A day out on Phnom Kulen

Noung (with hat) and Sokchata, pictured at Banteay Srei Armed with a large picnic, Sok Thea, our driver Rang and myself headed off in our sturdy pick-up truck through the Angkor complex and out to the small village market next to Srah Srang lake to collect our Khmer companions for the day's outing to the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen. I'd invited an old friend, Noung, a teenage souvenir seller from Angkor Wat, together with her elder sister Sokchata (pictured right), brother Plon and cousin Srey as a thank you for the hospitality and generosity she'd shown me on both this and my last visit in March 1998. Whilst Thea and I afforded ourselves the luxury of seats in the front cab, our friends cheerfully climbed into the open-top rear of the pick-up for the ninety minute drive to the mountain park.

The tranquil Kulen river, just above the riverbed carvingsOur first obstacle was the appalling road surface between Pradak village and the temple of Banteay Srei, some 30 kilometres from Siem Reap. In the back of the truck, our companions were unceremoniously shunted from side to side as Rang struggled manfully to negotiate a road inundated with large potholes and craters. We took a right fork opposite the temple entrance and the road improved almost immediately although a couple of craters were as deep as the truck itself. Houses were sparse and recent logging of the surrounding forest was evident before we pulled up at the entrance barrier at the foot of the Kulen mountain escarpment. Our arrival sparked no more than a glimmer of interest from the card-playing army guards on duty, who demanded 5,000 riel for each Khmer passenger and an exorbitant $20 for the foreigner in the front seat. I understand the Kulen park is run by a group headed by top local officials and they have autonomy in fixing the admission price, much to the government's annoyance.

Some of the spectacular riverbed carvings on Phnom KulenRang's skills as a driver were again put to the test on the eight kilometre drive to the top of the plateau. Recent rains and logging trucks had left the narrow, winding unsealed road deeply rutted and bumpy and everyone was more than a little happy when the roller-coaster ride ended on arrival at a makeshift parking area. Nearby, a tatty collection of stalls boasted inedible-looking food and a few cans of drink, while high volume chanting by a monk asking for donations over an inordinately loud tannoy system didn't bode too well for the rest of the park's facilities. Historically, Phnom Kulen is revered amongst all Cambodians as a sacred place of pilgrimage and is usually busy with hordes of locals at weekends. It was the site, then known as Mount Mahendraparvata, that Jayavarman II chose in 802 to proclaim himself a divine universal ruler and marked the beginning of the Angkor period in Khmer history. A former The giant reclining Buddha at Preah Ang ThomKhmer Rouge stronghold for the last twenty years, it was heavily mined and out of bounds until a series of defections to the government side in 1998 allowed locals and tourists the opportunity to visit this ancient site once more.

Leaving the chanting monk behind us, we walked onto the plateau and just a few metres into a wooded area, a wobbly wooden bridge across a fast-flowing river signalled the site of some of Kulen's spectacular riverbed rock carvings (above right). With the sun streaming through the forest canopy, we took off our shoes to paddle in the crystal-clear water, known as the 'River of a Thousand Lingas,' to inspect the distinctive series of sandstone lingas and carvings of Shiva, Krishna and other ancient inscriptions at close quarters. Legend suggests that the lingas fertilize the water which in turn flows down to irrigate the rice-fields of the Angkor floodplain.

Twelve disciple faces carved into the rock beneath the reclining BuddhaAfter a short moto ride, we arrived at another collection of stalls selling herbs and roots used in traditional medicine and a second monk using a hand-held microphone to appeal for funds. This time it was to help with the upkeep of Preah Ang Thom, a Buddhist temple perched on top of one of a number of giant boulders and housing a massive 17-metre long reclining Buddha carved out of solid rock (above). We took off our shoes as we climbed the stairs to the temple, admiring the spectacular views of the forest canopy and surrounding countryside below. The brightly-painted carving, believed to date from the 11th century, is surrounded by prayer flags, with a series of twelve carved faces of disciples at its base (right) and hundreds of visitors signatures, carved in the rock at the back of the statue. A Some of the Buddhas looked after by a hermit monkKhmer family were making an offering of incense sticks as we left and more families passed us on the stairs with the same intention. Thea then suggested we take a narrow trail into the forest to visit the home of a hermit monk, who showed us his tiny, bare shelter wedged under another large boulder and nearby, a painted Buddha and naga carving and a collection of one hundred identical statues (left), which he was in charge of. Returning briefly to the foot of Preah Ang Thom, we were reunited with the rest of our small group and made our way along a twisting path towards a series of waterfalls and a picnic area. As I spotted the river through the trees, an ancient laterite temple, called Teck Tlak and dating from the ninth century, also caught my eye on the right-hand side of the path and despite the ever-present threat of landmines, I tentatively explored the ruins before crossing the log bridge over the river.

More riverbed carvings just above the large waterfallA dozen covered wooden platforms and a few food stalls overlook the river, which on closer inspection revealed more extraordinary riverbed rock carvings. Even I could identify Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta (right) and also sat on a throne holding four weapons, with his wife Lakshmi at his feet. The river then falls over a series of small rapids where Khmer families were bathing, most of them fully clothed, before it disappears from view over a dramatic 35-metre waterfall (below). We commandeered one of the picnic platforms to eat our packed lunch of curried chicken, amok fish, vegetables and rice before carefully tackling a tricky sloping path that led down to the base of the larger waterfall. Surrounded by jungle, the whole scene looked pretty impressive and we posed for photos before retracing our steps up to the picnic area and along a rubbish-strewn path back to the car park.

The impressive 35-metre waterfall on Phnom KulenOn another lower part of the Kulen mountain range, tourists can now visit an area known as Kbal Spean, containing more underwater and partially submerged riverbed rock carvings, as well as waterfalls amid some beautifully forested lowland. The pictures that I've seen of the engravings are striking but its at least a half-day trip from Siem Reap and without enough time to include it on this occasion, I will pencil it in for a future visit.

It took us forty minutes to wind our way down the mountain and another two hours before we reached Noung's home village of Rahal, next to the lake at Srah Srang. To round off an enjoyable day, Thea and I accepted an invitation to visit their home and to meet her grandparents and siblings (their parents were busy working in their rice field not far from Phnom Kulen). Twelve family members live and sleep in a traditional one-roomed bamboo shack, built on stilts. The room was sparsely decorated with framed photographs of both Noung and Sokchata and in a dark corner was the family's only visible luxury item, a battery-powered black and white tv set, next to a small shrine. As we re-emerged, it seemed that most of the village had gathered at the foot of the steps leading to the house to catch a glimpse of the visiting stranger, still a rare occurrence despite the village's close proximity to some of Angkor's major monuments. As they willingly do everywhere, the youngest children posed for some pictures before I said my goodbyes to Noung and her family for the final time. The day's outing had been a major success, as had the previous day's visit to the temple of Banteay Srei with the same family group, and I'm grateful to them and the irrepressible Sok Thea for their wonderful company that made my visit to Siem Reap and Angkor so enjoyable.

Children pose for the camera in front of Noung's home

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