Up amid the jungle on the Kulen Mountain Plateau lies Kbal Spean, not a temple but a natural bridge which lends its name to the river it crosses and the Angkorian site found here, where sacred linga are carved deep into the bedrock riverbed. The linga — a phallic symbol of fertility representing Hindu god Shiva — along with Hindu deities are blessed by the water flowing across them, which eventually passes downstream once sanctified and into the fields around Angkor and the Siem Reap river. The site was “discovered” in 1968.
Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma are all in attendance and the Sanskrit name, Sahasralinga, or “river of a thousand lingas”, gives a hint of the linga abundance going on (though there’s not quite actually a thousand of them). For the most part, the circular top of the linga has been carved, rather than the full 3D effect, sometimes along with the female counterpart of square symbolic yonis.
Kbal Spean also features a small, attractive waterfall – though not as impressive as Kulen Mountain; it’s more for feet-dipping than swimming, as are the couple of small water holes nearby if you feel you’re in need of a bit of blessing yourself. The linga carvings, however, are extensive and split across different levels, as well as there being various sculptures and inscriptions to spot.
Aside from the historical interest of the site and the appeal of understanding all the phallic symbolism going on here, Kbal Spean is great for those who want a little more adventure. Located around 50 kilometres northeast of Siem Reap, the site is reached via a 1.5 kilometre trail (one-way) that winds up from the car park to the riverbed commencing on a sandy path before turning its way up alongside tree roots and vines and over large boulders. Around half way up there are scenic views across the jungle – though don’t expect any from the top. This 45-minute hike won’t pose a challenge for the fit and active, but proper shoes are worthwhile since you do clamber over a few rocks. Another reason it may appeal to nature lovers is that Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) is at its base, where visitors are welcomed.
Kulen Mountain also has linga carvings in the river bed, though not nearly as many or as impressive. In short, think better carvings at Kbal Spean with some exercise to get there, better waterfall at Kulen Mountain with fewer carvings and no walking. It’s only worth visiting either Kbal Spean or Kulen Mountain – there’s no real need to see both. Kbal Spean, unlike Kulen Mountain, is covered in the Angkor Pass for the Park.
Due to the location of Kbal Spean it combines very well with Banteay Srei, which sits outside the central Angkor Area. In a single day there would also be enough time to add on another temple, such as Banteay Samre or head further afield to Beng Mealea for what would then be a long day out.
There are a handful of restaurants and souvenir sellers at the car park for Kbal Spean; drivers require a supplement charge to account for the extra distance covered to get here – you’ll need to hire a car for this trip.
Best at the tail-end of the monsoon (October to December) when there’s water but not too much, Kbal Spean is well worth a visit, both for the intricate carvings and the very pleasing jungle setting.
By Caroline Major
Last updated on 21st January, 2015.