Phnom Kulen: Cambodia’s Most Sacred Mountain

The Angkor temples are undoubtedly what enticed me to visit Siem Reap.  After being astounded by what seems to be a bottomless serving of colossal temples in Siem Reap, the Phnom Kulen National Park is a good place to refresh a bit. 

Phnom Kulen Waterfalls

Phnom Kulen National Park

Phnom Kulen Mountain is known as the most sacred mountain in Cambodia.  To the locals, Phnom Kulen is historically important as it is the founding site of the Khmer empire.  Located 48 kilometers from Siem Reap, Phnom Kulen National Park can be reached by 2 hours ride up the hill.

Phnom Kulen National Park

I booked a half-day tour with Green Era Travel to Phnom Kulen National Park. The tour included a tour guide, entrance fee and transportation to and from my homestay.  The last thirty minutes of the drive up was along a narrow dirt road, which means you’ll get a free massage as you enter Phnom Kulen.  Having said this, using a car is the safest way to reach the Phnom Kulen sites.  A motorcycle ride will do but you’ll also get puffed with dust powder along with the massage if you choose this.

Visitors can only go up before 11 AM and come down after 11:30 AM to avoid two-way traffic along the narrow road.  My guide told me that before Phnom Kulen was opened for tourists in 1999, it used to be the stronghold of the Khmer Rouge.

The Phnom Kulen National Park tour included visits to three places - the Reclining Buddha, the River of 1000 Lingas and the Phnom Kulen Waterfalls.

Reclining Buddha at Wat Preah Ang Thom

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Wat Preah Ang Thom houses Cambodia’s biggest reclining Buddha.  The Buddha is carved on the rock and is revered by locals all over Cambodia.  My guide mentioned that the type of rock (sandstone) where the Buddha was carved is the same type and source of rock from which Angkor temples were constructed.  In fact, sandstone blocks were quarried from Phnom Kulen and unthinkably brought to Siem Reap by raft through a network of canals and rivers.

The temple is situated on top of the hill and can be reached through a long flight of steps.  Shoes should be left before stepping onto the last leg of stairs leading to the reclining Buddha.  Actually, I found the stair climb more interesting than the Reclining Buddha itself.

You’ll see monks and a variety of items on sale from local food and snacks, flowers for offering prayers to Buddha, trinkets, and unfortunately, such items as quarried stones, wildlife tusks and teeth and other animal parts that are disturbingly displayed openly.  Playing children and beggars, some of them said to have been victims of land mines, are also sitting on both sides of the stairs.

Also read about the floating village of Kampong Phluk

River of 1000 Lingas

After the visit to the reclining Buddha, our driver took us to the River of a Thousand Lingas.  Here, sandstone riverbed is carved with numerous lingas, which is a phallic symbol of the Hindu god, Shiva.

Those with wild imagination might get disappointed as they expect big phallus carvings sticking out of the water.  I don’t know what these look like in their original form 1,000 years back but today, the carvings are not easily recognizable unless you take a closer look.  Imagine the river flowing on these sculptures for a thousand years and it will be understandable why these have now shrunk into tiny bumps.

Phnom Kulen National Park

Until today, the locals believe that the water in the river is holy and made fertile as it runs through the lingas.  The holy river flows downstream into the Phnom Kulen Waterfalls, and eventually into Siem Reap River and Tonle Sap.

Phnom Kulen Waterfalls

Phnom Kulen Waterfalls was our last stop.  I came during a time somewhere in between summer and the maximum rainfall conditions, which is I think is a good time as the volume of water is just right to enjoy the scenic falls.  The pool at the foot of the falls was quite murky because of the rainy season.

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We passed by the first tier of the falls and I already saw some locals taking a shower there.  The main waterfalls can be reached through an easy descent from the first tier.  Both locals and foreign visitors were having a swim at the falls as I came.  We spent about an hour here, and even though I chose not to swim, I enjoyed taking pictures of the falls and people watching.

Phnom Kulen National Park may not be the highlight for anyone visiting Siem Reap but I would recommend going here if you have spare days in Siem Reap.  Learning about the historical and spiritual significance of this part of Cambodia has enabled me to appreciate Cambodia’s culture even more.

Note: This half day tour was hosted by Green Era Travel.  All opinions are my own, and no one from this organization reviewed or approved the article.

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  1. helene dsouza 1 October, 2017 at 09:22 Reply

    Wow the sleeping (or dying Buddha as some say) looks almost like the one in cave 26 in the ancient Ajanta caves in Maharashtra India. The small people below the Buddha, and they always seem in agony. I just started to explore more Buddhist traditions and religious ancient buildings, so I think I would definitely enjoy a trip to phnom kulen. 🙂

  2. Lisa 1 October, 2017 at 09:25 Reply

    I’ve never been to Cambodia, so thank you for sharing this. I think most people go to the usual places bue Phnom Kulen looks incredible and local to me. The photos of the waterfalls, and the people performing Buddhist rituals are so interesting. And those smiling children! Just precious!

  3. Rachelle Gordon 1 October, 2017 at 15:21 Reply

    Cambodia is just so lush and green. I want to visit there so badly! Phnom Kulen is new to me and I can totally see how it was a stronghold for the Khmer Rouge. The waterfall is amazing and so is the river. Interesting about the Buddhist rituals too!

  4. Kathy VA 1 October, 2017 at 19:21 Reply

    Phnom Kulen is a treasure unspoilt. Culture and beautiful landcsape equals a wonderful tour experience. And see the green spekaonh life at the National Park. It’s high time I started considering Phnom Kulen. I’m sure Cambodia itself won’t disappoint me.

  5. Divyakshi Gupta 2 October, 2017 at 04:35 Reply

    Never been to Cambodia but I have always read only about the temples of Siem Reap. Phnom Kulen park was a first for me:) Thanks for sharing the pristine beauty of the falls , the fields and markets! 🙂 I got intrigued to know more about those stones! 🙂 The 1000 lingas must have been a great experience:)

    • findingjing 4 October, 2017 at 13:10 Reply

      The temples are really amazing and so massive to think some structures were not even finished yet. I forgot what kind of metals are in those stones but they glitter under the sun. I am not sure though if these were mined in a sustainable way.

  6. Suma 3 October, 2017 at 16:50 Reply

    I have heard so much about the Angkor Wat temple, it is my dream to visit these historic sights. And now I have few more reasons to visit to Cambodia thanks to your post. It is the first time I’m reading about Phnom Kulen but I just can’t wait to explore these stunning places. The River of 1000 Lingas sounds so intriguing, even though the lingas are not noticible easily, it is still so incredible to visit it.

  7. Ami Bhat 4 October, 2017 at 10:40 Reply

    Wow, this is an unseen side of Cambodia. Those waterfalls are just so beautiful and refreshing too. Loved finding those 1000 lingas. Now that really piques my curiosity. Thanks for sharing these unseen parts with us.

  8. Clare 4 October, 2017 at 19:25 Reply

    I didn’t realise I had actually visited here until I saw your pictures!! I remembered the symbols in the river!! I actually visited here on Christmas Day 2 years ago, it is a beautiful area and nice to see somewhere different in Siem Reap

  9. Damien McGuigan 4 October, 2017 at 19:59 Reply

    The photo of the park and the trees reminds me so much of Vinales in Cuba. I would almost think they were the same place! It’s such a shame that people always destroy things with vandalism though 🙁

  10. travellingslacker 5 October, 2017 at 05:05 Reply

    Just loved these views. Angkor is what everyone knows about in Cambodia but you have introduced me to some new bucket list items. Those pictures of people under the waterfall need to make it to wallpapers.

  11. Parnashree Devi 5 October, 2017 at 16:58 Reply

    I haven;t heard about the Phnom Kulen National Park before. This is such a gorgeous site in Combodia. It is quite interesting to know that The holy river runs through the lingas. I would love to visit this place someday. Thanks for sharing

  12. Sarah 5 October, 2017 at 18:59 Reply

    I would love to visit Cambodia. So far we’ve always seemed to miss it on our trips through SE Asia. This looks like an amazing vacation, although I would have had to swim in the Phnom Kulen Waterfalls!

  13. Elisa 6 October, 2017 at 07:02 Reply

    I did not visit much of Cambodia apart from Siam Reap, the capital and a couple more of places. This place does not look a must of any Cambodia trip but, like you say, it is perfect to escape the heat of the jungle plus nature is beautiful

  14. melody pittman 6 October, 2017 at 14:57 Reply

    Love those waterfalls! I haven’t been to Cambodia but it is certainly on my bucket list. I saw author Patricia Schultz at a local bookstore reviewing her 1000 Places to See Before you Die book and she listed Cambodia as one of her 2 favorite places in the world.

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