Phnom Kulen literally translates as Mountain of the Lychees in Khmer, it is considered to be Cambodia’s most sacred mountain and is a fantastic day out for any visitor to Siem Reap.
The main attraction within the national park are the beautiful waterfalls that adorn the top of Kulen Mountain and it’s also a perfect picnic spot to stop and take lunch.
It’s around 1 hour 30 minutes to drive from Siem Reap and if you want to go all the way to the top by car, make sure you get there early as the road can get congested later in the day.
Apart from its many temples and sacred sites, Phnom Kulen is also the birthplace of the ancient Khmer empire, King Jayavarman II who once declared Cambodia’s independence from Java here.
The two must-see attractions on Phnom Kulen apart from the waterfalls are the Thousand Lingas at Kbal Spean and Preah Ang Thom pagoda with its giant reclining Buddha. Phnom Kulen also attracts traditional Khmer doctors and people seeking blessings and recovery from the supposed life healing waters.
During the times of the ancient Khmer Empire, Phnom Kulen was called Mahendraparvata which translates as Mountain of the King of Gods. It was once a large thriving capital city rivalling the size of current day Phnom Penh.
Although the area was never forgotten by the Cambodian people, Kulen Mountain’s ancient city was only rediscovered to the rest of the world in 2012 with the thanks of LIDAR technology. This uses a helicopter-mounted laser to scan the forest to determine what lies under the dense jungle.
The survey produced incredible results, showing a huge city with many temples, houses, irrigation channels and storage facilities. These are now being carefully recovered from the jungle to reveal even more incredible wonders in the area.
Admission to Phnom Kulen
Phnom Kulen sits within the Kulen National Park, which requires a separate ticket to be purchased, separate from the Angkor Archaeological Park. It’s $20 per person if bought at the entrance to the park, however, you can obtain tickets for a reduced rate at your hotel or booking agents in Siem Reap.
Etiquette in Phnom Kulen
Because of the number of sacred sites and the fact that many Cambodians come to Phnom Kulen, clothing etiquette must be observed.
If you want to swim next to the pristine waterfalls then it is best to wear shorts and t-shirts for men and women. Most Cambodian people don’t show much of their body so it is important to respect their traditions by not wearing bikinis or speedo swimming trunks.
When visiting temples, please make sure you remove your shoes and hats, in addition to wearing clothing that covers you completely from shoulders to knees.
How to Get to Phnom Kulen
After taking a 90-minute journey by car or van from Siem Reap you will reach the Phnom Kulen National Park ticket office. You need to purchase your ticket here if you have not already purchased one from Siem Reap.
After you leave the ticket office you will travel for approximately 20 minutes through snaking roads until you reach the summit of the mountain. Here there are many local sellers offering, food, refreshments and souvenirs. From here you will walk up a huge staircase to the pagoda or a lower trail that will take you to the waterfall and picnic areas.
If you enjoy walking, you can trek all the way from the ticket office which will take you through an incredible variety of different landscapes and habitats as you climb the mountain.
A private taxi should cost around $50 for a full day hire, a tuk-tuk will be cheaper but won’t be powerful enough to take you to the top of the mountain.
Alternatively, you can visit Beng Mealea temple which is only 7 kilometres away from Phnom Kulen. Beng Mealea is a largely untouched temple that still is remote enough to keep the large crowds away and is highly recommended for the intrepid traveller.
Kbal Spean and the Thousand Lingas
Kbal Spean is a stop on the way to the top of the mountain and is an extremely revered and sacred place. There are 1000 beautifully carved stone lingas lining the river bed as a tribute to the Hindu god Shiva. The water in this part of the river is also considered highly sacred, with many Cambodian couples coming here to help them conceive.
If you choose to walk up the mountain, you can get from the ticket office to Kbal Spean by walking from the Angkor Center for the Conservation of Biodiversity. It is a 45-minute walk through the lush evergreen forest.
Waterfall & Picnic Area on Phnom Kulen
At the top of the waterfall, there is a large flat shallow section that is good for families and children that want to swim in the beautiful water. You can walk a little further down and find another smaller waterfall which is also great for inexperienced swimmers.
If you carry on following the stairs round you will get to the lower part of the waterfall, which is the main attraction in Phnom Kulen for most visitors.
If you visit the mountain during Cambodia’s wet season the flow of water from the waterfall is magnificent. It is still safe to go close to the crashing water at the base of the waterfall if you are a confident swimmer.
Preah Ang Thom
Preah Ang Thom is the main temple on Kulen Mountain and is well worth a visit when you are there. There is a booth for taking off your shoes where they will be stored for a small fee. Once inside the temple, you can walk up to the giant reclining Buddha statue that is the largest reclining Buddha in Cambodia. Here you can make an offering and place it with the countless other flowers and offerings adorning the statue.
Srah Damrei translates as Elephant Pond in Khmer and is only accessible on foot. The area is adorned with many carved stone animal statues and is a lovely walk that will take you away from the visiting crowds. A guide can be hired to take you to the area outside Preah Ang Thom temple for a small charge.