Moss-swathed temples ensconced in jungle are waiting to be found on Phnom Kulen, “Mountain of the Lychees”. The low-lying plateau, 40 kilometres from Siem Reap, draws local and tourists alike to its cooling cascades, river carvings and prominent hill top pagoda, which together make for a popular and well-rounded day trip. Yet those with a taste for adventure will benefit further by traversing terrain little frequented with a moto tour of Phnom Kulen to its less visited sites.
If ever you wondered how much a Honda Dream motorbike can really cope with, this is the test. Crossing streams, bouncing, bumping and battering your way across the sandstone plateau is a fun journey, if not the most comfortable. You can arrive at Kulen by more conventional means — a car or van — then after paying the entry fee meet the local moto drivers at the top of the ‘mountain’. These guys are a whizz at covering their usual routes, but this won’t feel like a run of the mill tour where you’re herded from site to site. Rather, you’re likely to be the only tourist in sight.
The nearest, and most visited, of the lesser visited sites is Srah Damrei meaning “Elephant Pond.” There’s no longer much water here, where impressive elephant and lion statues now commandeer this jungle hideaway; wandering through the trees you can peek out and see the panoramic plains below. If you’ve not got time for a full moto tour but want to venture beyond the otherwise busy tourist sites of Kulen, this is the one.
Continuing on you reach the ‘bat cave’. Orange-clad monks stationed here will be glad to assist with a torch – essential – and act as a guide. Delve into dark depths of the cave, a place of worship and, as the name suggests, home of many bats. Shine your torch upwards to see them flutter overhead. Climbing up above the cave reaches just one of the many viewpoints to be found up on Kulen.
The temples crumbling on Kulen include Aran Rung Chen and Pa Oung; it’s true that none are as impressive as those found in the central Angkor complex, but they offer a charm of their own in their dilapidated states, offering the closest you’ll get to a sense of first-time discovery. In fact, the plateau has been confirmed as the site of the so-called ‘lost city’ of Mahendraparvata, former ancient Khmer capital believed to be the birthplace of the Empire, proving that there’s more to Kulen than first meets the eye.
A motorbike tour also typically encompasses a stop at the modern cliff top pagoda Wat Preak Krau, another great viewpoint. The tour lasts about four hours, ending up back at the waterfall which is the best place to get lunch as it is well set up for the day trippers to the standard sites. You might also just have time to take a quick dip, before the two-hour journey back to Siem Reap town.
A moto tour of Phnom Kulen’s less visited sites is not an activity for those who need to travel in comfort or are super short on cash – you’re going to need to pay a vehicle to get you to Kulen and back, the rather pricey entrance ticket ($20), moto driver (US$13-15 per person) and guide hire (plus their moto!). A guide is well recommended because the moto drivers don’t speak much English – so you’re at the very least going to need a guide or tour operator to book them for you in the first place. When taking on the services of a guide it is worth checking they have been to the lesser visited sites before – they’re so well off the beaten path that many have not. But this is precisely the reason it is worth the effort to visit.