Phnom Borey and Phnom Da, two natural hills in Takeo, are not only the centre of Khmer folktales but also a great getaway located less than 100 kilometres from Phnom Penh.
For about 40 years, the sites used to be isolated from urbanites, despite being only about 24 kilometers east of centre of Takeo. At that time, the road leading to the two mountains was in a very poor condition and even submerged for six months during the rainy season. That could have resulted in the area’s unspoiled state today.
Just driving on the narrow road, which was once difficult from the Angkor Borei district, there is enough scenery to be called a pleasant experience. Along the road are stunning views, combining still-life such as paddy fields, palm trees and rivers with people, their livestock and fish-eating birds.
While the scenery is there all year, the best time to visit is between late September and January, when you can avoid the hot sun and heavy rains.
Reaching a small steel bridge spanning a canal means you are half-way there. It is a good time to take a break and look at the fishing boats on the beautiful canal, an image every landscape photographer wants to capture.
If you are there around 11am on a weekday morning, which you are likely to be if you leave Phnom Penh at 9am, you will be greeted by friendly students just leaving a local primary school and racing home on their bicycles.
After another quarter-hour, you will find a four-metre-tall statue of a Hindu goddess at the foot of the 50-metre-high Phnom Da. The mountain is surrounded by dense forest and topped with an ancient temple. On the temple’s side, there are five man-made alcoves, each of which contains Shiva lingam and Uma yoni, objects worshipped by Hindus.
Phnom Da temple, 12 metres square and 18 metres high, was constructed of laterite, brick and sandstone. With a peak which is severely damaged, the temple has a lintel illustrating the figure of a sleeping Vishnu and a broken bas relief sculpture depicting the samudra manthana or Churning of the Ocean of Milk (known in Khmer as Ko Samutra Teuk Dos), one of the most well-known episodes in Hindu philosophy.
It also has four doors, but only the one on the north side is real. About 300 metres southwest of Phnom Da is another smaller temple with a similar style known as Asrom Moha Eysei, translated as “the dwelling of the hermit”.
Sam Heng, a 28-year-old local tour guide, says Phnom Da and Asrom Moha Eysei temples were built in the 6th century, respectively by King Rudravarman and King Jayavarman Kaundinya.
“However, the local people usually associate the temple with a folktale,” says Heng.
According to Collection of Khmer Folktales, published in 1974 by the Mores and Customs Commission of the Buddhist Institute of Cambodia, the temples were built by Saing Chak, an overlord, and his lady, Ak Or, who once upon a time ruled the area.
Ak Or was at first a princess, who was set adrift on a raft with a peasant who would become Saing Chak, as the punishment for their love affair. The area, according to the story, was originally an uninhabited island on the middle of the river, where the couple arrived and settled after sailing for a few weeks.
Feeling despair for the turn of her life, Ak Or prayed every night to the divine spirits on the island for fortune. As a result, a spirit helped her find gold and valuable wood on the island, which they used to trade with merchants on the ships that passed their island.
As the couple became wealthier and wealthier, more and more people came to settle on the island, and after a few years the people chose Ak Or and her husband to be their rulers. Lady Ak Or then built two temples in dedication to the island’s holy spirits.
An archaeological or historical enthusiast – or even a traveller who loves exploring – will easily find their inner Indiana Jones when visiting the temples. Not only do they give visitors a feeling for what the pre-Angkorian structures looked like and display a number of ancient artefacts but also inspire the imagination of being an explorer finding a treasure hidden in the forest.
If you are not really keen on having a relaxing holiday but would rather explore more ancient sites, Phnom Borey is the place to be and only 2 kilometres from Phnom Da.
Its name translates as “the City Mountain”, or the mountain that is believed to be the place where Lord Saing Chak and Lady Ak Or built their settlement.
It is perfect for hiking with some large boulders of various shapes, as well many species of tropical trees and flowers; however, it is the magnificent view that you can see from the mountain that you have to sweat for.
After a vigorous trek, at the foot of Phnom Borey, located near a river bank, lies a few resorts with thatchedhuts, where you can relax in one of the hammocks while enjoying the great scenery of the river and good country meals with fresh ingredients or have a few drinks with your friends.
The resorts are usually quiet, even on the weekends, except when you are unlucky enough to choose a hut near one occupied by a group of noisy visitors or a family with small children.
“Most of the visitors are Cambodian people who live in Takeo,” says Eng Leakena, manager of Borey Phnom Da Resort. “City people do not know there are great resorts here – let alone foreigners.”
There are many signature dishes with reasonable prices you can try there, but Leakena recommends the Stir-fried Lake Snail with Lemongrass for $2.5 per plate, and Stir-fried Eel for $3.75.
However, if you have a large meal budget, you should try the natural freshwater prawns, the iconic meat in Takeo, which could be bought from the local farmers at around $50 per kilogramme. They are delicious however you cook it, but the most common way is to grill them and dip the meat into the flavourful Koh Kong sauce, made from garlic, fresh red chilies and lime.
Phnom Borey and Phnom Da are a rare getaway which has everything to offer, no matter if you are a historical enthusiast, an Indiana Jones wannabe, a hiker, a food adventurer or simply a traveller who wants to get away from his or her busy and polluted city life.