Are you planning to visit Cambodia? Phnom Kulen Mountain should definitely be on your list!

As soon as I landed in Siem Reap, I realized that it is very different from Bangkok or the other cities I’ve visited in Southeast Asia. There aren’t big buildings, for example, or traffic jams, and most of the locals are riding bicycles or motorbikes.

The simple and laid-back lifestyle, as observed from the taxi to my hotel made me feel good and relaxed, and I liked the city immediately.
Most tourists just come to Siem Reap to see the temples – I’ve even met people who came to the city for only one and half days…
But just visiting the temples and snapping some pictures before you leave won’t give you a real sense of the city and its inhabitants. Plus, the countryside of Siem Reap is also absolutely stunning.
While planning my trip to Cambodia, I contacted Backstreet Academy, a company that offers unique tours with local hosts across Southeast Asia because I wanted to explore Siem Reap’s countryside, and at the same time learn more about the Cambodian way of living.

Phnom Kulen Moutain
A bike parked on the street while the owner was fishing on the rice fields.

Among the myriad of tours that Backstreet Academy offers, I decided on the Phnom KulenTour & Picnic, because it would give me the opportunity to learn more about Buddhism and Hinduism; take an insider look at local life; and also visit an amazing waterfall, which was a bonus, because I love nature. Even better was the fact that it’s a private tour so would be tailored to my schedule and interests.

Phnom Kulen Tour & Picnic

The tour takes visitors to Phnom Kulen Moutain, which is located 50Km north east of Siem Reap and considered by Khmers as the most sacred mountain in Cambodia.
The day after visiting the Siem Reap temples, I woke up at 7:00 AM and the driver and Soy Kosal, the guide, came to pick me up at Hillocks Hotel.
Soy is a Siem Reap native who studied Project Management, has been working in hotel hospitality for almost 7 years and spoke very good English.
Minutes after leaving Siem Reap, we were surrounded by rice fields dotted with huge palm trees in a breathtaking landscape. The blue sky, the sun and clouds just made the scenery even more picturesque and beautiful.
Phnom Kulen Moutain

One Thousand Linga

As we traveled along the valley of “Mountain of Lychees”, the landscape changed dramatically. The road narrowed and winded its way through lush vegetation and past huge rocks before delivering us to our first stop, the Phnom Kulen river and a hot spring.
The “River of One Thousand Lingas” is called that because of the many phallic symbols, representative of Shiva in Hinduism, carved into the rocks on the riverbed. These go on for about 2 km (1.24 mi) and date from 802 A.D. – ie from before the construction of the temples in Siem Reap. There are also many Yoni carvings (a stylized representation of female genitalia symbolising the goddess Shakti in Hinduism).
Soy told me that this site is sacred to Cambodians and many locals take some water home to share with friends and family.
I was astonished to see all those carved rocks in the name of religion but got an even bigger surprise when I got to the hot spring.
When I arrived, there was a woman praying with her family. She was kneeling in front of the little pond holding a bowl with lotus flowers on her head. While I was taking some pictures of this unfamiliar religious ceremony, she suddenly started sobbing. My guide explained that in their belief she might have done something wrong in her past and she was crying because spirits were entering her.
The long loud cry followed by sobs was very touching, and I was speechless!

The Reclining Buddha Temple

After a few more minutes on the road, we arrived at our second stop: The Reclining Buddha Temple. Before heading to the temple, we bought some flowers, incense and changed money to follow the local tradition.
The Reclining Buddha Temple was constructed in the 16th century, contains a huge statue of Buddha carved in rock, and attracts many locals who come daily to pray and get blessed by Buddhist monks.
After crossing a huge and stylish entrance where beggars swarmed, we went to the top of the hill, and my guide explained some of the rules to follow:
1- To get the holy water from a monk, you need to take off your shoes, sit down on your knees, put your hands together on your chest, bend your body and touch the ground, and put your hands back on your chest; repeat it three times before and after getting the holy water and the blessing.
2 – Go to the temple to pray, with the incense, flowers and money to donate.
3 – Light up the incense and leave it outside.
4 – Place the blessed flowers in a pot with water outside the temple.
5 – To get permission to visit the temple you need to sit down on your knees, put your hands together on your chest, bend your body, touch the ground, and put your hands on your chest again; repeat three times.
6 – Put the money in different bowls scattered along the reclining Buddha, and pray every time you donate the money and bend your body three times with your hands on your chest.
7 – Repeat the number 5 and leave.

I was doing the whole process, but not really engaging with it. My guide realized and told me to do it with my heart. So I focused my mind on what I was doing, and felt the energy of the place. It was a really strong vibration and made me feel good.
The temple also provides an incredible view of the mountain, which is covered with lush vegetation.
We left the temple and walked through the very simple village, where kids were playing and life seemed so peaceful, until we reached a restaurant by the river.

A Break for Lunch

Phnom Kulen Moutain is very popular among locals, especially on weekends and during festivals. That Saturday wasn’t different and there were many families and friends sharing meals in some of the cabanas on the riverbanks.
We ordered some Cambodian dishes and it was our time to share our meal.
The dishes were very tasty, and the portions really big, so that we felt completely sated.

Phnom Kulen Moutain

After lunch we finally headed to the waterfall.

The Rejuvenating Waterfall

There were many young locals playing and having fun on the first level of the waterfall, which is four to five meters high and 20m long.
So, we walked down one hundred steps and reached the second level, which is much higher, 15 to 20m, a bit narrower, 10 to 15m long, but much more beautiful and spectacular.
The breathtaking view of the waterfall made me smile, and I couldn’t wait to jump in the water!
The water was good, and there were some locals and foreigners enjoying it too. I spent some time swimming and getting massaged by the falls and the fishes in the water.
I love being in nature and the time I spent at the falls rejuvenated me and made me feel extremely happy!

On the way back to the hotel I had a chance to admire and learn about Cambodia’s countryside once again.
I am very glad that I took the Phnom Kulen Tour & Picnic during my stay in Siem Reap – it was one of the best days of my journey in this country and I left the city with a clearer understanding of Cambodia.
Visiting Siem Reap without taking a closer look at its countryside is a mistake that many travelers could make.
Backstreet Academy offers nearly 80 unique things to do in Siem Reap, such as: medieval knife making, rice farming with a local family, farm home stay, etc… So, during your visit to Siem Reap you should consider taking a tour to the countryside to learn more about the Cambodian way of living. It will make a huge difference to your experience.
Safe travels and enjoy Siem Reap!

Visiting Siem Reap

  • Where is it located?

Siem Reap is the capital city of Siem Reap Province in northwestern Cambodia. It is a popular resort town and a gateway to the Angkor region. (Check map here).

  • How to get there?

There is an international airport in Siem Reap, and some of the airlines that operates are: AirAsia, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Vietnam Airlines, Cathay Pacific, British Airways and Malaysia Airlines.

Another option is to take a bus from Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. You can buy your ticket online with: Giant Ibis or Mekong Express.

  • Where did I stay?

I stayed at Hillocks Hotel and Spa.

  • Travel Costs

* Five months travel insurance: US$ 256 with World Nomads.
∗ Phnom Kulen Tour & Picnic: US$ 99. But there is a very good discount for group of 3 or more people.

* I was invite by Backstreet Academy to take this tour, and all the options here are mine and unbiased. 

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