Phnom Kulen Mountain is situated north east of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap and it takes approximately 2 hours drive up to the top. It is only possible to go up before 11am and only possible to come down after midday, to avoid vehicles meeting on the narrow road. Although somewhat touristy, it is rural Cambodia at its best (or worst).
Kulen Mountain is considered by Khmers to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia and it is a popular place for domestic visitors during weekends and festivals. The hill was once used as part of the ancient capital city where in AD802 the King announced independence from Java, giving birth to present day Cambodia. Before you come here, though, you need to analyse your itinerary – can you really afford (time-wise) to come somewhere like Phnom Kulen when you’re in Siem Reap? After all, you’re probably only in town to see the temples, right? So a side trip to Kulen Mountain National Park may not seem like a good idea to everyone. I found it rather “meh”, but the scenery was nice, and a surprising lack of tourists made it all the better. However, there are lots of mosquitoes around here, so don’t come unprepared.
On the top of the mountain (or thereabouts), there are apparently dozens Angkorian temples made of bricks and volcanic stones. I knew in advance that most of them were in poor condition, but still, you would have thought that in the name of tourism perhaps the Cambodian authorities would do something to enhance the area. Today, there is one temple, Hahendrapura, that is still in moderately good condition, which was founded in the reign of King Jayavarman – however, don’t expect too much! Compared to other ancient ruins you may see in Siem Reap, you will not be very impressed with these old temple remnants here at Phnom Kulen.
Some of the more popular and visible sites around Phnom Kulen are Prasat Krau Romeas, Rong Chen (the first mountain temple), Sra Damrei (Elephant Pond), and at the summit of the mountain you can see a large reclining Buddha statue of what looked to be at least 8 metres in length that is carved into the surrounding sandstone.
One of the most attractive spots around Phnom Kulen Mountain Park is a pair of waterfalls. You can see many people (even monks) bathing and playing in the waters here, as most Khmers are here during their vacation time or treating themselves to a day away from downtown with the family. The water in these parts is considered holy and Khmers like to bottle it to take home with them. The source of water eventually flows in to Tonle Sap Lake and is thought to bless the water ways of Cambodia.