Steep steps rise from dense vegetation to this imperious prasat in the southern province of Takéo. Its hauntingly beautiful and remote location is not for the faint-hearted, especially in November when the twin outcrops it perches upon are cut off by the Mekong’s annual flooding of ancient canals that date back 1,600 years to the legendary maritime kingdom of Funan, Southeast Asia’s first great state, and its vast capital city of Vyadhapurya (now the sleepy village of Angkor Borei).
The workmanship here is the oldest seen in Cambodia and much older than that of Angkor Wat. Phnom Da’s fine carvings, chiselled plinths, bas-reliefs and ‘floating boulder’ (it rests on three points) resonate with the deep quiet that popular tourism will never allow. The desolate temple itself houses exceptional replicas of Hindu deities, huge and oddly dark green, the originals taken away and split between Phnom Penh’s National Museum and the Musée Guirnet in Paris . There are five man-made caves on the hillside, and further below them is the Ashram Maha Rosei, or the Sanctuary of the Great Ascetic, a rare stone shrine in this region of brick and laterite, the Harihara (Shiva-Vishnu as a single image) of its massive inner and empty vault transported to the Guirnet, where it is a stellar exhibit.
The museum at Angkor Borei is forlorn in comparison, and not unlike many of its dusty Indian counterparts, but its waterfront location houses lovely pottery, jewellery, artefacts, funerary bones, and Shiva and Vishnu statues and friezes that deserve more visitors. It’s here that the little remembered Funanese are still to be found.
Getting There The happening NH2 connects Phnom Penh all the way to Angkor Borei. Phnom Da lies 3km to the south of Angkor Borei and is reached via Takéo town, which is only 78km on flat, mostly tarred and sometimes dirt roads from the well-infrastructured capital, doable as a pleasantly full day trip in a little under two hours each way. That’s in dry weather. The roads are far more difficult to negotiate when it rains and may force an overnight stay in the rudimentary lodges of Takéo. If you do summon the courage for it, ask for the spartan but reliable and friendly Meas Family Homestay, a good place to break the southward journey to Phnom Bayong. It’s also possible, and far more memorable, to park at the Takéo dock and switch to individual, shared or larger motor boats to reach Angkor Borei (40 mins) and Phnom Da (another 15) over the ancient waterway—in the rains, the boat ride under grey skies over a sea-like floodplain marked by floating clumps of grass and drowned trees is surreally something else.