Phnom Kulen is the holiest mountain in Cambodia and a picnic destination for Khmer families. But few foreigners visit. On this peak in 802, King Jayavarman II declared himself a Hindu god-king and kicked off the four-century Angkor period of Khmer history that produced the Angkor temples, constructed of Phnom Kulen's sandstone. The Khmer Rouge used the mountain as a final stronghold for two decades after losing power in 1979, so it's only been three years since visitors have again been able to enjoy the cool waters and artistic treasures.
The waters hold special religious significance for Hindus, thanks to the carvings commissioned by Jayavarman II. The despot ordered part of the river diverted temporarily so that hundreds of phallic images could be carved into the sandstone floors along a shady brook area. These lingams—which actually look no more raunchy than rounded bumps—are surrounded by square outlines that represent the vulva, as per Hindu tradition. Tourists can slosh right into the shallow river to touch or photograph the sculptures through the flowing water.
The water becomes holy by passing over this area before moving downstream to a series of tiered waterfalls. At the top, where Jayavarman II chose to bathe, he again had the river diverted so that the stone bed could be carved with an elaborate rendering of the Hindu god Vishnu. Vishnu is laying on the serpent Ananta, with his wife Lakshmi at his feet and a lotus flower protrudes from his navel bearing the god Brahma. Visitors can walk into the water to take pictures but are instructed not to touch the underwater carvings.
The river then drops about 4 m to a landing where court officials bathed. Beyond that, the water cascades another 20 m and creates a pool where the masses once washed. As in the days of Elizabethan theater in London, when the best seats in the house—those closest to the stage—were inexplicably given to peasants, the Khmer commoners enjoyed the most beautiful section of the cascades, where a majestic sunlit waterfall streams through dense jungle growth. Today, Khmer families pass leisurely afternoons here: children frolic, and Buddhist monks crouch along the river downstream to wash their orange robes.
Buddhists co-opted Phnom Kulen as a holy site of their own after the Hindu heyday. A 10-minute car ride up the mountain brings tourists to Preah Ang Tho, a 16th century Buddhist monastery notable for the giant reclining Buddha carved into the top of a 20-m boulder. Climb the rickety wooden staircase to a landing that surrounds the 17-m-long Buddha, where monks and believers bow, burn incense and leave fruit.
The last major site on Phnom Kulen takes a bit of perseverance and imagination to enjoy. From the base of Preah Ang Tho, hire a motorbike driver for a challenging ride deep into the jungle wilderness (cost: about $10). He'll take you to a clearing that was home, about 1,000 years ago, to an Angkorian Period pottery factory. Shards of jars and fragments of sculptures are everywhere, seemingly untouched by archaeologists. Instead, amateurs, in the form of residents from nearby villages, have tried putting pieces together, standing them up against dead trees.
Mindful of the pillaging of Angkor Wat, the locals in and around this magical Cambodian mountain want to keep the hordes away. Some Siem Reap guesthouse managers warn that Phnom Kulen is riddled with land mines, even though the paths are well worn and thousands of Khmer visit every year without incident. Motorbike drivers, too, routinely discourage travelers by insisting it's too far, too expensive and there's not enough to do for the effort. They're partly right; it's too bum-numbingly far on a motorbike and, at about $150 for a day trip in a four-wheel drive, getting there in comfort is pricey. For that money, though, you get a proper guide from a reputable agency like Tamarind Tours (tamarindtours.com) or Lolei Travel (asiatours.net/cambodia) . You'll need that because few guidebooks explain the history or significance of the area in detail and, contrary to what you'll be told, Phnom Kulen offers plenty to know.