On a clear day I can see the Kulen Mountain from my rooftop terrace – 40 km north east of Siem Reap it dominates the horizon shaped like a giant loaf in a landscape otherwise as flat as a pancake. The Mountain of Lychees by name and the cradle of the Khmer civilization often lies hidden in clouds and haze but today is promising to be a clear day.
We are driving through the countryside and morning chill is in the air, mist and fog rolling close to the ground lending Cambodia almost a ghostly appearance. I feel the need to jump out and take photos of this African savanna-like scene as the sun is hovering heavy and red in the east but there is no time – not this time. We are scheduled to arrive in the village of Preah Ang Thom at 8:30 and indeed we make it to the top in good time overtaken by only by one racing van.
I am no novice to the area and I know I am in for a treat – my hiking spirit will get a work out and I will definitely sleep well tonight.
Our group consists of several long term Siem Reap residents and two visitors from the USA, our leader is Stephane De Greef who played a key role in the discovery of the lost city of Mahendraparvata and knows the mountain like the back of his own hand. He mapped most of the trails on the mountain and we are in safe cartographer’s hands, nobody will get lost today. GPS dangling from his belt he assembles the group outside, checks that we all have enough water and snacks for the day’s trek and soon we set off leaving one of the main settlements on the mountain behind. Most visitors will stop at the waterfall and this is also a very popular local picnic spot – sadly often littered with plastic bags and polystyrene take-away boxes. This is not our destination today.
What lies ahead is a 17km long trek through dense primary and secondary tropical forest, sandstone plateaus, dry deciduous forest with sandy soil, grasslands, cashew nut plantations and swidden areas (slash and burn agriculture) – so quite a mixture and definitely a spice up to the city scape and rice fields we are used to in the town. We will also pass through couple of small villages along the way.
There are approximately 4000 inhabitants on Mount Kulen, most gaining livelihood from subsistence farming and very few of them actually venture down the mountain. Life seems to have stood still here since the Angkorian times –just take away the generators and motorbikes, the one communal flat screen TV in the local shop and we are instantly back in time. Modern inventions mean very little up here and moving here would be a good “plan B” in case some of Stephen King’s novels came true.
Our trek starts with a mild incline on a shaded forest path. Only few vehicles pass us at this early hour and soon we reach the river with 1000 carved lingas. This time of year the water level is still fairly high but we are also able to admire the intricate carving work on the rocky river bed as the crystal clear water flows towards the waterfall lower in the village and continues all the way to Siem Reap through sections of man-made channels finally reaching the Tonle Sap lake.
As we gather for the “start of the trek” group photo, a monk quietly passes us leaving his barefoot imprints in the sandy soil and his bright orange robe shines ahead of us. He assumes a steady pace but we catch him in the next settlement where he begs for alms at a local Karaoke place offering blessings in return for rice. A few friendly hellos and curious looks accompany our passing through the village, dogs barking protecting their territory, pigs and chickens roaming with not a care in the world. And then we are on our own - we will not see another village or settlement until we reach the end of our journey.
That is not to say that we will not see other humans – the first stop on our trek is the Bat Cave where, as the name indicates, aside from thousands of small insect eating bats, we also meet two monk-hermits clad in white living their simple existence in this forgotten part of the world. Aside from bats one can also come across other creatures dwelling in the dark such as crickets, toads, frogs and even giant centipedes.
I am reminded of ancient European castle walls when we come again into the daylight and the rock mass from under which we just emerged looms above us covered in green moss and tree roots.
Stephane is a forest engineer and a keen biologist with focus on the invertebrates so along the way we learn interesting facts about the “smaller majority” going quietly about their business invisible to non-observant eyes. We spot assassin bugs, learn about the behavior of weaver ants and add a new word into our biological vocabulary: ant lion.
About 30 minutes before reaching our lunch spot we are happy to come across a stream (the young Siem Reap river) with clear water and this is as good excuse as any to have a little rest in shade as the day has now warmed up considerably and the sun beats down reflecting on the rocky outcrops and reminding us that winter is certainly over.
Srah Damrey – the Elephant Pond – the furthermost point reachable by motorbike welcomes us quiet and serene, shaded by luminous green forest, only some rays penetrating the foliage painting gold speckles on the leafy floor. We are the only ones here – as expected, although some adventurous visitors make it as far as here. This is the best spot for lunch and we rest our weary legs gathering around the giant monolit the purpose of which is not entirely clear. Stephane reveals his theory that the elephant along with the neighbouring lion, monkey and cat, are looking over to the east towards Angkor protecting it in the era of construction with their powerful gaze. Dating back to the 10th century this site has not seen anywhere near as many visitors as Angkor itself and honestly, this is why we are here.
Venturing into the realms of the Lost City of Mahendraparvata with one of the key players in its discovery is a privilege. Our untrained eyes see only our path ahead and occasional bumps in the ground but closer inspection reveals that the soil we are walking on is littered with countless remnants of ancient pots, some glazed, some decorated. The shaded path is lined with thick spiky jungle growth on both sides. Stephane often stops and explains that despite the unassuming appearance of our surroundings the area was once dotted with houses and ponds and crisscrossed with highways not to mention the many temples now buried under layers of soil and vegetation.
Often the environment changes almost with no notice – from thick shaded jungle we are suddenly in the middle of field of grass that towers good 30 cm above the average person’s height. Stephen King springs into mind again but I ignore my uneasy memories of reading “In the tall green grass” and press on. We touch on the sensitive topic of deforestation. It is apparent from the very arrival at the bottom of the mountain that something is amiss. Only 15 years ago there was forest everywhere, now it’s hard to see the tree line on the horizon and things are not slowing down. The deforestation rate is estimated at alarming 80%. The Kulen inhabitants practice slash and burn agriculture and once rice has grown where forest used to be it is often the case that cashew nut orchards are planted there. Lulled into the business by promises of grand earnings locals often find themselves short changed by all middle parties involved in the cashew trade. A sad lose/lose situation.
Stephane’s professional past is colourful and thanks to his in depth years long involvement with Handicap International and International Campaign to Ban Landmines he is able to shed some light on the past and current landmine situation in the area. Kulen Mountain, unsurprisingly due to its topography and location, was the Khmer Rouge stronghold from 1970 to the mid 90’s. Fighting between the Royal Army and the Khmer Rouge resulted in heavy mine contamination of the area and other explosive devices were also left behind. As scary as this sounds specially having picked this place for a hike, Stephane assures us that most areas have been cleared and declared safe by the Halo Trust and CMAC with only few dangerous areas remaining . The message, however, is clear – stay on the path, and when nature calls…. well, yes, stay on the path even if records show no casualty in the last 20 years.
The final destination is only a few kilometers away, we feel the miles in our calves and the pull of the promised cool box with beer and coke waiting for us there in the village of Anlong Thom. We have one more temple to conquer still. Damrey Krap has been a known structure to the archaeologists since the early 20th century – dating back to the 7th century (so pre-Angkorian times) it is architecturally very similar to the Cham temple of Hoa Lai in Southern Vietnam. Three fairly well preserved tower structures are located in the middle of Mahendraparvata, facing east. We explore and admire this ancient site before it’s time to tackle the final stretch.
It has been a worthy hike and we deserve our cold beverages without a question.
The 30 minute journey back to the our starting point is by motodop – 7 friendly locals are waiting for us at the designated spot (the giant red coolbox in the local shop) and once our cans are empty we hop on their Honda Dreams and let the breeze dry our sweat and tangle our hair while we quietly reflect on the day as the jungle is speeding past. The ride is on sandy soil and at times bumpy but these guys know what they are doing and I feel very safe. The sun is now low in the sky and shadows are growing longer, air cool once again. It will be another hour before we reach the outskirts of Siem Reap and the congested traffic reminds us that we are back in “reality”. Some of us will sleep in the van on the way back, some of us will have another beer, all of us will have a satisfied grin on our faces and aching legs for the next two days.
What a fantastic Sunday!
Stephane runs private tours to Phnom Kulen all year round. The months of March and April are particularly hot and this should be considered when planning your visit. Essentials: at least 3 liters of water, snacks, hat, sunscreen, comfortable hiking footwear and clothing. Camera!
anna bella betts
Never still, always on the move, looking for the perfect capture... Cambodia is currently my home, presenting endless opportunities....
In this blog you will find no profound wisdom.
Just accounts of daily life, sometimes about photography, often about wine, occasionally about travel adventures and sometimes about nothing at all.