Newly discovered ruins, extraordinary biodiversity, ancient pagodas and the waterfalls of Angkor’s Kings!
Phnom Kulen, once a local secret, is finally being appreciated for its historical, religious and ecological significance, and a trip to Siem Reap is no longer complete without a visit to the park.
Are you still thinking about a trip? We’ve made your decision easy by putting together a list of the 7 Reasons Why You Must See Phnom Kulen National Park.
Birthplace of Cambodia
Where does the Angkorian Empire, which at one time ruled all of Southeast Asia, trace its roots? (Hint: it’s not Angkor Wat). The answer is Mahendraparvata (now called Phnom Kulen) which rose to prominence during the reign Jayavarman II, the first great King of Cambodia. He made the mountain the capital city of his early empire. The site was expanded upon by Udayadityavarman II, who famously constructed the 1000 Lingas in Kulen’s river. It became a metropolis of temples and residences and was of the largest cities in the 11th-century world.
While it was later eclipsed by Angkor Wat, the largest religious site ever built, it will forever be known as modern-day Cambodia’s place of origin. A trip to Phnom Kulen helps you appreciate the historical and religious importance of this site to Cambodia’s people.
A Gem of Biodiversity
Phnom Kulen is designated a national park for a good reason. Its 37,000 hectares are home to more than 800 species of plants, many native to the region. Approximately 40 species of mammals coexist in Phnom Kulen, and an estimated 200 species of birds call the area home. These numbers include eight critically endangered species.
Tourists visiting Phnom Kulen can learn more about the region’s ecology at the Angkor Centre for the Conservation of Biodiversity, the first conservation centre in Cambodia. ACCB heads the effort to educate locals about the importance of the area and their obligation to protect it. They also direct wildlife rescues, conservation breeding, and the reintroduction of endangered species to the park. ACCB offers a guided tour of their facility every morning at 9:00 am.
A 16th-Century, Active Pagoda
Phnom Kulen has been an active religious site for over a millennium. As the original kings believe in Hinduism, the area was dedicated to the god Shiva. Images of Shiva can be seen in well-preserved sculptures and sandstone carvings throughout Phnom Kulen. Some of the best are found at Kbal Spean, home to the River of Lingas, where over a 1000 lingas were painstakingly carved into the riverbed.
The religion of the Empire would later become Buddhism which is seen at Wat Preah Ang Thom, a Buddhist pagoda built in the 16th-century. It is located on a hill at Phnom Kulen and overlooks most of the park. Monks still call this pagoda home, and pilgrims come from throughout Cambodia to make offerings. At the very top, accessible by a narrow staircase, is the pagoda’s namesake, Preah Ang Thom, the largest reclining Buddha in Cambodia.
Swimming in Sacred Waterfalls
Waterfalls are the highlight of a visit to Phnom Kulen, especially in the hot and humid Cambodian summers. Phnom Kulen National Park has two major waterfalls as well as many smaller ones. A staircase at the top of the largest waterfall wraps around and leads guests to a pool that forms at the base of the waterfall. There you will find changing rooms, bathing suits and towels for rent, and even some inner tubes if you want to float around the pool.
Kulen water is amazingly fresh (in fact, its springs are now a source of premium, mineral water in Siem Reap). It’s a great way to restore yourself after working up a sweat at the other sites. If you get hungry, there are also restaurants at the top of the waterfall. They have great views and are a good option for tourists who do not wish to swim.
Amazing Trekking Opportunities
Phnom Kulen National Park is an off the beaten path, outdoor paradise. There are thousands of hectares of unexplored forests dotted with streams, hills, and over 30 caves, a few of which are explorable and home to various species of endangered bats. Hundreds of trails with varying difficulty allow you to do anything from a light day trip to a more grueling, overnight experience. It is also one of the best places in Siem Reap province for rock climbing. Climbers can scale sandstone cliffs, the same material used to construct Cambodia’s temples.
Please note: if you plan to trek Phnom Kulen it is imperative you go with a local guide. The trails are not marked clearly, and the forest canopies can be disorienting. You need a resident, born in the area, to help you navigate the forest, as well as permission from authorities who manage the park. Contact us today if you need assistance planning or coordinating your trip.
Ancient Ruins Still Being Uncovered
Following the collapse of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Phnom Kulen was largely forgotten. It was not until the 20th century that French explorers became aware of Udayadityavarman II’s massive metropolis. Forest expeditions found some of its ruins, but research stopped as Cambodia plunged into a civil war in the early 1970’s. Phnom Kulen would become a Khmer Rouge stronghold, preventing any archeological work for more than 20 years.
Efforts resumed when peace arrived in Cambodia, but the significance of Kulen was not entirely revealed until 2012. State of the art LIDAR technology allowed cartographers to map the entirety of the region. This revolutionary technique uncovered the extent of the empire. Today, while touring the mountain, it is very common to pass by active excavation sites.
A True, Countryside Experience
One of the best parts of Phnom Kulen National Park is the commute. Located about 50 kilometers from Siem Reap city, getting to Kulen means traveling through the heart of the Cambodian countryside. On the way you will see a lifestyle that has hardly changed for centuries – farmers harvesting rice with hand sickles, fisherman casting nets or using traditional, wood traps, elderly residents rolling incense for the pagoda, and students walking or bicycling to class. If you join on a guided tour (or know what you are looking for) there are ample opportunities to experience local Khmer treats – handmade white noodles, palm sugar, fresh, organic mango and pineapple as well as traditional Khmer desserts.