A playground for locals, Phnom Kulen (literally Mountain of the Lychees) is a gorgeous day out. The main attraction is the waterfalls at the top of Kulen Mountain and it’s also a great picnic spot; well set up in Cambodian style with hammocks and shelters to keep you shaded from the sun. It’s around 1.5-2 hours drive from Siem Reap and if you go all the way to the top by van or car, you need to get there early, as the road is one-way traffic only.

The birthplace of the ancient Khmer empire, it is said that it was at Phnom Kulen that King Jayavarman II proclaimed Cambodia’s independence from Java.

Additionally, it is a very sacred site with multiple temples easily accessible. Two sites most noted are the Thousand Lingas at Kbal Spean, within the Kulen National Park site and Preah Ang Thom pagoda with its giant reclining Buddha. The area is a magnet to “kru khmer” (natural medicine doctors), and attracts people seeking blessings from its holy waters, particularly the potent life-giving waters at Kbal Spean, that are said to help couples conceive.

You may be interested in Khmer Empire & Jayavarman II

History of Phnom Kulen - The Ancient World Lost Inside the Jungle

A Timeless Mountain that Housed a Powerful Empire

Phnom Kulen or Kulen Mountain means “Mountain of Lychees” and consists mainly of sandstone beds which were laid down by rivers which flowed through the region in the late Jurassic and early Cretaceous periods. These rivers emptied into many lakes which at one time filled the region.

Phnom Kulen is a part of a larger geologic formation dating to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods which define much of Cambodia, as well as parts of Thailand. Some 140 million years later, humans made numerous modifications to the sandstone plateau for reasons which would never have been understood by the saurian creatures that dwelt in the region during the Mesozoic Era when the rocks making up the mountains were laid down.

Much later, in 802 AD, Jayavarman II, the man responsible for forging the Khmer Empire, is said to have declared independence from the somewhat mysterious kingdom called Java at Phnom Kulen. He also instructed for reliefs to be made honoring various Hindu deities at this ancient site.

Archaeological evidence such as inscriptions, sculpted caves, and carved riverbeds suggest that the mountain continued to be occupied throughout the Angkorian period (802-1432 AD). Back then Phnom Kulen was known as Mahendraparvata, meaning “Mountain of Great Indra.”

Here is our dedicated article about Jayavarman IIKhmer Empire

Phallic Carvings, an Impressive Reclining Buddha, and Other Sights

Jayavarman II had a major river diverted by engineers so that the visage of Hindu deities as well as lingams, a phallic symbol sacred to Shiva, could be engraved into the soft sandstone beds of the river.  There are thousands of these carvings found from the stream down to the waterfall of Kulen (which is also a major tourist spot). The lingams are said to create ripples and froth in the water, enhancing their association with fertility.

Preah Ang Thom pagoda, with its giant Buddha statue, is another important feature of Phnom Kulen. Created in the 16th century, this Buddha is the largest of its kind in the country and measures 8 meters (26.25 ft.) tall.

The third most visited ancient site in the mountains is the stone elephant of Srah Damrei. This is a 4-meter (13.12 ft.) long and 3-meter tall (9.84 ft.) sandstone elephant which is accompanied by several sculpted sandstone lions. There are also many temples and rock shelters, some of them dating back to the 8th and 9th Centuries, that are less popular but also important. Finally, prehistoric sites have also been discovered in natural caves located all over the plateau.

Archaeological Discoveries at Kulen Mountain

Archaeological finds have shown the jungles surrounding the mountains were once filled with temples and religious centers. This was clearly considered to be a spiritual place by the people of ancient southeast Asia.

In March 2017, archaeologists working at Phnom Kulen found a 550-meter (1804.46 ft.) staircase leading the way to the top of the sacred Cambodian mountain site. It was constructed to ease the steep and rocky ascent sometime between the 9th and 13th century. Dating has been difficult as there were no carvings or other remains unearthed nearby to provide more clues. It is made of a rust-red stone known as laterite and in some places the stairs were built directly in the mountain, while others are large flat sections which may have provided weary pilgrims with access to spring water during their difficult ascent.

Palace of Angkor Empire’s first ruler?

More recent archaeological work carried out in April 2018, has revealed clues that Phnom Kulen may have been the site was once a palace for the Angkor Empire’s first ruler, Jayavarman II. The clues lie within a specific building that was unearthed, which has the size and layout of a royal palace, and was built to a higher quality. The square building is surrounded by a series of concentric walls and pavements with an eastern facing entrance. Studies of the site reveal that it was occupied for a short time before being abandoned in the 9th century AD. This corresponds with accounts that Jayavarman II built his capital on Kulen Mountain at the end of the eighth and start of the ninth century after unifying fractured Cambodian kingdoms.

Despite the attention Phnom Kulen is receiving these days, it remains largely unexplored by archaeological teams. It is believed that the sacred mountains still hide countless significant archaeological sites. More research needs to be conducted in the mountains to find the hidden treasures still contained within the riverbeds, caves, and forgotten ancient temples. 

The stone temples that the Khmer built at Phnom Kulen were eventually reclaimed by the jungle to be as much relics of the past as the sandstone formation making up the sacred mountains are relics of the geologic past. However, the Khmer civilization lives on as places like Phnom Kulen continue to be considered sacred sites and are regularly visited by both pilgrims and tourists wishing to access a deeper reality through coming to this unique place.

Visiting Phnom Kulen

Considered by Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, Phnom Kulen is a popular place of pilgrimage on weekends and during festivals. It played a significant role in the history of the Khmer empire, as it was from here in 802 CE that Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a devaraja (god-king), giving birth to the Cambodian kingdom. Attractions include a giant reclining Buddha, hundreds of lingas carved in the riverbed, an impressive waterfall and some remote temples.

From the entrance a sealed road winds its way through some spectacular jungle scenery, emerging on the plateau after a 12km ascent. The road eventually splits: the left fork leads to the picnic spot, waterfall and ruins of a 9th-century temple; the right fork continues over a bridge (you'll find the riverbed carvings around here) to the base of Wat Preah Ang Thom, which sits at the summit of the mountain and houses the large reclining Buddha carved into the sandstone boulder upon which it is built. This is the focal point of a pilgrimage for Khmer people, so it is important to take off your shoes and any head covering before climbing the stairs to the sanctuary. These days the views from the 487m peak are partially obstructed by foliage run amok.

The waterfall is an attractive spot and was featured in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. However, it could be much more beautiful were it not for all the litter left here by families picnicking at the weekend. Near the top of the waterfall is a jungle-clad temple known as Prasat Krau Romeas, dating from the 9th century.

There are plenty of other Angkorian sites on Phnom Kulen, including as many as 20 minor temples around the plateau, the most important of which is Prasat Rong Chen, the first pyramid or temple-mountain to be constructed in the Angkor area. Most impressive of all are the giant stone animals or guardians of the mountain, known as Sra Damrei (Elephant Pond). These are quite difficult to reach, particularly during the wet season. 

The few people who make it, however, are rewarded with a life-size replica of a stone elephant – a full 4m long and 3m tall – and smaller statues of lions, a frog, and a cow. These were constructed on the southern face of the mountain and from here there are spectacular views across the plains below. Getting to Sra Damrei requires taking a moto from Wat Preah Ang Thom for about 12km on very rough trails. Don’t try to find it on your own; expect to pay the moto driver about US$10 for a two-hour trip to explore this area and carry plenty of water.

Other impressive sites that could be included in an adventurous day trip around Phnom Kulen include the ancient rock carvings of Poeung Tbal, an atmospheric site of enormous boulders, and the partially restored temple of Damrei Krap. Add these to the mix and it will cost more like US$15 to explore for three hours or more.

Phnom Kulen is a huge plateau around 50km from Siem Reap and about 15km from Banteay Srei. To get here on the toll road, take the well-signposted right fork just before Banteay Srei village and go straight ahead at the crossroads. Just before the road starts to climb the mountain, there is a barrier, and it is here that the admission charge is levied. It is only possible to go up Phnom Kulen before 11am and only possible to come down after midday, to avoid vehicles meeting on the narrow road. 

There is a new road under construction that links Phnom Kulen to Svay Leu, a small town to the east of the holy mountain, so a one-way system may eventually be introduced: ascending the mountain by the old road and descending via the new road. There are plenty of small restaurants and food stalls located around the parking area at the base of Wat Preah Ang Thom.

Moto drivers are likely to want about US$20 or more to bring you out here, and rented cars will hit passengers with a surcharge, more than double the going rate for Angkor; forget coming by remork as the hill climb is just too tough. With the long journey here, it is best to plan on spending the best part of a day exploring, although it can be combined with either Banteay Srei or Beng Mealea.

Check the below Youtube Video for your general idea of Phnom Kulen National Park:

What to see & do at Phnom Kulen?

Thousand Lingas / Kbal Spean

Kbal Spean is along the way to the top of the mountain and is a serene and gentle place. The 1000 carved lingas in the “Valley of the Lingas” or “River of the Lingas”, as it’s often referred to, are tribute to the Hindu god Shiva. It is a revered spiritual place for Cambodian people and it is said that the water from Kbal Spean will help couples to conceive.

As well as via the main road up the mountain, you can also get to Kbal Spean by walking from ACCB (Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity). It’s a 45 minute walk through the jungle.

Here is our dedicated article about Kbal Spean

Waterfall & Picnic Area

The top section of the waterfall is quite flat and good for families or young children that want to dip into the refreshingly cool water. It’s also close to the picnic area, which makes it a really great spot to spend the afternoon ducking in and out of the water. Further down is also a small waterfall; great for timid swimmers and children.

Follow the stairs to get to the lower part of the waterfall which is the main attraction. In wet season, when the waterfall is at its strongest, the sound of the water crashing down is quite something. But it does not stop people from going and experiencing the full force up close! The water is not terribly deep and in most sections of the basin of water under the waterfall, you can almost touch the ground. However, best if you can swim and feel confident in the water.

Whilst most people know the connection of Ta Prohm temple and the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie, it’s less known that Phnom Kulen waterfall makes a very brief appearance in the film. After escaping living statues in the nether regions of Ta Prohm, Lara runs out to the top of the waterfall (not bad given they are 42kms apart!), where she jumps to the basin below. We wouldn’t recommend it though, it’s unlikely you’d survive a jump like that into relatively shallow water. But they can make all of the magic they like in movies!

Preah Ang Thom

This is the main temple site at Kulen Mountain, it’s important to take off your shoes before entering the temple. There are ladies at the point where you need to relinquish your footwear, don’t worry, they’ll take good care of your shoes for a reasonable fee. Once inside you can make your way up to the giant reclining Buddha statue, reported as the largest in Cambodia, however there are several sitting Buddha’s that dwarf this one. Offering boxes line the length of the Buddha statue and many flowers and other tributes are placed all around.

Srah Damrei

Only accessible by foot, Srah Damrei, or Elephant Pond, is an area filled with stone-carved animals. This ancient Khmer sculpture is also accompanied by a couple of lions and remnants of some other animals. This is a very rewarding sight and worth trekking off the beaten path. There are guides that will be milling around the Preah Ang Thom area, seek one out and they will show you the way.

Phnom Kulen Tours

Kulen offers tourists a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and see mother nature firsthand. It is also exciting from an adventurer’s perspective - full of jungle treks, waterfalls, scattered ruins and unique flora and fauna. Much of Angkor has already been exposed and toured by millions, but Kulen is off the beaten path and hardly visited during the low season. This makes it less touristy and more authentic. It is also an active excavation site and every few months we hear about discoveries that further expand its significance.

Below are some of the recommended tours for your reference:

Phnom Kulen National Park: Kulen Waterfalls, 1000 Lingas & More

Pick up from your hotel in Siem Reap and transfer directly to Phnom Kulen. Called by some “the most beautiful place in Cambodia” (true story!) the Phnom Kulen National Park is home to three wonders we propose to visit on this tour. The first and best of these is the Kulen Mountain Waterfall, an amazing and natural site to visit – especially on a hot day. If you’re burned out (literally) from temple-hopping, you would find this swim utterly refreshing. However, while here, there’s still no escaping temples, as you’ll find an old and mysterious one abandoned to the wilderness on top of the rock.

After satiating yourself with local dishes, we will then head to the River of a Thousand Lingas: the “Kbal Spean”. If you’re wondering what a “linga” is, it’s a phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. This Angkorian archaeological site comprises a “Bridge Head” on the southwest slopes of the Kulen Hills, situated along a 150m stretch of the Stung Kbal Spean River. Make sure you have good shoes for this, as it’s a 1.5 km uphill trail into the jungle before reaching the stone bridge amidst a series of rock relief carvings in sandstone formations along the riverbed and banks. (Tip: If you have an Angkor Pass, bring it as you might need it here).

Here is more detail about Kbal Spean

Our last stop is Preah Ang Thom, a 16th-century Buddhist monastery which houses a massive Reclining Buddha. The pre-Angkorian sculpture is the biggest of its kind in Cambodia, chiseled out of the rocks rising 8m up into the sky. At the sacred site, we will climb a steep path alongside pilgrims who come from all over the country to worship here. From the top we will see breathtaking views of the mountain range and deep Cambodian jungle.

Phnom Kulen and Tonle Sap Sunset Cruise Day Tours

On the morning our guide and driver will welcome you at hotel lobby at 08 : 00 AM and  transfer to visit the National park Phnom Kulen that located at the north of Angkor ancient city and it is also the quarry of the sand stone of Angkor temples that the Khmer king they look the stone from there to build all the temples in Angkor in that time.

Phnom Kulen is considered by Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia and it is a popular place for domestic and international visitors to visit there every day. The hill is used as the ancient capital city II in AD 802 to declared himself as god king and announced independence from Java, then giving birth to present day Cambodia.

At mid-afternoon, we transfer directly to Tonle Sap Lake, which is the largest fresh water in South East Asia. Its dimension changes depending on the monsoon and dry season and five provinces circled the area of Tonle Sap Lake and there are more than three million of population inhabited around the bank of the Lake and 90% of them earn a living by catching fish and making agricultures. 

Here is more detail about Tonle Sap Lake

As you can see on the map of Cambodia It stretches across the northwest section of the country. The Lake is also an important commercial resource, providing more than half of the fish consumed in Cambodia. 

In harmony with the specialized ecosystems, the human occupations at the edges of the lake is similarly distinctive floating villages, towering stilted houses, huge fish traps, and an economy and way of life deeply intertwined with the lake, the fish, the wildlife and the cycles of rising and falling waters.

Upon arrival, visit Kampong Pluk is about 30 Km locates on the Southeast of Siem Reap Town and there are more than 3000 inhabitants are real Khmers, their households made of wood and bamboo built on stilts of about 6m to 7m high. 

During dry season when the lake is low and lack of water those buildings look like the skyscrapers. At this time of the year many of villagers move out onto the lake and build a provisional stilted house. In wet season while the water level rises again, the dwellers move back to their permanent houses on the flood plain, the stilts now hidden under the water. People made a living by catching fishes produce as well as smelly fish paste, fermented fish, smoked fish, dried fish, dried prawn etc.

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Planning to Visit Phnom Kulen

Admission and Hours

Phnom Kulen is within the Kulen National Park, which requires a separate ticket to the Angkor Archaeological Park. It’s $20 per person if bought at the gate at the entrance to the mountain or you can book your tickets online and have them delivered to your hotel. Cambodians can enter the park for free.

If you’re going to the top of the mountain by car, van or moto, you need to go up before 11am. The road is one-way traffic only and the traffic going up finishes early, so don’t be late!

Etiquette

This is a place where Cambodians go to relax and play. In Cambodian culture most people dress conservatively even whilst swimming, so girls – keep to shorts and t-shirts, boys too – or if you must, at least shorts. No bikinis or speedos please!

When entering temples, be sure to remove your shoes and hats. It’s important to wear clothing that covers you from shoulders to knees. If you are not dressed accordingly, then it would be polite not to enter any of the temples.

Here is more about Cambodia Local Etiquettes

When to go

Between November and May is the dry season, it is cool then too, but starts to heat up between March and May. The rainy season falls between June and October.

How to Get There

You can first check the location of Phnom Kulen National Park on the below Google Maps for your reference:

Phnom Kulen is 48km from Siem Reap and can take 1.5-2 hours to reach by car or van, longer by tuk tuk but then that will only be if you want to walk up and back down again (approx. 2 hours each way, and absolutely stunning) as tuk tuk’s aren’t capable of making the steep journey to the top.

The ticket office is at the bottom of Phnom Kulen and is the entrance to the Phnom Kulen National Park. It is here that you need to pay for your ticket, if you didn’t buy it online, and show your tickets to go through. There are good toilet facilities here.

From the ticket office, it’s another 20 or so minutes of windy roads until you reach the top, where there are lots of markets selling souvenirs, clothing, snacks and drinks. From here you walk the rest of the way, following the grand staircase up to the pagoda or the lower path that leads to the waterfall and the picnic areas.

If you like hiking and are feeling energetic then the walk from the bottom of the mountain to the top of Phnom Kulen is highly recommended. A more detailed description can be found on the forum.

A private taxi / car for the day is around $50 and vans from $60-80. Organized tours including an experienced English speaking guide are available as well. It’s worth booking ahead, as it will save you time when in Siem Reap.

It is also possible to visit Banteay Srei region on the way back. However if you do wish to see the temples (Banteay Srei and Banteay Samre), you will also need an Angkor pass.

Alternatively, another nice way to complete the day is with a visit to Beng Mealea, only 7 kilometres away from Phnom Kulen. Surrounded by a 1.2 km wide moat, Beng Mealea is a beautiful temple to visit, still engulfed in jungle overgrowth and untouched.

Accommodation

There are no hotels in near Phnom Kulen National Park 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

Photos of Phnom Kulen

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