There are quite a few one day trips that can be taken from Siem Reap. One of them, recommended for those who are willing to shell out a significant amount of money, is Phnom Kulen National Park.
This national park located around 50km north from Siem Reap. It is a hilly area covered with forests and scattered boulders. It used to be a capital city in pre-angkorian era and there are still some monuments from this period, including stone carvings in the riverbed. The park’s major draw is a lovely waterfall which is suitable for swimming.
GETTING TO PHNOM KULEN
There is no public transport in Cambodia and forums warn that scooter drivers are routinely checked and stopped by police around Siem Reap. That means getting to touristic attractions nearby requires an organized trip or hiring your own means of transport. Neither is cheap. We probably wouldn’t even consider going there if not for the opportunity to join a large group of expats. Hiring a 10-seater van with a driver costed $100. A hugely inflated entrance fee to the national park was $20 per person.
We went in the weekend which really wasn’t a good idea due to huge numbers of locals enjoying the day off but we obviously didn’t have much choice. The road to the park was very picturesque: it actually cut across the Angkor Park area and some of the ruins were visible from the road. It also passed by Bantey Samre – an amazing temple situated further from the main cluster of the temples but which can still be seen as part of the Angkor Pass. Visiting both on one day would be unrealistic, though.
GIANT RECLINING BUDDHA
We started with visiting Preah Ang Tom, a 16th century temple with a 8-meter long reclining Buddha, situated on top of a rock. There were very few tourists around but it was full of devotees since this temple is very sacred for the Khmer people.
Old ladies sitting on the stairs leading to the temple complex were selling delicious coconut sweets, fried red bananas and various kinds of roots. It was the first time I had seen the victims of landmines (all missing at least one limb) playing traditional instruments- a common sight around Angkor Wat complex.
THE LINGAS IN THE RIVER
Our group spent a long time at the temple and as it was quite hot, everybody in our group was eager to go to the waterfall. That meant we had only a quick moment to see the Kbal Spean (River of the Thousand Lingas), a remarkable monument carved in the riverbed dating from pre-angkorian era. Linga- a fallic symbol and a representation of Hindu God Siva- was replicated in shallow waters of the mountain stream.
If we had time to walk further upstream, we’d eventually reach some animal and god- shaped carvings in the rocks above the water. Instead, we made our way towards a two-tier waterfall located very nearby.
AT AND AROUND THE WATERFALLS
The upper tier of the waterfall turned out to be rather unimpressive, measuring barely a man’s height. However, leaning over the edge one could see much higher fall and a pool underneath it.
All around the top of the waterfall there were stalls, restaurants and dozens of roofed platforms, used by the locals as a picnic spot. The whole area was very crowded and full of garbage.
We walked down and saw a truly beautiful, 20-meters high waterfall, quite powerful at this part of the year, with a large pool at the foot of it. Unfortunately, the place was really full of mostly Khmer people who entered the water fully dressed. Some of the tourists seemed unaware or indifferent towards local culture which doesn’t really accept nudity (neither female nor male) and wore usual swimwear. I was prepared with a decent swimming outfit (long leggings and a T-shirt on top of a bikini). I liked the simple but useful facilities at the waterfall: there were shacks serving as changing rooms available for half a dollar and huge coffers with a lock where one could store his valuables for a dollar.
The pool’s bottom was a mixture of mud and very uneven rocks so I’d recommend swimming in water shoes or sport sandals. That would also make climbing the rocks just next to waterfall much easier.
Ironically, shortly after we arrived the sky became cloudy and we were shivering with cold in our clothes and in the cool water. As the rain was approaching, many people left the water, giving me a chance to take some photos one on one with the waterfall. The rain promptly followed, eventually driving us out of the water and into a restaurant.
The prices of hotpots were rather high but manageable if the meal was shared between a few people. A gathering storm made us go back home right after the late lunch but we actually didn’t reach home until dusk.
How to get there?
There is no public transport leading to Phnom Kulen. Hiring a scooter is not recommended due to policeman stopping the drivers and demanding to show a Cambodian driving licence (read: asking for a bribe). Another obstacle is actually the fact the only way leading there is through the Angkor Park so if you’re going there on your own you might not be let through without a valid Angkor Pass. As such, the only way to get there is by hiring a vehicle. It’s a bit too far for a tuk-tuk ride which leaves you with hiring a car with a driver or going with an organized tours. Neither would be cheap.
Prices [in USD as of June 2018]
$100 hiring a 10-seater with a driver for the whole day
$20 entrance to Phnom Kulen National Park
$1 locker at the waterfalls
$0.50 changing room at the waterfalls
$0.25 coconut sweet from street seller