Kbal Spean literally means “Bridge Head” in Khmer and is an ancient Angkorian site, part of Phnom Kulen National Park. It is located in Banteay Srei district, Siem Reap Province. Its name comes from a natural sandstone rock bridge over the Kbal Spean River.

The interest in this site is a series of stone carvings in the river bed of yonis and lingas, as tributes to the Hindu god, Shiva. Because of this, Kbal Spean is frequently referred to as the Valley of a 1000 Lingas or the River of a Thousand Lingas. The lingas are most visible after the rainy season finishes, when the water level in the river is lower.

Kbal Spean is a visit that goes hand in hand with seeing other attractions in the area. The closest and most popular place to visit with a trip to Kbal Spean is Phnom Kulen, (Kulen Mountain), they’re both in the Phnom Kulen National Park.

Nearby and within the Banteay Srei region are numerous great attractions worth seeing, such as Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre, Cambodia Landmine Museum,  Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity (ACCB) and temples Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, and Beng Mealea.

What does it mean?

Kbal Spean is not as breathtaking as other ancient Khmer heritage sites but is evocative and charming. It cannot at all be called a landmark, but it is one of those attractions that are unique to Cambodia, a place of magic beyond imagination. Surprisingly, Kbal Spean was found and explored not before 1969.

The modern Khmer name "Kbal Spean" is pronounced "Gbal Speern". "Kbal" means head, "spean" means bridge. It is the name of a rock boulder lying across a river bed and tunneled by the water of the stream, becoming a natural bridge. There is a picturesque little waterfall only 120 metres downstream. It is this section of the river below the "head bridge" plus 30 metres more upstream you have to study in detail, in order to to discover the extraordinary.

There are other and more famous names for Kbal Spean: a suitable Sanskrit name is "Sahasralinga", meaning "1000 erected penises". Kbal Spean therefore is also called the "Valley of 1000 Lingas" or "River of 1000 Lingas". Don't be confused, there is another 1000 Lingas site, quite similar to Kbal Spean, on top of the Kulen mountain. But Kbal Spean is the riverbed with even more artistic details than "only" numerous stone phalli.

Kbal Spean Overview

A spectacularly carved riverbed, Kbal Spean is set deep in the jungle to the northeast of Angkor. More commonly referred to in English as the ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, the name actually means ‘bridgehead’, a reference to the natural rock bridge here. 

Lingas (phallic symbols) have been elaborately carved into the riverbed, and images of Hindu deities are dotted about the area. It was ‘discovered’ in 1969, when ethnologist Jean Boulbet was shown the area by a hermit.

It is a 2km uphill walk to the carvings, along a pretty path that winds its way up into the jungle, passing some interesting boulder formations along the way. Carry plenty of water up the hill, as there is none available beyond the parking area. The path eventually splits to the waterfall or the river carvings. 

There is an impressive carving of Vishnu on the upper section of the river, followed by a series of carvings at the bridgehead itself, some of which were hacked off in the past few years, but have since been replaced by excellent replicas. This area is now roped off to protect the carvings from further damage.

Following the river down, there are several more impressive carvings of Vishnu, and Shiva with his consort Uma, and further downstream hundreds of lingas appear on the riverbed. At the top of the waterfall are many animal images, including a cow and a frog, and a path winds around the boulders to a wooden staircase leading down to the base of the falls. 

Visitors between January and June will be disappointed to see very little water here. The best time to visit is between July and December. When exploring Kbal Spean, it's best to start with the river carvings and work back down to the waterfall to cool off. 

From the car park, the visit takes about two hours including the walk, nearer three hours with a natural shower or a picnic. A day trip here can be combined with Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, Banteay Srei temple and the Cambodia Landmine Museum.

Kbal Spean is about 50km northeast of Siem Reap or about 18km beyond the temple of Banteay Srei. The road is in great shape, as it forms part of the main road north to Anlong Veng and the Thai border, so it takes just one hour or so from town. There are food stalls at the bottom of the hill that can cook up fried rice or a noodle soup, or the fancier, excellent Borey Sovann Restaurant, located near the entrance.

Moto drivers will no doubt want a bit of extra money to take you here; figure on US$15 or so for the day, including a trip to Banteay Srei. Likewise, remork drivers will probably up the price to US$25 or so. A surcharge is also levied to come out here by car. Admission to Kbal Spean is included in the general Angkor pass; the last entry to the site is at 3.30pm. 

Below is the glimpse of Kbal Spean in 360o viewing:

The Carvings under the Water & Its legend

What makes the "1000 Lingas" exceptional is that they are underwater carvings. The Lingams are at the bottom of the river bed, a few centimetres below the water level. Works of art under flowing water, that is the hallmark of Kbal Spean, one more incomparable appeal of Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder.

The Lingams were carved in the eleventh century, some of them date back even to the 9th century. The Lingams are of different sizes, most of them about 25 centimetres square and 5-10 centimetres deep. They are arranged in grid patterns. The most intriguing underwater carvings are Lingams forming in a kind of Mandala, with one in the centre and 4 or 8 more in the cardinal directions and surrounded by a square frame with an outlet, constituting the Yoni, a stylized vagina. The Lingas sanctify the water and symbolically "fertilize" the plains of Angkor, with holy water flowing to its soil giving the power to grow rice.

Apart from the Lingam bas reliefs on the river bed, there are more carvings along the banks of the river. The sculptures cut from the sandstone banks depict scenes from the Hindu mythology. Depending on seasonal water levels they are partly under water or picturesquely sprayed by small rapids.

The common subject of the largest rock carvings is the creation of the world by the reclining Vishnu. The lotus flower emerging from Vishnu’s back (in Khmer art not from the navel) bears god Brahma, the divine craftsman who creates the fittings of the world. Vishnu is sleeping on serpent Ananta on the ocean. 

This creation myth symbolizes both, water as the base of the world and the necessity of undisturbed rule to transform the chaos of the sea into an orderly world. Besides the Churning of the Milk Ocean, another symbol for fertility, this creation myth is the most common theme of Vishnu mythology in Khmer art.

Other rock-cut sculptures depict Brahma and Shiva with Uma on Nandi, and a crocodile of unknown symbolism, it belonged to a sculpture of Shiva as an ascetic hermit, which is rare in Khmer art, but this sculpture was looted.

According to an inscription of Kbal Spean the site was established by king Suryavarman I in the first half of the eleventh century, but most epigraphical records found along the river bed mention his successor Udayadityavarman II. The inscriptions also mention that King Udayadityavarman II consecrated a golden Lingam here in 1059. Usually the underwater Lingams are ascribed to Suryavarman I and the figural sculptures to Udayadityavarman II.

Planning to Visit Kbal Spean

Location

Kbal Spean is described as "a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle to the northeast of Angkor". The river over which the bridge head exists is also known as Stung Kbal Spean, a tributary of the Siem Reap River that rises in the Kulen mountains north of Banteay Srei

The riverbed cuts through sandstone formations, and the many architectural sculptures of Hindu mythology have been carved within the sandstone. The archaeological site occurs in a stretch of the river starting from 150 metres (490 ft) upstream north of the bridge head to the falls downstream. 

The river, being sanctified by flowing over the religious sculptures, flows downstream, bifurcating into the Siem Reap River and Puok River, which eventually flows into the Tonlé Sap Lake after passing through the plains and the Angkor temple complex

The archaeological site is in the western part of the Kulen mountains within the Phnom Kulen National Park. Approach is from the Banteay Srei temple by a road which is about 5 kilometres (3.1 mi) from an army camp. Thereafter, it is a 40-minute walk through the forest for about 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) uphill along a path before reaching the first site, a water fall, where the carved sculptures start appearing in the river bed.

Check the location of Kbal Spean on the below Google Maps for your reference:

Getting There and Around

There are two options to visit Kbal Spean:

Via ACCB

42km northeast of Siem Reap town, which is about an hour or so drive by tuk tuk is ACCB (Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity). Travel by tuk tuk is a nice way to experience the countryside whilst passing rural villages and rice fields.

To reach the archaeological site, a 45min up-hill walk is required, starting at ACCB. The walk is along a jungle trail with lots of shade, some climbing is needed though so make sure you bring water to replenish yourself. Going this route, you will need a valid Angkor Pass to access the trail to Kbal Spean.

Via Phnom Kulen National Park

Take a car or van to Phnom Kulen National Park, you will need a ticket for the park which is $20 at the gate or if obtained in advance from Angkor City Hotel, a bit cheaper.

The van ride will take you all the way into the park and takes around 1.5-2 hours. Ask your driver to stop at Kbal Spean and allow you to walk around and explore a little and then carry on to the Phnom Kulen waterfalls.

This way is only accessible by car, van, or motorbike, it is not possible to visit by tuk tuk.

Best Time to Visit

Any season is nice to visit, there are a lot of trees and this makes the area around Kbal Spean cool. During the wet season the jungle is lush and abundant, though the water will be running strongly, and it may be hard to see the lingas. Just following wet season is probably the best time, the water will have receded enough to get a clear look at the lingas and the jungle will still be lush and fresh from all of the rain.

You probably want to avoid going in hot season, temperatures are scorching, and it is not best for bush walking.

Visit in the morning to get the most out of your day (and avoid the heat), especially if you plan a visit to ACCB, the nearby wildlife sanctuary located on the same site as Kbal Spean. Guided tours at ACCB run from Monday to Saturday at 9am and 1pm sharp, a minimum donation of US$ 3 is requested.

Kbal Spean Tours

Most of the visitors will find it convenient to combine the visit to Kbal Spean with Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre within a one-day trip. Below is the example of what you will have.

1-Day Tour to Explore Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei, and Banteay Samre

We will come and pick you up to start this tour after breakfast at 8 am. We’ll start this tour with Kbal Spean which is about 45 km from Siem Reap City, This tour is recommended to visitors who are fit, it's a hiking up hill a lot up and down . Here you will see the “River of a 1000 Lingas” which is a collection of ancient stone carvings and myriads of lingums. These phallic symbols of Shiva can be found in and around the riverbed. There are also carvings of the other gods including Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi.

We will then head over to Banteay Srei which is called the “Citadel of the Women” in English. It’s believed that the carvings are so intricate that they could only have been carved by the delicate hands of women. This stunning temple is a must-see for anyone interested in learning the fascinating history of the Khmer people. Instead, Banteay Srey temple was built in the reign of two kings Rajendravarman II and Jayavarman V. The 3 main shrines of the structure were dedicated to Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma.

Finally, we’ll head over to Banteay Samre. This is a 12th century Hindu temple which was built in the style of Angkor Wat. Banteay Samre is a great temple to visit because it’s well off the tourist trail and you can enjoy this magnificent temple in relative peace when compared to the large numbers of tourists which visit Angkor Wat every day.

At the faster pace, you can also expand the visit to Rulous Group, Beng Mealea, and Koh Ker

Full Day Tour to Kbal Spean, Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea, Roluos Group, and Koh Ker

First stop at Banteay Srei, which is built largely of red sandstone, perfect for the elaborate decorative wall carvings which are still observable today. The temple extremely popular with tourists and is widely praised as a "precious gem", or the "jewel of Khmer art." The temple's modern name, Banteay Srei ("citadel of the women") is probably related to the intricacy of the bas-relief carvings found on the walls and the tiny dimensions of the buildings themselves.

After some hiking, you'll arrive at Kbal Spean, which consists of a series of stone rock relief carvings in sandstone formations of the river bed and banks. It is commonly known as the "Valley of a 1000 Lingas" or "The River of a Thousand Lingas". The motifs for stone carvings are mainly myriads of lingams (phallic symbol of Hindu god Shiva), depicted as neatly arranged bumps that cover the surface of a sandstone bed rock, and lingam-yoni designs.

The next stop is Beng Mealea, which was built as a Hindu temple, but with some carvings depicting buddhist motifs. It is largely unrestored, with trees and thick brush thriving amidst its towers and heaps of stones. For years it was difficult to reach, but a road recently built made it easier for more visitors to come.

Continue your trip to Roluos Group, which was once the first capital of Khmer Empire until the capital was moved to Bakheng in 905. The Roluos temples group, dating from the late 9th century, is the earliest site of the 600 years Angkor Period that is open to visitors.

Our last stop is at Koh Ker, a very special temple, with the shape of a 7-tiered pyramid that is unique among the Angkor Wat ruins. Koh Ker was briefly the capital of the whole Khmer empire (928–944 AD). It is located in a jungle filled region that is sparsely populated, where more than 180 sanctuaries were found. Only about two dozen monuments can be visited by tourists because most of the sanctuaries are hidden in the forest.

Accommodation

There are no hotels in near Kbal Spean and most visitors will find a place to stay in Siem Reap town. The town has grown to accommodate the millions of visitors who flock to Angkor Wat each year and there are hundreds of hotels. You’ll find some great deals available all year round.

Here is our Siem Reap Travel Guide

The Layout & Design of Kbal Spean

The bridge is a natural sandstone arch 50 kilometres (31 mi) northeast of Siem Reap River. Just after the monsoon season, when the water level in the river starts dropping, the carvings are visible in a 150 metres (490 ft) stretch upstream of the bridge and from the bridge downstream up to the falls.

The 11th century carvings in this stretch of the river are a galaxy of gods, the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva or Maheswara and celestial beings; several carvings of Vishnu with Lakshmi reclining on the serpent Ananta, Shiva with consort Uma, known as Umamaheswar Brahma on a lotus petal over a plant stem rising from the navel of Vishnu, Rama and Hanuman are the sculptures seen not only in the river bed but also on the river banks.

Sequentially, while walking along a path which skirts the eroded channel of the river-formed natural stone bridge, one can see a pair of Vishnu sculptures with Lakshmi seated at his feet in a reclining pose. Upstream of the bridge, there is a sculpture of Shiva and Uma mounted on the bull. Approximately 30 metres (98 ft) downstream of the bridge, there are additional Vishnu sculptures. 

Further downstream up to the water fall and till the water pool are the Sahasra lingas in Sanskrit language with English equivalent name of "Thousand Lingas". The sculpted lingams in the coarse sandstone riverbed outcrops are seen from about 6 metres (20 ft) downstream of the bridge. 

According to the journalist Teppo Tukki of Phnom Penh Post who visited the site in 1995, the lingams, some of which date back to the 9th century, are about 25 centimetres (9.8 in) square and 10 centimetres (3.9 in) deep and lined in a perfect grid pattern. 

The river runs over them, covering them with 5 centimetres (2.0 in) of pristine water. The holy objects are designed to create a "power path for the Khmer Kings".

After the carvings, the river falls by 15 centimetres (5.9 in) to a clear water pool. As it flows over the holy lingams, the river attains a sanctified status and passes through the temples that are downstream. The visible lingams are in a rectangular enclosure with a channel flowing out, which is interpreted to represent the yoni as the "female principle". 

Beyond these lingams, the river stretch of about 40–50 metres (130–160 ft) includes a small rocky island and ends over a fall into a pool. In this stretch of the river, there are bas reliefs on the rock faces. It has been inferred that one of the bas reliefs in this stretch, the central figure, unrecognizably damaged, could be that of Shiva as an ascetic, similar to the bas relief seen in Angkor Wat temple. 

The meaning of the crocodile carving seen here has not been ascertained. Near to this location, a boulder has been carved as a frog. The pond, in a rectangular shape, filled with water at all times, has many "Reclining Vishnu" carvings on the walls, and here again, a pair of crocodiles are carved but with their tail held by women. The small island formed in this stretch of the river has carvings of Shiva and Uma mounted on a bull.

History of Kbal Spean Temple

The carving of vestiges began with the reign of King Suryavarman I and ended with the reign of King Udayadityavarman II; these two kings ruled between the 11th and 12th centuries. The 1,000 lingas, but not other sculptures, are attributed to a minister of Suryavarman I during the 11th century, and these were carved by hermits who lived in the area. 

Inscriptions at the site testify to the fact that most of the sculpting was done during the reign of Udayadityavarman II. It is also mentioned that King Udayadityavarman II consecrated a golden ling here in 1059 AD. It is believed that the Siem Reap River flowing into Angkor is blessed by the sacred lingas over which it flows.

The archaeological site was discovered in 1969 by Jean Boulbet, an ethnologist, but further exploration was cut off due to the Cambodian Civil War. The site regained prominence for safe visits from 1989.

Photos of Kbal Spean

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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