Ninety minutes north-east of the centre of Siem Reap awaits Phnom Kulen; a lush, green canvas of jungle dressing a mountainous plateau that stretches far out across the horizon.
The best way to reach Kulen is by motorcycle, moped or any other fatally lethal, motorised and cyclical form of transport. Driving through the generously, glorious, provincial countryside and roads that your testicles would define as ‘character building,’ you will finally ascend biblically between the glare-filtering greenery that hugs the road; twisting its way precariously up the mountain.
Kulen, which was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List in 1992 in the Cultural category, has been a pilgrimage site for Hindus and Buddhists alike. Phnom Kulen is blessed with two waterfalls, fed by the Chup Preah stream, perfect for a dip, where a lovely, affable woman in a makeshift shack is waiting to provide you with second-hand trunks, while she guards the door. For geology fetishists, Kulen is also made up entirely of sandstone (sexy) and was used as a former quarry.
The holy peak hosts a market that trades all manner of trinkets, including scorpion liquors and taxidermy; a perfect stop for when accompanied by your increasingly, intolerable vegan friends of whom you’re really beginning to despise. Following steps that spill out majestically and somewhat ominously, you find yourself reaching the summit; home to the reclining statue of the Buddha that rests within a tiny pagoda. Locals and tourists bless the Buddha with offerings, both financial and otherwise to bring them luck and prosperity throughout the year.
A step outside the pagoda will slap you with an uninterrupted view of the jungle, as congregations chant and burn incense thick and sweet. The ethereal serenity of the village tickles the synapses, as you stumble around clueless that a place as alien, magical and wonderfully weird could even exist. Kulen Mountain truly is a gorgeous, offbeat, mesmerising place that should stand above the temple-hopping that saturates your Siem Reap itinerary.
Places to stay (in nearby Siem Reap):
- Mad Monkey Hostel, Siem Reap: Great atmosphere, well equipped, helpful staff and a dandy location; just a short walk to Pub Street. The perfect backpacker’s hideout.
- Siem Reap Hostel, Siem Reap: Ideal for the extrovert or the recluse, a lovely hostel that gazes out over the Wat Dam Nak Temple.
- Funky Flashpacker Hostel, Siem Reap: An orgy of fluorescence, neon lights sleek surfaces, pool shenanigans and hip-hoppity music. Atrocious and sublime.
- Golden Temple Villa, Siem Reap: Beautiful and traditional villa located in the Old Market area. Very accommodating and suspiciously friendly staff. Even offers a complimentary massage.
Things to do in Phnom Kulen:
- Swimming in the waterfall: A trip to Phnom Kulen would be incomplete without receiving a free aqua massage from Mother Nature or floating around idly and staring into the heavens like the pensive dick that you are.
- Visiting the summit: Buddhas. Pagodas. Shrines. Eccentric locals and arachnid aperitifs. The small climb is most certainly worth the endeavour.
- Taking in the views: The scenery from the summit is staggering and truly peaceful.
- Travelling from Siem Reap, the journey takes approximately an hour and thirty minutes; 55km North East. You can get there by local bus or taxi from the centre of Siem Reap.
Where to go next?
- Phnom Penh: Cambodia’s capital is a collection of Buddhist architecture, French Colonialism and Western Development. It’s a city with an identity crisis, but one that is more fruitful than it is problematic. The city is flushed with fantastic cafes, bars and restaurants and is always complimented by the Mekong that flows right through its heart. Markets are aplenty and the hilltop temples are stunning and leave you with truly awesome views. You will be hassled persistently whether you would like weed or ‘boom boom,’ but after a short stay in Siem Reap you will have become accustomed to this tone of salesmanship. There’s a strong backpacker scene without there being a hideous influx of tourism. The country’s troubled recent history still holds a place today in the capital, within the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, which gives a fascinating and yet tragic insight into the reign of the Khmer Rouge.
- Sihanoukville: Debauchery by the sea. Sihanoukville has no charm whatsoever. And that’s its charm. But it does have free shots. Lots of free shots. And fire-eaters. And splendid beaches. Otres beach, in particular, stands out among the rest, as an unpopulated, undemonised, untouched slice of coastal loveliness that is detached from the town’s abrasive nature.
- Battambang: This charming and attractive colonial little city homes nonchalant coffee shops and handsome architecture. It’s the ideal alternative to the typical Cambodian route
By Ryan Cherrington