At the Phnom Kulen
The Phnom Kulen is a sandstone plateau, some 30 km north-east of Angkor.
There are three different sites:
- Mahendraparvata, a group of temples, built about 800.
- Preah Ang Thom, a relief of the Buddha, dated 1586.
- Srah Damrei, an animist shrine of probably recent past.
- Peung Komnou, reliefs by an 11th century's hermit
The city on the Phnom Kulen, results of research
The Phnom Kulen (“Litchi Mountain”) is a sandstone plateau, northeast of Angkor, 320 to 380 m over sea level.
South of the well known Preah Thom (Buddha) until the edges of the plateau is an area which was first explored 1937 and 1938:
“... some thirty temples in a space of five or six miles square ...” (Briggs, p. 88 f.)
The detail of the archaeological map covers 20 km east-west and 12.5 km north-south. (CAC, Province de Siem Reap, 2007.)
This is the place of the founding event of Cambodia.
The inscription of Sdok Kak Thom, from about 1052, tells us that King Jayavarman II went to reign at Mahendraparvata (“The Mountain of the Great Indra”) where he was declared chakravartin (“ruler of the Khmer world”) and became king of an independent and unified Cambodia. (Coe, p. 99.)
In the 1970s the area became a stronghold of the Khmer Rouge. In the 1990s it was almost completely logged.
See the link to the Archaeology & Development Foundation: Phnom Kulen Program.
The Khmer Archaeology Lidar Consortium has
revealed the surface of an area of 370 square kilometres.
“... [W]e saw an immediate picture of an entire city ...” (Evans).
Twenty-two more temples were identified.
Mahendraparvata is a well known and rarely visited site. The main obstacle is that foreigners have to pay $ 20.00 to the private owner of the road up the hill.
It’s going on at the Phnom Kulen. No results are published so far. We are waiting.
So far the “news” are only new to those who are not up to date.
Preah Thom or: Preah Ang Thom is a relief of the transcending Buddha on the top of a sandstone boulder. It is of post-Angkorian age, dated 1586.
Nearby is Prasat Kraol Romeas , locally called Prasat Toek Thlea , a small laterite temple from the Bayon era, in poor condition. It is surrounded by an enclosure wall, which is cut through by a river. In the water are some reliefs. The site is disfigured by picnic shelters.
A few meters down, there is a waterfall. Some hundred meters west of Preah Thom is a second river with reliefs.
There are also some mediocre sights.
The Phnom-Kulen Scam
Agents, guides and drivers may be very keen to bring you to this "Phnom Kulen", and to make money with it. But:
- Preah Thom is not “consecrated ground” or the “cradle of Cambodia”; Mahendraparvata is 6 km south-east.
- Preah Thom is not the biggest Buddha. The reclining Buddha at Prasat Phnom Baset, north of Phnom Penh, is older and bigger.
- Picturing the Buddha lying on his left side is an offence
against the strict rules of Buddhist iconography; this relief is an
awkward copy or a product of slovenliness.
Or here the Buddha is simply resting, and not transcending .
- From Preah Thom there is no view to the plain of Angkor.
The trip is not worth 20 $ or a day of your stay in Angkor.
The beaten path
From Angkor you follow the road from Preah Dak village to the north. At the junction 2 km before Banteay Srei you keep right. After the next junction is a checkpoint, it is closed at 12 am.
Foreigners pay $ 20 toll per person to the private owner of the road. Cheaper tickets are available at Riverside Hotel in Siem Reap.(Lonely Planet Cambodia, 2008, p. 177.)
A fine laterite road goes up the hill.
Preah Thom is a profit-orientated, unfriendly, dirty place, with poor
food stalls and no toilets. There are a lot of local visitors, mainly
on the weekends.
Via Svay Leu
You can stay overnight in the guesthouse in Svay Leu (for this you need mosquito coils and a torch).
Next morning you walk up to Wat Ta Pen , east of Ta Pen village. You don't need a scout for this pretty and bustling footpath. There is one fork near the foot of the hill, here you keep right.
Your driver goes via Preah Thom and Anlong Thom village to Wat Ta Pen. (Locals pay $1 road fee.)
Another pleasant foot walk
At the junction before the checkpoint you turn right, towards Beng Mealea. After 6.5 km is Wat Prohm Bram Bei ("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 or later. There is also a shrine for neak ta (ancestor spirits).
From there a stairway climbs up to the plateau, a fine walk again; first to the "Thousand Linga", then to Preah Thom, 1 to 2 hours, no entrance fee.
Beyond Preah Thom
A poor road leads from Preah Thom to the villages Anlong Thom, Ta Pen, Khla Khmum, and back to Preah Thom. You need a motor bike. The way may be impassable in the rainy season. Take water with you and food; up the hills you will get nothing. To move around you need local scouts, you find them in the villages. You have to walk some distance. Don't try to do this on your own! Maybe there are landmines.
At the edge of the Kulen plateau are some huge sculptures of unknown age, showing animals like an elephant, lions, a frog and a bull. There is an amazing view to the plain of Angkor.
Access to Sra Damrei
At the direct road from Banteay Srei to Beng Mealea you find a place called Sorsey, near Skuon village. Here is a sign in Khmer: "Footpath to Srah Damrei". You climb up this path for an hour or so. It is strenuous but not difficult.
- Parmentier 1927.
- Roveda 2005, p. 328 f.
- CAC, Province de Siem Reap , 2007.
Huge sandstone boulders are scattered at the slope of the easternmost corner of the Phnom Kulen, north of Svay Leu, 2.5 km as the crow flies. Access by a dirt lane.
I have visited this site in January 2014 conducted by Noel Hidalgo Tan.
The reliefs are remarkable.
In an inscription, dated 1074, a hermit writes that he has carved the reliefs.
Access: Follow the road from Svay Leu to Koh Ker. After c. 1 km a road branches to the north, left side. This you follow c. 2.5 km. Then a small way runs west, left, c. 1km, maybe foot walk. A local scout is recommended.
Reference: GAC 5, p. 170-174.