Nestling in the southern extension of the Dangrek Mountains in the Svay Leu District, 48 kilometres away from Siem Reap rests the Phnom Kulen National Park. One of the most scenic and historically significant locations in the area, the park falls along the journey to Prasat Banteay Srei, making a beautiful natural complement to the intricate manmade wonders of the ancient citadel.
Unfortunately, the waterfalls in the park are ‘owned’ by a businessman from Siem Reap with ‘high’ connections, who charges an outrageous $20 to see this natural resource. But read on to discover how to avoid this scam.
River of a Thousand Lingas
Blanketed with lush green vegetation and adorned with waterfalls, the mountain slopes gently into a scenic valley at its foot. The grounds are peppered with spots of special note, both natural and manmade in significance. The Chup Preah is a plain in the valley surrounded by cool streams.
One of the most celebrated aspects combining the natural and the manmade is Kbal Spean, or the River of a Thousand Lingas. The sandstone rock bed of this shallow river is carvings of the Shiva phallus and its female counterpart Yoni symbols, interspersed with depictions of reclining Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma gods. This is said to have been done to assist the scared waters in better fertilizing the plains below.
In the Hindu tradition, water flowing over the lingas is sacred and holy, and many Cambodians bottle the water from the downriver waterfalls.
Avoid the Reclining Buddha
The terrace of Sdach Kamlung is notable for the small ruined temple Preah Thom at its centre, found upstream from one of the waterfalls. One of the most imposing sights is the statue of the reclining Buddha that has been carved out of a giant sandstone boulder and stands at a height of 8 meters. This is flanked by two towering and rare Cham Pa trees.
Although imposing, it is not the biggest Buddha in Cambodia. The reclining Buddha at Prasat Phnom Baset, north of Phnom Penh, is older and bigger. And there is something odd about this Buddha at Phnom Kulen: he is lying on his left side which is an offence against the strict rules of Buddhist iconography; this relief is a fake copy. Preah Thom is a profit-orientated, unfriendly place, with poor food stalls and no toilets. There are a lot of local visitors, mainly on the weekends.
The Waterfalls Scam
Two magnificent waterfalls are the crowning beauties of the park. One is relatively short, but boasts a width while the other falls from a height of 15 meters. The multi-tiered descent of rock face makes the resulting cascades of white water ever more enchanting and musical. The area at the top of the taller falls is ideal for picnics and a tranquil rest after a day of climbing and sight-seeing.
Unfortunately, a businessman has been given exclusive rights to privately develop this national resource and the guy really wants to raise some revenue, setting an entrance fee charge of $20 (you read that correctly!) for a foreigner to ride up and see the waterfall, which is about 10 km from the ticket checkpoint area.
This site should not be visited, not even when you see the ticket ‘promotion’ at City Angkor Hotel in Siem Reap where the ticket ‘only’ costs $12. Guess who the owner of that hotel is? Right, the same ‘businessman’ that ‘owns’ the waterfalls! Going there will only support the scam.
How to get there but avoid the scam
So, how to get to Phnom Kulen, but avoid the scam? Drive to Banteay Srey and take the road north for about half an hour. At the junction before the checkpoint you turn right, towards Beng Mealea. After 6.5 km is Wat Prohm Bram Bey (‘Eight Brahmas’) on the left. Leave your vehicle at a shop on the foot of the concrete stairway. After some 20 minutes easy walk you are at Wat Preah Cup, a sacred spring, (bring a bottle with you) and a swimming pool. The relief shows the Buddha standing between a kneeling elephant and a coiled naga. It looks like a clumsy copy and may be from the 16th century. There is also a shrine for neak ta (local spirits).
Phnom Kulen was used as the final stronghold of the Khmer Rouge regime and before the construction of a private toll road, was relatively inaccessible or slow going, depending on weather conditions. Even now, tourists are warned not to wander off beaten tracks for fear of hidden mines. Some question that the locals are protecting the sanctity of this spot as thousands of Cambodians visit every year without incident.