I could never quite resist waterfalls. Perhaps it’s that idea of cool, refreshing water cascading into a pretty pool, that gentle music of nature indicating the elixir of life flowing so naturally in a path created by the unknown. The idea of outdoor activities appealed. In my attempt to create an interesting itinerary that extends beyond visits to the famed Angkor Wat and its surrounding historical temples during our stay in Siem Reap, I chanced upon the possibility of a visit to Phnom Kulen National Park, known commonly as Kulen Mountain.
Perfect for an exploration into local history and culture, Phnom Kulen also offers the chance for one to do some soft trekking. The reward at the end of your physical exertion (if any) is the cool waterfalls and rivers in the vicinity.
9th – 16th Century Phnom Kulen: Transiting between Hinduism to Buddhism
Widely regarded as the birthplace of the Khmer Empire, this sacred mountain dates back to the 9th century when King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java and started the construction of Hindu temples. His marks can be found on the remnants of the ancient Hindu temples / structures, which feature Lord Shiva, whom the King identified himself with. Though not easy to identify, the rock inscriptions and carvings of Hindu god and goddesses at The River of 1,000 Lingas (representing Shiva) bespoke the power and wealth of the kingdom. It is hard to imagine but how amazing it must have been that more than 1,100 years ago, people were here wading in the sacred waters, carving out these inscriptions and creating history that lies before my eyes today.
Well, as time goes by, Buddhism started to become more popular – especially under the ruling of King Jayavarman VII during the 12th century – thereby leading to the emergence of Buddhist temples. One of the main highlights on Phnom Kulen is that of a huge Reclining Buddha statue in a 16th-century Buddhist monastery at the top of the mountain. A climb is inevitable, but if you have succeeded in the climb to Wat Banan, this will not pose any challenge.
20m Waterfalls & the Company of Tiny Fishes
The reason why I enjoyed the visit to Phnom Kulen is that it offers a touch of nature, which can be enjoyed physically, beyond the historic and cultural stories. There are two waterfalls near the village at the mountaintop and most would flock to the one that spans a height of 20m, for good reasons. Cool and refreshing, this waterfall offers an oasis to relax and get a respite from the sometimes, stifling tropic heat of Siem Reap. As if that’s not enough, this pool does not only attract fun-loving humans but a school of friendly fishes, happy to nibble your feet – not unlike the fish reflexology. It does tickles and gives one jolts of surprise though!
“The water is considered holy and Khmers like to bottle it to take home with them. The source of water eventually flows into Tonle Sap Lake and is thought to bless the water ways of Cambodia.” – Tourism Cambodia
Present-day Phnom Kulen
At present, there are 4 villages on Phnom Kulen, which accounts for about 1,500 inhabitants. Treasures abound in the form of cultural heritage and abundant nature. According to our guide, there are many ancient temples (not included in the tour), which I was tempted to return to explore on my own. One that caught my attention was that of Ganesha’s, the Elephant God known for removing obstacles. However, one should know that there are threats of treading upon undiscovered landmines – unwanted and deadly marks of Pol Pot – hence the need to explore with caution. On a brighter note, many of the trees as well as parts of the mountain were used as building materials for temples / structure around Siem Reap city.
Getting to Phnom Kulen
There are various ways to scale the mountain. Besides trekking, one can hire a motorbike guide or join a private/group tour. Note that tuk-tuk will not be able to make its way up the rocky, mountainous terrain that threatens to induce motion sickness. As there is only one narrow route for both going up and coming down the mountain, vehicles can only go up in the morning before 11am. You can only descent after midday. However, Cambodia is a country that strikes one to be quite flexible – so depending on whom you are engaging and how much you are willing to pay, there may be exceptions. 😉
Travelling time from Siem Reap: approximately 2 hours
Ticket costs: $20 (excluding tour/guide/transport)
The above information has been compiled based on various sources, including my own experience and should only be used as a reference. For more information on the destination, do check out: http://www.tourismcambodia.com/travelguides/provinces/siem-reap/what-to-see/78_phnom-kulen-national-park.htm