Sacred Kulen


Photos to follow


The Kulen mountains, the spiritual home of the Cambodian people, beckoned on my third day in Siem Reap. I was determined to locate one or two of the ancient temples scattered across Phnom Kulen that I hadn't previously visited, as well as the large animal monoliths at Srah Damrei, which I'd heard about but never seen. Rieng picked me up at 6.30am from the guesthouse and en route, we called into a foodshop for coffee and noodles in Pradak village, a couple of kilometres outside the Angkor Park on the road to Banteay Srei. Rieng had already bought my Kulen ticket a few dollars cheaper than the usual $20 price, so we skated past the checkpoint at the foot of the mountain and two and a half hours (and 50 kms) after leaving town, we took a well-earned rest at the collection of stalls at Preah Ang Thom, the large reclining Buddha, on top of Kulen mountain. After fifteen minutes of negotiations between Rieng and the moto-drivers who operate the cartel on top of the mountain, he introduced me to our drivers, Phea and Anchor, who'd ferry us across the Kulen plateau for the next six hours in our search for adventure. Coincidentally, Phea had been a neighbour of Rieng's whilst Anchor ('same same the beer'), like his pal, had lived on the mountain for the last few years after leaving the army.

Thirty minutes into the bumpy drive, we passed through Tmei village where red and white painted poles either side of the road denoted where landmines had been found by Halo Trust de-miners. Judging by the position of the poles, the whole village was sitting in the middle of a minefield. The trail ended and the way forward was blocked, so we left the moto's and walked for another fifteen minutes through the jungle to reach the first temple, Prasat Damrei Krap. It consisted of a single large brick tower, very ruined, with sandstone doorways but no carvings in evidence. An example of the sculpture associated with this temple can be found in the shape of a substantial four-armed standing Vishnu in the National Museum. Closeby, Phea took us to see two large stone animals, one of which was a reclining elephant and the other, a crouching tortoise, both covered in green lichen. These were not the main animal statues on Kulen, just a foretaste of what was to come. Back on the bikes, we skipped across a series of hard sandstone rock clearings at great speed, and with no apparent trail to follow, which must be impossible in the wet season, before Phea indicated another walk through the forest was necessary. It was 10.30am and we were on the southern edge of the mountain, about eight kilometres from our starting point. The walk took twenty minutes, through the humid forest before Phea announced our arrival at the remarkable Srah Damrei (Elephant pond). It took me a few seconds to realise that on two levels, surrounded by dense foliage, were life-size and larger, stone carvings of a selection of animals. These had been shaped and fashioned out of the natural sandstone rock that Kulen is renowned for. The elephant, on the lower level, was 3.5 metres high and 4 metres long. Looking down on the largest carving were two stone lions, a frog and a cow. It was hot and humid under the forest canopy as we rested surrounded by another astonishing example of ancient Khmer sculpture.

A short distance away, in a small ravine, stood another carved animal, this time an ox next to a small pond, which I accidentally stepped in up to my knees. To make matters worse, as we walked back to the moto's, I misjudged an overhanging branch that caught my head a glancing blow. I was hot, sweaty and beginning to lose patience. To calm down, we sat and ate our pork and rice rations, only to come under attack from large red ants. I was glad to be back on the moto's as we criss-crossed the sandstone rock beds and just after mid-day, we stopped to inspect the massive brick tower of Prasat O'Pong. The trail had also wound through wooded areas, sand and waterlogged stretches. Phea, my driver, was a consummate professional. He could handle his moto with supreme dexterity and skill on all surfaces, however as the passenger I had to remain vigilant at all times, remembering to keep my head down and my knees and elbows tucked in. Also necessary for travel of this nature are long trousers to avoid cuts and scratches from the undergrowth and sturdy shoes. Prasat O'Pong is an impressively large structure. Surrounded by forest, it stands tall on a brick terrace and inside the tower were remnants of finely chiselled octagonal colonettes and other carvings. The peaceful scene was topped off by the shrill sound of cicadas all around us and an invasion of tiny bright yellow butterflies as the sun shone.

Half an hour later, we arrived at the foot of a small climb, which Phea called Prasat Rong. Rieng corrected him and said it was better known as Asram Rong Chen, the terraced pyramid temple of King Jayavarman II, where the royal linga was housed and where, in 802, he was declared a god-king to herald the beginning of the Angkor dynasty. For such a venerated location, the site today appears insignificant. Hidden amongst the foliage, I saw remains of a laterite platform and a deep well, topped off by a large square pedestal and seven cruciform sandstone blocks, which appear to have been part of the pyramid. There is no obvious structure such as Prasat O'Pong and its quite impossible to imagine what this sacred temple would've looked like in its heyday. Statues have been excavated nearby and brick debris suggests a tower but nothing of that ilk remains. Turning back towards our starting point at Preah Ang Thom, we stopped at a spot marked by red crosses painted onto tree trunks, signalling the possibility of landmines. However, Phea informed us these were old signs and the mines had been removed and took a few paces into the forest, indicating that we follow. He pointed at the undergrowth, where we spied a large, smooth headstone-shaped block of sandstone with a monkey, an elephant and a flower carved into it. Nearby, was a large hole where another seven headstones were lying half-covered by leaves and mud but devoid of any easily recognisable carvings. These slabs reminded me of seima (boundary) stones I'd seen at Phnom Bok and I later found out that's exactly what they were. The name of the site is Bam Gre although at the time, no-one had an explanation for them or their name. So another Kulen mystery solved.

At 2pm, we arrived at the site of the dramatic 35-metre waterfall and underwater linga and Vishnu carvings, one of the popular places on Kulen for Khmer families to gather, enjoy a picnic and bathe in the so-called sacred waters. Our moto-drivers sat down to play cards with a group of unemployed drivers while Rieng and I made our way to the foot of the waterfall for a barefoot dip in the shallow water and to feed the fish with some of our left-over bread. Signs have now been posted to stop visitors from walking on the underwater carvings, though it didn't stop three small children from jumping off the rope bridge and into the chilly water. Amongst the trees nearby, is an ancient laterite temple known as Krol Romeas (also known as Teck Tlak). On the ground were two sandstone lintels with a fierce fire burning closeby as the locals set fire to piles of dry leaves, surrounding the temple in a smoky haze.

An hour later, we'd returned to Preah Ang Thom where we thanked Phea and Anchor for their help and expertise in ferrying us across the difficult terrain of Phnom Kulen, paid the agreed rate per moto and began the drive back to the Angkor Park. We reached the temple of Pre Rup by 4.30pm as dark clouds filled the sky accompanied by rolls of thunder but no rain. We rested briefly, to satisfy our thirst with a cold drink and sadly witnessed the ill-mannered and disrespectful face of western tourism at Angkor. As a westerner arrived on a motorbike, he was approached by a young boy selling t-shirts, with a beaming smile. The boy had done the same to me moments earlier and we'd had some playful banter as I'd jokingly offered him my dusty krama for $5. This time the banter was not so pleasant as the new arrival let out a stream of obscenities in English towards the boy and strode off towards the temple. The outburst was completely unnecessary in my opinion and left the boy bewildered and a little upset. An unpleasant experience to cap an otherwise satisfying day's adventures. I arrived back at my guesthouse at 5.30pm, I'd spent the best part of eleven hours on the back of a moto and my hot shower was a great relief for my aching lower back. Dinner followed at the Continental Cafe and then I met up by chance with Mark Byrne for a drink and long chat at the Kampuccino Pizza before retiring to my guesthouse and comfortable bed by 10.30pm.

Here's links to the rest of my Cambodia Tales.

Cambodia Tales

Cambodia Tales 2

March 2002 marked my eighth trip to Cambodia since my first-ever visit in 1994. It's a country that has a special magic all of its own and which draws me back every year to venture out into the Cambodian countryside in search of new adventures, ancient temples and to catch up with the friends I've made from previous visits. Each trip is full of laughter, smiles and a host of fresh experiences and my latest expedition was no exception.

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