Photo: More than just temples.

Phnom Kulen

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The low-lying sandstone plateau of Phnom Kulen is 40 kilometres away from Siem Reap and the main Angkor Archaeological Park, taking around two hours by car or van. If offers both popular and less-popular ruins, some waterfalls and some terrific viewpoints.

Sprinkled with many hard to reach crumbling ruins, the intrepid traveller can reach the less visited sites by moto. However, the key attractions are all easily accessible by road, which winds its way up to the top with some impressive viewpoints on the way up worth pausing for.

Count your lingas. Photo taken in or around Phnom Kulen, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Count your lingas. Photo: Caroline Major

The main draws are the cooling cascades of the waterfall, the reclining Buddha—the largest in Cambodia—at Wat Preah Ang Thom pagoda and the 1,000 linga river carvings. Phnom Kulen attracts locals and tourists alike since this sacred mountain is the birthplace of the Khmer Empire and an important religious site. Crowds can be particularly busy on public holidays and weekends.

The waterfall has two levels; the upper is about five metres high, the lower about 20 metres. To reach the latter you descend down a not especially sturdy wooden staircase, which is not engineered for very young, elderly or the less nimble. But by making it down you are rewarded with a wide waterfall that you can swim in. Get changed in simple cubicles at the top and please do remember to dress appropriately. Whether you find the waterfall to have an incredible jaw-dropping wow factor is not guaranteed, but it still makes for a very pleasant compliment to temple sites with its lush jungle setting.

Now that is a waterfall. Photo taken in or around Phnom Kulen, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Now that is a waterfall. Photo: Caroline Major

The river of 1000 lingas, Angkorian carvings carefully etched into the riverbed holding religious significance, rest just a few centimetres below the water’s surface when levels are low; they’re not so easily seen when the water is high. They are not to be confused with those at Kbal Spean, which makes for a good alternative to Kulen Mountain. Like Kulen Mountain, Kbal Spean can similarly be combined with a temple visit to create a full day’s excursion.

Check out the active pagoda, home to the reclining Buddha, which really only takes a few moments to visit. There are plenty of local restaurants around since Phnom Kulen is a popular picnic spot for Khmer friends and families.

Rest your head. Photo taken in or around Phnom Kulen, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Gaylard.

Rest your head. Photo: Caroline Gaylard

The 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 from there 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.

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘E’. Photo taken in or around Phnom Kulen, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

I spy with my little eye, something beginning with ‘E’. Photo: Caroline Major

Other 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, a 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.

Sufficiently blurred to trick you into thinking the ride is smooth. Photo taken in or around Phnom Kulen, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Sufficiently blurred to trick you into thinking the ride is smooth. Photo: Caroline Major

To access Kulen Mountain you need to pay US$20, on top of your standard temple pass required to visit any of the sites in the main park on the same day. This means visiting Phnom Kulen is not a particularly budget day out, but it is one that delivers contrasts. Combine a visit with further afield temple highlights such as Beng Mealea or Banteay Srei to create a full day itinerary.

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, moto driver (US$13-15 per person) and guide hire (plus their moto!). 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 some have not. But this is precisely the reason it is worth the effort to visit.

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Phnom Kulen
40km from Siem Reap
Admission: US$20

Location map for Phnom Kulen

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