The sound of Phnom Kulen’s famous waterfall pounding over the cliff into a clear pool, reached us before we saw it. There’s often a certain excitement or anticipation about approaching waterfalls. The air around you changes. It gets a bit cooler and damper and the smell of fresh water permeates the nostrils. Squeals of excitement from children and chatter from adults carries through the air. A splash, a shout, it all makes you move a little faster so you can join the fun. Especially when the day is a scorcher and the sweat runs down your back in rivulets.
So we made our way along the dusty track, past the stalls of local medicines and phallic symbols and the over-priced restaurants touting for our business and emerged at the edge of a shallow pool — a small waterfall flowing into it.
It was shallow enough we could wade across to the ancient temple ruins on the other side.
Coming back we saw a family dressed up in what looked like it could have been Polynesian attire. They were lined up and taking photos and selfies.
We thought it might be a special celebration but it turns out it’s a fun thing to do at Kulen Mountain. They hire the outfits, which are actually from an indigenous Khmer culture and take photos at the falls. There’s always something new to see in this country!
Anyway, we pretty quickly worked out the best place to be was at the bottom of the big waterfall so we found the path and headed down the steps.
It’s a steep incline and at the bottom a small path winds its way between boulders and trees and over tree roots until you come out at some flatter rocks and a small area of decking on the edge of the pool.
On this trip the water was clear as crystal and the waterfall was pounding. On our second visit in March, much less water was flowing and on the third visit, during wet season, the waterfall was pumping and the rock pool was quite murky.
It’s refreshing to get in the water and cool off, especially in Cambodia’s scorching hot months. If you can stand the pounding water, swim up and sit under the waterfall. If you stay still too long, you’re likely to experience a few fish nibbling at your feet and legs.
We took some snacks and sat on the rocks with our cheese and biscuits and fruit and chatted while people frolicked around. At one point a group of monks wandered around the back and could soon be seen under the waterfall, their saffron robes stripped to the minimum.
The waterfall was the last stop on our trip to Phnom Kulen. We started at Preah Ang Thom, a 16th century pagoda situated at the top of the hill.
This also involved a walk past market stalls with wooden and stone penises, ranging from small to huge, and what looked remarkably like tusks and tigers’ claws and teeth. I can only assume they were genuine, but they were openly on display and when I enquired about the price of a couple of small tusks, it was only about $40 so hopefully they are not elephant tusks. Still, it was alarming to see them at all and surprising they were so blatantly displayed. I stopped at the end of the market stalls and bought a lotus flower to offer to the buddha.
Beggars line both sides of the staircase up to the pagoda complex and when you reach the top, ladies are waiting to take your shoes and look after them while you wander around. You don’t need to leave your shoes here, and may actually need them if you want to explore further. The expectation is that you will make a donation to them for “minding” your shoes. We did it the first time but not on subsequent visits.
It’s a hive of activity when you get to the top. There are various shrines where you can make an offering or be blessed by the monks. Or you may want to make a donation to this man and wash yourself with the holy water that flows over this linga. I think it’s meant to encourage fertility as well but didn’t have a Khmer person with us to confirm.
At the top of another staircase you can visit the huge sleeping buddha. It was crowded on all the visits I’ve made, with people stopping in the small space to make offerings and take photos.
After the visit to the sleeping buddha our driver took us to the river of 1000 lingas.
We were met by a little urchin of about six, who pointed towards the river and told us the thousand lingas were that way. As we walked off he walked in front and we realised pretty quickly that he had appointed himself our guide and he told us a few times: “this is the thousand lingas”. At this point I decided the best play was to be up front and I said to him: “we are not going to pay you”. To that he replied “okay” and strolled away. We were met by other youngsters on our walk along the river, some giggling and calling out “hallo”, others trying to sell us things — possibly bottles of sand, as it is considered sacred.
So, back to the lingas.
The river here is lined with lingas – lingas are symbolic of the penis. But don’t expect to see big phallic carvings protruding from the water. These penises have had water running over them for 1000 years so perhaps their erections have shrunk with its erosive powers or maybe 1000 years ago they did not feel the need to be so obvious. Apparently the course of the river was changed to enable the creation of the carvings on the riverbed. They are just below the water’s surface and worth a look. The walk along the river is peaceful with some pretty landscape. Not many visitors venture far along the path, most seem content to see the closest linga and head off again.
Phnom Kulen, or Kulen Mountain, literally means mountain of lychees. It is home to thousands of lychee trees, which generally fruit in April around the time of the Khmer New Year celebrations. Sadly, we always seem to miss lychee season when we visit. But we’ve tried the red bananas. Yes, they’re red. Well, they’re skins are red. They taste exactly like bananas with loads of flavour.
Phnom Kulen is considered by many Cambodians as a sacred or holy mountain and is a popular spot for locals and domestic tourists to visit on weekends and holidays.
Preah Ang Thom and the reclining buddha
Preah Ang Thom dates back to about the 16th century. The Buddhist pagoda is home to the reclining (or sleeping) buddha and is considered to be a sacred site for Cambodians. It is apparently the biggest reclining buddha in Cambodia.
The giant buddha is carved out of a massive rock and is situated about eight metres off the ground. A set of stairs lead you up the side of the rock face to a small area where the buddha is enclosed. A walkway goes past the front and then around the back of the buddha, which is still the natural stone.
Sadly, some people have graffitied the stone, making it necessary for a sign requesting people not to write on the buddha.
The river of 1000 lingas
The River of 1000 lingas dates back to an era when hindu gods were worshiped, more than 1000 years ago. The lingas are a phallic symbol of the hindu god, Shiva and it was believed the water running over them was purified and was more fertile for irrigating the rice fields. People today still consider it to be holy water and when they are sick they drink water from the river. Some collect the sand and the water for health and spiritual purposes.
Phnom Kulen waterfall
The waterfall is a popular spot with locals and it gets crowded on weekends — especially Sundays.
It’s quite a steep climb down stairs to the waterfall, where a small path winds between the rocks and trees to the rock pool.
A few change rooms are set up, which you can use for $1. The same ladies will also charge you $1 to store your things in a lockable chest. The key is on a string you can put around your wrist.
The locals wear very conservative swimming gear and it is not unusual to see them swimming full clothed. A Cambodian friend tells us westerners do not need to be so conservative and can wear bikinis in the water but it is perhaps more respectful to don a t-shirt and/or some shorts when swimming here.
The drive from Siem Reap to Phnom Kulen is long but scenic. Bright green rice fields make way for villages with bustling markets and local restaurants. Traditional wooden houses line the roads, some big, new and impressive — others small and dilapidated. Water buffalo dot the fields or languish in muddy waterways, while skinny white brahman cows graze on the side of the road.After months of open-air transport (bikes, motorbikes and tuk tuks), being enclosed in an air-conditioned car is strange but the best way to get to there.
Transport: minibus, private taxi or car is best. It takes a bit over an hour to get there from Siem Reap.
Tuk tuks: Can’t get up the steep incline so even if you get a tuk tuk to the base of the mountain, you will need to get a moto to the top.
Tickets: cost foreigners $20.
Times: The road is narrow and only one way, so before 1pm you can only drive up. After 1pm you can only drive down. So don’t plan to get there after 1pm.