| Phnom Krom
"The lower mountain"
At Phnom Bakheng we have seen how king Yasovarman crowned each of the three Angkor peaks with a temple, thereby dominating the surrounding plain. This trio included - apart from the "Central Mountain" - Phnom Krom on the shores of the Tonle Sap, 16 kilometres south-west as the crow flies and 137 metres in height, and Phnom Bok, 14 kilometres to the north-east in the middle of an area of rice fields. Of the three monuments, the temple of Phnom Krom remains the most complete in silhouette, with only the top tier on its northern and southern towers and the two top tiers on its central sanctuary missing. It is also the most threatened with destruction by the wind storms blowing in from the Tonle Sap on to its walls, built as they are in a friable and porous sandstone that has a tendency to exfoliate, and that consequently have retained but a few traces of decoration on their facing.
The climbing of Phnom Krom would perhaps not impose by its archaeological interest alone, but the pleasure of the walk is such and the panorama of the Great Lake with the surrounding plain so extensive and tranquil that we have no hesitation in recommending it - and with preference at the end of the day. It is, with the western baray, truly relaxing after the effort inherent in a visit to the monuments. From the top, if one is able to ignore the quite regrettable presence of the unsightly pagoda and the military buildings recently established in the south-west corner of the monument,(41) the view extends without obstruction to the far horizon, taking in, when the waters are high, the vast surface of the surrounding flood-lands. Towards the south, the clusters of straw huts easily dismantle to follow the rising water line - to establish themselves for part of the year at the foot of the hill and for the rest at the far end of the diked road, forming a lakeside village during the fishing season.
Phnom Krom is accessible by car all the year round. From the market in Siem Reap (42) the road follows the right bank of the Stung for 7 kilometres with which it meanders through luscious scenery, shaded by coconut palms and mango trees and opening every now and then to the water. There follow 4 kilometres of barren plain to the eastern base of the hill, where the road contours the south-east flank, leaving the access track to the Great Lake to the left, to take a series of steep, sharp bends that finally get one to the top. It is also possible to walk up the hill taking a stairway that forms a short cut from the fork in the two roads at the bottom.
The monument is enclosed within a fifty metre square laterite wall - carefully constructed this is well preserved and has a verge to the exterior. Entry is gained from the east. Four cruciform gopuras are complemented with two small side rooms and a portico to the courtyard, though there remain only a few bases of laterite walls and sandstone pillars. On the north side of the hill, the ground seems to have been prepared for a large staircase corresponding to two "srahs" (pools) on the plain below - but no trace of any steps makes one doubt that this was ever finished.
Internally, nothing remains of the surrounding laterite long-rooms - forming rest galleries and separated from the enclosure wall by a narrow one-metre passageway - except for the platforms and foundations with some isolated remnants of wall. Differing in size, there are four to the east and two on the other three sides, varying in width by two or three metres overall - with the symmetry not observed to the east of the north-south axis. They were capped with timber and tiles, and a single fragment of wall shows the remains of a rectangular window with five laterite mullions.
Within the eastern part of the internal courtyard four annexe buildings stand in a line, coupled on either side of the axial passageway and opening to the west. Remaining standing, though quite precariously so, they are 3m.10 by 3m.50 overall and surmounted by an upper tier and a barrel-formed vault that terminates in two gable end walls. Those to either extreme are in brick, the two others in sandstone, and they are plain but for a row of diamond shaped ventilation holes.
Three sanctuary towers set on the same north south axis stand opposite, presented on a common platform that is formed in laterite and faced in sandstone. This plinth is moulded but not ornate, and is breached on its two main sides by three stairways with side walls set with lions.
These towers form a simple redented square in plan and differ in size - with a sanctuary chamber of 4m.00 in the central tower and 3m.40 in the two others. Set back from the axis by a dozen metres on the axis they have two openings (east and west), so that only the north and south sides have false doors. Each must have had four upper tiers of superstructure and a circular crowing motif. The dominance of the central tower is expressed only in the size of its frontons, which are practically square. On the two lateral towers they are much reduced in height.
Of the scarce remains of decoration still legible we would draw attention; - to the dense ornamentation on the plinths, with the stair-walls ornate with the same small figure dancing within an arch that exists already in the art of Roluos, - to the pilasters treated in meticulous detail, like the panels of the false door, with a covering of tiny figures and interweaving foliage, - to the moulding at the base of the cornices, that is more in scale with the architecture and more vigorous in conception, - to the bands of foliated scrolls on the corner piers, - and to the niches with devatas, that are hieratic and quite serene, having the face slightly turned, a high slender waist, a long skirt with small vertical pleats as at Bakheng and the torso naked. They rest one hand on the staff of a kind of fly swat while the other hangs to the side holding a lotus.
The tympanums of the frontons are the first important realisation in sandstone following those - which are more architectural than figurative - on the small buildings at the base of the pyramid of Bakong. They are, in their restrained execution, little more than panels "in tapestry" set above the doors in a muddle of juxtaposed motifs that have no relationship or dominant theme, where one guesses, despite the disintegration of the stone, that a central divinity is perched on a shaft and flanked by two large S forms of scrolling foliage, set on an organic background that has a capricious fringe of curves lined with a row of small heads.
Numerous tower miniatures and antefixes decorate the cornices of the upper tiers, on which one can see the curious motif of a dancer with a broad pleated bell dress, like one finds again in smaller scale on the mural decoration of Bakheng and Banteay Srei.
The "Trimurti" of Shiva between Vishnou (to the north) and Brahma (to the south) sheltered in the three towers has been restored to its rightful location.(43) Of an art which is quite coarse, angular and massive in style, these statues - which moreover were broken - are marred by the disproportionate width of their shoulders and the weight of their legs. Their pedestals, however, are quite beautiful - particularly the one in the southern tower, the base type of Brahma in its ritual location. Circular in form with a decoration of lotus petals and Hamsas (sacred geese) and crowned with stamens, it contained a circular sacred foundation stone with sixteen holes.
A badly deteriorated "stone of the nine planets" was found in the north sandstone annexe building, and a colossal dvarapala of 3m.20 in height was unearthed in front of the eastern side of the three towered platform. Later than the monument it is reasonable in craftsmanship and imposing in aspect, its rakshasa head curiously coiffed with a diadem and a tiered "mukuta" with a nape-cover.
The poor state of the stone has unfortunately rendered any repair or restoration work to the monument impossible.