the trees. Animist shrines lie at the base of steep laterite stairs. Atop one flight sits a pair of shacks, one occupied by a couple of old women selling chunks of crystal hewn from the rocks. The weathered end of a five-headed naga (mythical snake) balustrade is adorned with a white sash, the burnt ends of incense sticks revealing the reverence of the local people.
Up one more short flight and visitors are greeted by a stone walkway leading to the main temple, completed in 635CE. Red hibiscus plants and a broken colonnade, strewn with strings of coloured flags, line the way to a low door in the side of the 12-metre-high tower. Toothless old men guard the shrine’s entrance. Although heavily damaged, weathered and sprouting foliage, the tower remains an impressive sight. Lichen adds a greenish-blue hue to the laterite and brick structure. The morning sun casts shadows, making it easier to pick out the friezes of deities adorning the walls. White butterflies flit between the stones and the trees.
There is a feeling of being on top of the world. On all sides the terrain drops away steeply, particularly to the east where one can perch atop the vertiginous cliffs that can be easily spotted from the road below.
A short walk from the temple lies a flat area of rock, the perfect place to relax and take in the view of the delta. The forested slopes quickly give way to a horizontal waterworld of rice fields, rivers and canals that recedes to the horizon. Just a few kilometres away lies the border with Vietnam, in the opposite direction rises the Kirivong range of hills, used in the past century as a hideout for anti-Royalist rebels, Viet Cong troops and Khmer Rouge cadre alike.
Today, though, all is tranquil. The memories of modern conflicts are receding, taking their place in the long queue of other eras that have made their mark on this area’s history.
On the way down, another temple guardian turns over topsoil with a hoe, ready to plant some vegetables. He waves us goodbye and we begin our journey back to the relative modernity of Phnom Penh, leaving the verdant vegetation and expansive vistas behind.
Though travellers can visit the area independently, our trip was organised by Hanuman Tourism. The organisation can arrange bespoke itineraries to Phnom Da and Phnom Bayong, including taxis, boats and guides. Contact them via hanuman.travel.com