Tourism, Handcrafts May Be Key to Saving Phnom Chisor

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.”

 

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