PHNOM KULEN'S HIDDEN TREASURES
Thea and Phalla on a voyage of discovery
If you think the main attraction of Phnom Kulen rests with just waterfalls and the famous reclining Buddha, I must inform you that is not so. There are obscure temples hidden in jungle, and by nature, art and architecture, they are real Khmer jewels worthy of discovery. And not only the temples that are the highlights, but also the people are unbelievably friendly despite living so remotely.
It was Sunday September 3, 2000 at 6.30am and my pick-up truck collected me from home, then drove to the Angkor Conservation office to pick up an experienced conservation officer Son who knows the area well. Next we went to collect our friends at Srah Srang village, where we drove all the way to Phnom Kulen, a mountain complex used as the first capital, back to the 9th century, of King Jayavarman II who is remembered most for reconciling the then weakened Khmers and gave birth to the Angkor dynasty.
September is rainy season, which carries the rains to flourish the land with fauna and flora. On the way, I was much impressed with the green landscape as I kept my eyes on green rice plants bending with the blowing wind in long and huge fields towards the base of Phnom Kulen, also symbolized as Mount Kailas as home of Hindu God Shiva. Some farmers, scarves on their necks, were seen bending down in the fields to do late planting. The land is filled with water, making it into lakes, dikes and ponds. As our Khmer saying goes "where water exists, fish are there." Kids, half dressed or naked, are common in the fields, on buffalos, walking cows, while others are seen searching for fish, frogs, and crabs as menu of the day's meal. Most kids in developed countries might be comfortably studying in schools in lovely uniforms, busy playing with computers, not worrying about helping family getting daily meals. On the way, villagers hitchhiked, we loaded them, and they gave us deep thanks. What a great day!
Phnom Kulen is located 42 kms north of Siem Reap town. The road is not rough as it is paved with laterite soil. Before long, we reached the base of Kulen and drove up after stopping at the checkpoint to pay the admission fee. Angkor is divided into three plains: upper referring to area close to Kulen, central referring to main complex of Angkor, and lower referring to area of Tonle Sap. The upper plain is not so fertile due to the run off caused by rains, while the central and lower ones are fertile for rice cultivation as the economic backbone of Cambodia. Now we were in the mountains, so shaded, and looked around to admire the canopy of forests and green paddy fields below. The road to the top of Kulen is now widened and smoother, which made our journey more comfortable than our previous trips. Along the way, it is common to see large sandstone rocks on both sides of the road.
Our pick up truck proceeded and at 10.30am we reached the peak of Phnom Kulen with its large, flat terrain. As soon as our car stopped, soldiers in uniform approached us for parking fees. We are told that these soldiers are an integrated team comprising the former Khmer Rouge and government forces. They have worked together for many years already, thus it is not logical now to distinguish which is of the government or the Khmer Rouge but to acknowledge that they are the Cambodian Royal Armed Forces. These soldiers are seen to influence administration of Phnom Kulen together with a powerful individual as Member of Parliament. They try to manage and exploit the site as much as they can, though they have little knowledge of tourism, conservation or whatsoever.
As we wish to move fast to see the obscure temples hidden in the jungle, we sent our friends, all of whom are girls and their mother, to rest by the giant waterfalls. Son and I quickly looked for motor taxi men who could guide us around. Of many motor taxi men, we chose Noun Moy and Chom Kim Leang. Moy is a soldier stationed there, but he takes time to run motor taxi, just to make a living. Moy and Leang drove us on motorbike through completely muddy paths, and rivers. It was not unusual to get off the motorbike when and where the roads are difficult and flooded. We walked, knee deep through the river, while Moy and Leang had to walk their motorbikes too. There we could hear nothing except the sound of the river and the jungle. We drove through green paddy fields, which we hardly believed existed on such a high peak. After the paddy fields, we arrived at a village named Anlong Thom where simple huts stood high above the ground made of stilts and wood. From under the house, on ladders and through windows, locals were watching us in mystery, and smiled as a sign of their greeting.
We wanted to spot the hidden ancient temples as quick as possible. Soon we arrived at O'Thma Dap, a name of the river after which the temple nearby takes its name. Over the rocks and through plants the water flows. Its sound and atmosphere so caught our feeling that we got off the motorbike to play with the water, which was cool and unpolluted. Next, we proceed to see the temple O'Thma Dap. It is made of bricks, stands still and in good condition. Unlike other temples I have seen, stucco remains. Relief of leaves and garlands of Kulen style on columns and walls are superb. One of the frontons impressed us by the carving of lion head who mouth holds tree branch flanked by leaves and stucco remains on the carving.
Son insisted I take photograph and share one with his employers, which I did. Then we walked into the tower, and we saw illegal excavation into foundations of the temple, committed by culprits who no doubt must have searched for fortune of valued objects and artifacts. It saddens everyone to see such tragedy. Bushes surround the temple, which made our moving around not easy. Nearby, we came across a big sandstone lintel whose relief has been partly chopped off. Of the total of 53 temples on Phnom Kulen, I believe O'Thma Dap is the finest temple remains still in good condition. We did not want to leave for its great beauty but we had to maximize our visit and see more temples.
Next, we visited another temple Prasat Chrei, also made of brick. Part of the building has collapsed and is almost overgrown by green plants and vines. No admirable relief on the building remain. But we were wrong. Our enthusiastic motor taximen Moy and Leang took us to see a fallen sandstone lintel, of which the carving really caught our attention and emotion of deep compassion. We thoroughly gazed at lines of lotus buds and underneath is a divinity holding a drum in one hand, while on the other hand he holds a sword. A legend must be associated with this relief, and it caught our mystery. With fondest interest, Moy tried to clean the lintel by his fingers and under the sword he showed to us more of carving of two females. He wanted to do more cleaning of the lintel but I asked him to move on, and he showed us another impressive part of colonette carved with lotus and leaves. Son asked me to shoot all of the relief for his Angkor Conservation employers. Not only did he ask me to shoot the relief, but also the evidence of illegal excavation.
We had to move onto another temple and arrived at Prasat Neak Ta, made of brick and also overgrown. We were not able to get close to this building, except to admire its red brickwork from the distance. After Prasat Neak Ta, we drove on, and on the way an ox cart appeared, which truly surprised us. We did not expect to see any cows pulling a cart on such mountains of high altitude. This existence is due to the large flat terrain of Phnom Kulen. It is common to see fruit gardens almost everywhere. Half an hour later we were taken to a village where we rested and chatted with the locals.
At one hut, two boys were sitting on a ladder, as if they were awaiting the return of their mother and father from routine of rice or fruit cultivation. They looked at us in apparent emotion of mystery and were happy to speak to us as visitors from the city. Before long, their mother and grandmother came. They told us of the education of their kids as primary school is now available in their community despite its remoteness. Unlike locals of other remote areas, the locals on Phnom Kulen are fresher in terms of physical condition as skin is fair, and better civilized too. One of the kids holds a radio and his mother wears a Western watch. After talking with the locals, I wish to move around their village and to find time for a few peaceful moments. I was given a surprise as I heard cheers ahead of me. I moved on to find out that under coconut trees, several naked kids were playing and having baths with water from the underground well. It was so quiet and peaceful.
We then visited the altar of Linga of Shiva where we saw nothing less than broken piece of Yoni and foundation bricks. After that we visited Prasat Koki which is totally collapsed, nothing we could see. Then we drove on to see Prasat O'Pong. On the way, we crossed a green rice field which was beautiful beyond our admiration. Our moment was not only refreshed with this rice field but also with sight of a tortoise. It was hanging on a piece of wood, and a red scarf of a farmer was placed next to it. This tells that a farmer must have been working nearby the field but we could not see him. He'd caught the tortoise and I guessed how much happiness he would bring to his family for a delicious meal of tortoise. Soon we arrived at O'Pong, the river, then the temple Prasat O'Pong. It is a tall temple and made of bricks. The building remains in good condition and is overgrown.
Next, I got to a very poor village called Kla Khmom where we stopped and found two residents to lead me to the temples which was my destination. After that we had to make a trip on foot, one of the residents walked in front of me carrying a sythe (the same style of sythe which king Suyavarman II hold, shown in the base-relief in Angkor Wat) to clear the forest in the way. We walked about 40 minutes and arrived at one Prasat, located on the east side of Phnom Kulen about 25 kms from the reclining Buddha. This prasat was in a very good location on the top of Phnom Kulen with beautiful landscape and fresh air. This temple was called Prasat Kraham and I could only see two towers. One tower is well preserved and is still standing up to the sky among the jungle but the other tower was fallen down and destroyed by nature, trees and people. The most important thing of this temple is one gargoyle still is well preserved and better than other 12th century temples. This temple made of red brick was coated by stucco, but all the carving and others images have disappeared.
After Prasat Kraham we came back to the village, took some rest after that continued to another prasat which is in the same location at the west of this village. We walked about 30 minutes then we got to one small and quiet temple which hide itself in the tropical jungle that nobody could find it easily. This temple was called Prasat Kla Khmom. I could see just one tower still standing and well preserved, facing to the east sunrise. It was made of red brick, coated by stucco but all carvings and statues had disappeared long ago.
Feeling a bit tired, we decided to end our visit and returned to our friends. After taking various shots by the giant waterfalls with all of our Khmer friends dressed so colourfully, we jumped on our truck to return home. I had a good day discovering the hidden gems of Kulen, and I told everyone of my discovery in the truck. They shared their joy with me. We cheered up and were happy. Suddenly our happy moment was ripped apart as our truck moved close to the base of the mountain.
A strange woman in ragged dress and untidy hair jumped to the road from behind top of large rocks on the side of the road. I thought it was just common to see that and she must be a simple farmer. No, I was wrong. She picked up a big stone and threw it with all her might at our truck. Fortunately, it missed our Khmer friends who were sat in the open back of the pick-up, while I sat safely in the front cabin. The stone strongly hit our truck. We were totally shocked and so was our driver that he unintentionally slowed down the speed of his car. We did not believe any strange hill-tribe exists in the mountains as the region has been modernized and administered by soldiers. Immediately, we realized that this woman must suffer from a nervous breakdown or something like that from her appearance. We asked our driver not to stop, and moved away as fast as possibly can. Quickly we arrived at the check-point again where soldiers confirmed to us of the existence of the woman and they told us that they did not know what to do with her and were afraid of arresting her. It was a strange end to an enjoyable day discovering the valued treasures on Phnom Kulen.
The above travelogue was written in September 2000 by Sok Thea and Mourn Phalla, two key personnel of Angkor Adventures, who have been amongst a small trickle of visitors to the remote temples on Phnom Kulen. They also took the photographs reproduced here. My grateful thanks to them both for their sense of adventure and their friendship. # A note of caution - Phnom Kulen is not landmine-free. Get a local guide and do not stray off the paths.
This website is dedicated to the memory of... Sok Thea, a personal friend and managing director of a Siem Reap-based tour company, Angkor Adventures, who died in 2000 at the age of 29. I will miss but always remember Thea's boundless enthusiasm, sense of adventure and his friendship.
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