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 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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