ABOUT PHNOM KULEN NATIONAL PARK
Called Phnom Kulen (meaning Lychee Mountain), Kulen has major historical significance for Cambodia and its people. The area first rose to prominence during the reign Jayavarman II. He called the area Mahendraparvata and made it his home and the capital city of his empire. The site was expanded upon by Udayadityavarman II, who famously constructed the 1000 Lingas in Kulen's river. By this time it was a metropolis of temples, residences, and state of the art infrastructure. In fact, at its peaks, it was size of modern-day Phnom Penh and one of the largest cities in the 11th-century world. It would later be eclipsed by Angkor, which relied on Kulen's water infrastructure to develop, and became the most significant religious site when finally completed in the 12th century.
Initial Explorations and Khmer Rouge
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 Mahendraparvata. Jungle expeditions found some of its ruins as well as its waterfalls. But research stopped as Cambodia plunged into a civil war in the early 1970's. This lull was followed by the Khmer Rouge, a genocidal regime that took the lives of an estimated two million Cambodians. In 1979 the Vietnamese took Phnom Penh and officially ended the war, but the Khmer Rouge was never eradicated in the countryside. They instead became a guerrilla movement with strongholds in Siem Reap province including Kulen Mountain. They held a significant presence here until the late-1990's.
When peace arrived archeological teams restarted their efforts. Locals found their way through the thick jungle to uncover small but significant ruins in Phnom Kulen. Despite the steep terrain and lack of investment (which tended to be directed towards Angkorian temples), historical artifacts and discoveries continued to contribute to our understanding of Khmer history and the role of the region. However, the real significance of Kulen was not revealed until 2012. Modern aerial LIDAR technology deployed for the first time allowed cartographers to map the entirety of Mahendraparvata by seeing under the thick jungle canopies. This revolutionary technique uncovered the extent of Udayadityavarman II's massive metropolis mentioned in inscriptions and redirected resources to the excavation of the region. For this reason, we say Kulen is just being revealed.
Kulen is a popular attraction first and foremost for spiritual reasons. Locals will make pilgrimages to Preah Ang Thom, the ancient pagoda and active religious site. Upon arrival at its base pilgrims will donate currency to needy residents who line up along the staircase. After summiting, alms are offered at shrines, at the reclining Buddha, and to the monks directly. Kulen is important from an ecological perspective as well. It is the largest and most significant nature reserve in Siem Reap province. The government and civil organizations work hard to prevent deforestation, logging, and poaching which threatens its endangered wildlife. Kulen is also a popular leisure destination. It is a great environment to hike and explore. Its waterfall and pool make it a fun place to swim and stay cool during the hot Cambodian months.
Visiting Kulen Today
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 adventurers 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.