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The German Angkor Illustration Project

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Phnom Bok

Phnom Bok is the most exciting untouristed place in the Angkor area. A visit of Phnom Bok is a dream coming true for all those travelers who hope to discover a hidden Khmer treasure and to enjoy it without any disturbance. There are at least four reasons why this idyllic temple remains to be a secret gem in the crown of Angkor. First of all, it is secluded, far away from the Small and Grand Standard Tours. Secondly, there is no suitable parking lot for buses at the base of Phnom Bok. Furthermore, most tourist guidebooks do not describe this temple. But the main reason for its loneliness is: seeing Phnom Bok requires climbing to the top of the 235 m high hill. Indeed, most drivers and tour operators do not even know Phnom Bok, or asssume a visit of Phnom Bok would be too arduous for their customers. But for having the experience of the full magic of Angkor there is no way avoiding to climb to the top of Phnom Bok! You will not regret it.

Phnom Bok is one of the oldest temples in Angkor. It was erected by King Yashovarman I (889-910), who is the founder of Angkor as Khmer capital. He built three temples on top of all three hills in the plains of Angkor. The most important of them, of course, is the famous state temple Bakheng right in the centre of his new city, it was dedicated to Shiva and enshrined the royal Lingam. The two other hills were crowned by smaller temples for the Trimurti. They are Phnom Krom in the south, near the Great Lake Tonle Sap, and Phnom Bok in the east. Both temples had three Prasat towers, one for Brahma, one for Shiva, one for Vishnu. Imposing statues of these three gods were found in the three Prasats of Phnom Bok, they are now exhibited in the Guimet Museum in Paris. The four heads of Brahma, from the southern sanctum, are best examples of the Bakheng sculptural style.

Phnom Bok is located behind Yashovarman's most important monument: the reservoir Eastern Baray, now dry. The hill is about 24 km north-east of Siem Reap, 8 km east of the Grand Cicuit (to be left just south of the East Mebon), and 4 km behind Banteay Samray. You can take a stairway of more than 600 steps to the top, or a zigzag junglepath beginning just at the base of this stairway. On the hilltop you will enjoy magnificent views to the paddy farming areas east of Angkor. There is a new pagoda close to the ancient temple. Two military guns are positioned here. Avoid taking pictures of them.

The main attraction, of course, is the temple compound on the very top. It is from the late ninth century, and this means, as already mentioned: it is one of the oldest in Angkor. Some guidebooks claim there is everything in ruins and not much left to see, but this is nonsense.

Very similar to Phnom Krom, there were four buildings in front of the sanctuaries, the two inner ones of sandstone, the outer ones of brick, unlike on Phnom Krom, only foundations remain of the brick buildings. The roofs of the sandstone buildings are broken, too, and surmounted by trees. They are picturesque jungle temples, all the more as these trees are Frangipanis with big flowers. Though their roofs are partly broken, too, the three main sanctuary walls are still standing upright, they are not of too small size, and they bear decoration in a remarkable good condition.

These three Prasat towers were dedicated to the three Trimurti gods, as already mentioned. The three sanctuaries of Phnom Bok originally were of the same size, whereas Phnom Krom's central Prasat is higher than the two flanking Prasats.

Some background information: The combination of the three gods venerated here, creator Brahma, preserver Vishnu, and renewer (not really "destroyer") Shiva, is usually called Trimurti. The Trimurti is less worshipped by Indian Hindus, and often completely misunderstood by most Westeners when projecting an idea of "trinity" to Hinduism or believing the Trimurti symbolizes a begin, a preservation and an end of the world. Actually, the Trimurti means not a timeline of one world, but aspects belonging to every world in an endless circle of worlds. The Trimurti was only one Hindu concept among others uniting the two quite contrary highest gods, the powerful Shiva and the helpful Vishnu - another one was Harihara, half Vishnu, half Shiva. Brahma, though "creator" in the Trimurti, which should give him the dominant position according to Western concepts, never was highly venerated in India, except in Pushkar. (Among non-Indian Hindus, e.g. on the island of Bali, the three Trimurti gods are more often on the same level of veneration.) Most Hindus believe in only one supreme god, many in Vishnu, others in Shiva, some in Kali. Almost no Hindu venerates Brahma as highest personal god. But most Hindus integrate the highest gods of other beliefs, in a subordinate function. Even the Trimurti often does not imply equal ranks of all three gods. For example, in the Elephanta Cave (World Heritage Site) near Mumbai all three aspects are focused on Shiva. Likewise, Shiva is clearly dominant in Angkor's Trimurti temples (and in most Khmer Trimurti illustrations as well). The central towers of Phnom Bok and Phnom Krum are dedicated to the supposed "destroyer" Shiva. But Shiva is not a destructive power, his destruction of a world is the creation of a new one. Rather, he is in charge of the rhythmic laws of renovation, whereas "creator" Brahma is only an auxiliary manual worker within each single world period. What Vishnu "preserves", is not the existence of the world, but the order of the world and, by means of this, the surviving of inhabitants. Maybe these hints are more helpful than simplifying labels such "creator, preserver, destroyer" in order to avoid very common and endlessly repeated pocketguide- or tourguide-misrepresentations of the Trimurti.

Behind the main temple compound there is a new shelter for a mound. It covered a Lingam, indicating once more, that Phnom Bok, though dedicated to the Trimurti, first and foremost was a place of Shiva worship. This Lingam is one of the largest ever found in Cambodia. But now it is not at all impressive any more, it is broken in pieces and hardly recognizable. Art thefts tried to transport it to sell it in Thailand. But it was too heavy and fell down. This is why it is shattered now. However, it remained unstolen. This Lingam, like others from the ancient Khmer culture, was square at the bottom, representing Brahma, octagonal in the middle, representing Vishnu, and round at the top, representing Shiva. This Khmer Lingam type once again shows clearly the dominance of Shiva in the Khmer version of Trimurti.

There is some astronomical speculation concerning the structure of Phnom Bok, as equinox and winter and summer solstices could be observed from inside the entrance of the temple.

During morning hours you have the sunlight on the fronts of the three main temples. For the nicest view from those Prasats to the two structures with trees on top of the roof, come in the afternoon.


Ernst Ando Sundermann


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