The view from the pre-Angkorian temple atop Chisor Mountain in Takeo province is breathtaking, stretching beyond the double-peaked Chambab Mountain, surrounding villages, lake and river.
But the view is too often marred by the sight of one thing: Trucks carrying off broken rocks, and with them the hope of preserving this cultural heritage site.
However, tourism and local industries could revive the impoverished surrounding villages and provide for the preservation of the site, which, at just over an hour’s drive south of Phnom Penh, is an easy day trip for visitors.
The Phnom Chisor temple has survived, albeit with substantial damage due to the wear of time and destruction of warfare, since it was built under King Suryavarman I, who reigned between AD 1002 and 1049. Suryavarman I, who also built many temples in the city of Angkor in Siem Reap province and elsewhere in the kingdom 100 years before the construction of Angkor Wat, dedicated Phnom Chisor to Shiva and Vishnu.
There is a comfortable new path up the mountain, but travelers in search of a more authentic experience can approach from the east as people have for a millennium.
Walking with the Tonle Oum Lake to their backs as they pass the small Sen Rovaing and Sen Thmoul temples, travelers quickly reach a stone staircase on the eastern slope. It leads to the temple, beginning at a slight incline but becoming increasingly steep.
One traveler climbs both hand and foot approaching the summit.
Inside the small complex of brick, sandstone and laterite ruins are carvings that often only hint at the stories they once told in their entirety. They include Shiva birthing Brahma and a churning ocean of milk, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Vishnu and the monkey king of the Ramayana join lions, three-headed elephants and a rare depiction of Shiva with only two hands.
One way Unesco is trying to preserve the temple is by reinvigorating traditional arts, including pottery, silk weaving and Bassac theater, providing locals with an alternative to quarrying the side of Chisor Mountain as a way to earn a living when they aren’t cultivating their rice.
Chunlot Dei village had a thriving community of potters before the Khmer Rouge regime, but the tradition had all but disappeared before Unesco began work to revive the art form, said Tamara Teneishvili, Unesco program specialist.
“I would like to resurrect this skill and pass it on from one generation to another,” said Pen Hon, head of the Chunlot Dei village pottery association and Bassac theater group, who added that his parents were potters before the Khmer Rouge. He began pottery work in 1990, but the industry didn’t take off again as it once had.
“Around 2000, people lost interest in pottery and began breaking stones,” he said.
However, with a new kiln for firing and new wheels for throwing pots, more villagers have begun to use the distinctive local chocolate-brown natural clay again, now creating more decorative work and souvenirs rather than just plain pots for daily use.
“The families who produce pottery can earn 2,000 to 4,000 riel per day, or sometimes even as much as $3 or $4,” Pen Hon said.
“They can supplement their rice field income with this instead of breaking stones on the mountain.”
Chunlot Dei village’s Lakhaon Bassac theater troupe is another way villagers are earning income through living tradition. Performances stopped during the Khmer Rouge period but started again in 1980.
The genre of musical theater originated in Kampuchea Krom, present-day southern Vietnam, with a chief Buddhist monk named Suor Chha Kruon, according to Unesco.
Influenced by many regional traditions, including Chinese and Vietnamese opera, Bassac theater was introduced in Phnom Penh in the 1930s.
“The public is supporting the Bassac troupe because of their high level of skill,” Pen Hon said of the 31-member group. “But they still need more support for better costumes and other materials, as well as a sound system.”
On the other side of Chisor Mountain, Kanh Chang village’s weavers produce patterned silks using dyes made from local flora. Four meters of cloth can be produced in a month, said Pouv Sorn, 64.
Bun Thoeun, 30, collects the silk from eight of the approximately 70 weaving families in his village and sells it through Unesco, riverfront shops, markets, and the Cambodiana Hotel in Phnom Penh, he said.
“Natural dyes can be washed with water and the colors don’t change,” he said. “They have longer life and are softer, but are more expensive to produce. We have to find the dyes’ materials in tree bark and leaves.”
A typical woman’s scarf produced in the village would cost $5 if colored with chemical dyes or $12 with natural dyes, Bun Thoeun said.
“Especially for the people in large families with small land plots for growing rice, the silk business is now an important source of income,” Bun Thoeun said. “It helps people’s daily survival.”