On our fifth day at Cambodia we wanted to visit two popular tourist attractions of Cambodia. Phnom Kulen National Park is the first, other being beautiful temple Banteay Srei. I will be covering Phnom Kulen in this part of the blog.
Nestling in the southern extension of the Dangrek Mountains in the Svay Leu District, 48 kilometres away from Siem Reap rests the Phnom Kulen National Park. One of the most scenic and historically significant locations in the area, the park falls along the journey to Prasat Banteay Srei, making a beautiful natural complement to the intricate manmade wonders of the ancient citadel.
In 1999 a private businessman bulldozed a road up here and now charges a US$20 toll per foreign visitor, an ambitious fee compared with what you get for your money at Angkor, especially as very little of the toll goes towards preserving the site. It is only possible to go up before 11 Am and only possible to come down after midday, to avoid vehicles meeting on the narrow road.
Since City Angkor Hotel at Siem Reap is also owned by the same businessman, he sells it cheap there for 12$. For this journey we had hired a 8 seater AC van, which was much more comfortable especially in the treacherous path of the Kulen mountains. The road leading to Kulen is almost like travelling through south India. The green paddy fields with houses which are mostly built on stilts so that they can withstand the regular flood which takes place during rainy season.
Just two hours away from the Angkor temples, Phnom Kulen is a popular tourism destination in Cambodia. It is an important pilgrimage site for Cambodian people and, along with the jungles surrounding Angkor, one of the few remaining tropical forests in northwest Cambodia.
It is considered by Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, Phnom Kulen is a popular place of pilgrimage on weekends and during festivals.
According to ancient inscriptions, Phnom Kulen is considered to be the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire, for it was there that King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from “Java” in 802 CE. During the Angkorian era, the relief was known as Mahendraparvata (“Mountain of Great Indra”). Attractions there include a giant reclining Buddha, hundreds of lingas carved in the riverbed, an impressive waterfall and some remote temples.
The toll gate is surrounded by various food stalls selling everything to the tourists. Fish was getting grilled on coal, cured meat, local fruits and forest produce were all for sale. We stopped for a while before venturing into Kulen mountains.
We could see vast eastern foothills of Kulen mountains which were the source of sandstone for all the Angkor temples. This site comprises two quarry sites, locally known as Thmâ Anlong and Veal Vong seems to be the main sites where the ancient Cambodians quarried the sandstones which were transported via the aqua ducts and elephants 30-40km away to the temple site.
Blanketed with lush green vegetation and adorned with waterfalls, the mountain slopes gently into a scenic valley at its foot. The grounds are peppered with spots of special note, both natural and manmade in significance. The Chup Preah is a plain in the valley surrounded by cool streams.
The road winds its way through some spectacular jungle scenery, emerging on the plateau after a 12km ascent. The road eventually splits: the left fork leads to the picnic spot, waterfall and ruins of a 9th-century temple; the right fork continues over a bridge where you’ll find the riverbed carvings around here.
One of the most celebrated aspects combining the natural and the manmade is Kbal Spean, or the River of a Thousand Lingas. The sandstone rock bed of this shallow river is carvings of the Shiva phallus and its female counterpart Yoni symbols, interspersed with depictions of reclining Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma gods. This is said to have been done to assist the scared waters in better fertilizing the plains below.
Unfortunately as we were at the rainy season of Cambodia, water in these rivers were overflowing and all the carvings are hidden under water. The water flowing over the lingas is sacred and holy, and many Cambodians bottle the water from the downriver and take home.
Only thing we could witness was a small Buddhist temple with a fresh water spring bringing clean water from the sand bed below. Belief was if you put coin it will sink in sand and if you throw anything else it will be thrown out. Unfortunately this resulted in lot of people throwing things into this clean water spring.
The terrace of Kulen mountain is notable for the small temple Wat Preah Ang Thom at its centre, was our next stop.
Right at the entrance of the steps there is a large statue of Vishnu followed by the usual 5 headed naga balustrade we see everywhere in Cambodia. All these are modern concrete constructions probably done for tourist attraction.
There were bunch of confusing statues of Lion, Garuda, Hanuman and tiger. Lot of beggars lined the steps waiting for alms from pilgrims. The sale of offering to Buddha varied from herbs, precious stones to smoked preserved goat head.
There are hundreds of steps to climb to get to it, of course. The temple is relatively small, though it was pretty busy. The temple dates from the 16th century as was actually Hindu temple before the Buddhists took it over. You can still see many Hindu carvings.
One of the most imposing sights is the statue of the reclining Buddha that has been carved out of a giant sandstone boulder and stands at a height of 8 meters. Although imposing, it is not the biggest Buddha in Cambodia. The reclining Buddha at Prasat Phnom Baset, north of Phnom Penh, is older and bigger. And there is something odd about this Buddha at Phnom Kulen: he is lying on his left side which is odd.
The Buddha is in parinirvana pose. Preah Ang Thom, carved into the top of a boulder, dates from 1568 ce , according to an inscription at its base. Buddha is supposed to have attained nirvana lying on his auspicious right side. Intriguingly, Preah Ang Thom lies on its left side, yet the It is difficult to know why this should be so. The shape of the boulder would certainly have allowed the more usual form of representation of him reclining on the right. These days the views from the 487m peak are partially obstructed by foliage run amok.
Nearby the temple is Phnom Kulen Waterfall. It is both a picnic spot as well as pilgrimage to Khmers. In fact there are two waterfalls. The one at the top with water flowing over flat rocks that you can walk on before it finally tumbles down the main waterfall. To get the that you have to climb down wooden stairs that are broken and missing several steps. It’s a bit dangerous, as are the slippery boulders you have to climb around to get to the actual falls. We didn’t go there as it started drizzling.
These two magnificent waterfalls are the crowning beauties of the park. First one is relatively short, but boasts a width while the other falls from a height of 15 meters. The upper part of the waterfall is converted as a park for picnics and gives a tranquil rest after a day of climbing and sight-seeing.
The water is considered holy and Cambodians like to bottle it to take home with them. The source of water eventually flows in to Tonle Sap Lake and is thought to bless the water ways of Cambodia.
The waterfall picnic area is lined by souvenir shops as well as food stalls. At 12pm they opened the road to leave the park. Overall it was a good picnic spot and a great place to remember the history of Cambodia. It is not really a must have visit type of place especially when you have so much more to explore in Cambodia like the Banteay Srei temple. I will cover the visit of this “jewel of Khmer art” temple in my last travelogue of this series next week.
Thanks to all of you for being part of this journey and encouraging me to write this travelogue. If you have missed earlier, check all the 8 parts with links below.