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Travel Report: Kulen National Park, Cambodia.

Locals staying cool in Kulen National Park

Kulen National Park, Cambodia.

April 2020.

Sladja and I had been largely self isolating for around a month when we began getting antsy. Don’t get me wrong, I was feeling beyond blessed to be stuck in a place as idyllic as Apsara Greenland Boutique.

Nevertheless, a solid thirty days of writing in the same room can get… claustrophobic… even in the best of circumstances. Desperate for a day escape, we decided the time was right to visit nearby Kulen National Park.

Kulen National Park Cambodia.

Entering Kulen National Park.

Hiring a private driver, we set off early one morning for the ninety minute journey to Kulen. Along with The Angkor Temples and the isolated ruins of Koh Ker, Kulen National Park is one of the most ancient and historic sights of Siem Reap.

Day trip from Siem Reap to Kulen National Park

Our route to Kulen National Park.

Dating back to 802CE, before the rise of Angkor, Kulen was Cambodia’s capital city. Home to King Jayavarman II, it was a huge metropolis roughly the size of modern day Phnom Penh. Cited as The Birthplace of the Khmer Empire, a number of ancient sights lie scattered between the dense jungle trails of Cambodia’s most sacred mountain.

Kulen National Park, Cambodia.

Jayavarman II.

Jayavarman II.

Arriving at the base of Kulen, our driver had to negotiate a series of twisting, dusty roads as we made our way toward’s the day’s first stop.

Preah Ang Thom Pagoda Kulen National Park Cambodia.

Preah Ang Thom Pagoda.

Preah Ang Thom Pagoda is a large Buddhist monastery dating back to the 16th century. Sadly, there’s very little historical info on the place. This certainly added to the overriding sense of mystery as we climbed its deserted staircase in the fierce morning sunshine.

Preah Ang Thom Pagoda Siem Reap.

Preah Ang Thom Pagoda.

What we do know is that the pagoda is a place of worship dedicated to Preah Ang Thom, the sacred god of Kulen Mountain.

Largest reclining Buddha in Cambodia.

Kulen National Park, Cambodia.

Its centrepiece is an impressive eight meter reclining Buddha, the largest such tribute in Cambodia. Amazingly, its creators carved the Buddha directly into the mountain’s sandstone formations.

Kulen Mountain, Cambodia.

Reclining Buddha House Kulen National Park Cambodia.

Reclining Buddha House, Preah Ang Thom Pagoda.

In order to protect it from the elements, local authorities built a wooden house around the Buddha. To enter, visitors take the steep staircase up to the house. On the day of our visit there was a warden supposedly keeping an eye on things, though he barely paid us any attention.

Reclining Buddha Siem Reap.

Reclining Buddha, Kulen Mountain.

Hundreds of little Buddha figurines line the entire length of the reclining statue. Follow the walkway around to its back and you’ll find personal messages and wishes scribbled into the stone. Right behind a little sign that says Please don’t write on the Buddha.

Buddha foot Kulen National Park Cambodia.

Reclining Buddha, Kulen Mountain.

Here and there, people lay monetary and floral tributes to rest. As seen here on one of the Buddha’s giant feet.

There was a group of local musicians playing solemn traditional music in the pagoda that day. Not at all put off, it seemed, by the lack of an audience. Elsewhere, we saw a few glum market vendors, none of whom could be bothered laying the hard sell on us.

Local vendor Kulen Mountain Cambodia

Kulen Mountain, Cambodia.

Moreover, we came across a number of beggars as we made our way back down. The pagoda virtually has its own village, the residents of which saw their livelihoods wiped out during the Coronavirus crisis. Call me a sucker, but I felt a few dollars was the least I could give in exchange for a photograph.

Kulen National Park, Cambodia.

Beggars at Preah Ang Thom Pagoda Cambodia.

Preah Ang Thom Pagoda.

Having hopped back into the minibus, our driver rumbled us off to the next stop, the highly impressive River of a Thousand Lingas.

Private day tour of Kulen Mountain Cambodia.

Our driver for the day.

The river features a number of ancient carvings cut into stone, both along the banks and right into the bed itself. I’m not sure exactly how many carvings there are but hey, a thousand sounds like a good number.

River of a Thousand Lingas.

Kulen National Park, Cambodia.

Many of the carvings here are lingas, the phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva. As representations of fertility, the monks who carved them believed their creations would give the water vitalising powers.

The lingas here appear as neatly stacked bumps just above the surface of the water. Quite different from the taller, thicker and altogether more dramatic pieces we saw at The Linga Temples in Koh Ker.

Kulen Mountain, Cambodia.

River of a thousand Lingas Cambodia.

River of a Thousand Lingas.

Left to our own devices, Sladja and I took a stroll along the river following a peaceful forest trail. It was just us, the birds and a community of gorgeous butterflies fluttering between the branches. Occasionally right in front of our noses. It was a truly magical experience, like taking a walk through some fairytale land.

Hiking in the forests of Kulen Mountain Cambodia

Forest hike, Kulen National Park.

Someone had even been considerate enough to construct a little tree swing for us. In all honesty, we would have happily continued down that forest trail for hours. But we had the driver waiting and there were more sights to cover before our agreed mid-afternoon return to Siem Reap.

In the forest at Kulen National Park.

Kulen National Park.

In addition to the beautiful forest, riverbed lingas and the country’s largest reclining Buddha, Kulen National Park is also famed for its life-giving waterfall. Thus the driver dropped us off at the entrance to a small village and urged us to head out and explore. “Waterfall is not far” he exclaimed vaguely.

For the first time we found ourselves among sizeable gatherings of Khmer tourists. In fact, there was a number of families eating at several riverside restaurants and snack vendors selling fried coconut and pineapple desserts. It felt weird to be back in civilisation again.

Kulen Mountain, Cambodia.

Snack Vendor Kulen National Park Cambodia.

Snack vendor, Kulen National Park.

When we finally reached the waterfall, I was disappointed. Oh, that’s it. Don’t get me wrong, it was pretty enough, but I’d been expecting something… grander.

A waterfall at Kulen National Park.

The smaller of Kulen Mountain’s famed waterfalls.

Back at the bus, our driver seemed surprised to see us return so soon. “You see big waterfall?” Following a very confusing exchange, he led us back into the village, past the waterfall we’d seen and onto a discreet forest trail. As we progressed, there were no signs enlightening us as to which way to go, so we happily followed his instructions.

Waterfall hunting Kulen Mountain Cambodia

Kulen National Park.

Soon enough the trail brought us to a descending staircase of stone steps and wooden handrails. We were about halfway down when the authoritative boom of the falls kicked in. Whoa, this waterfall must be big.

Kulen National Park, Cambodia.

The main waterfall at Kulen National Park

The main waterfall.

In terms of grandeur, Phnom Kulen Waterfall definitely delivered! Unfortunately, the wow moment of our arrival was tempered somewhat by an exceptionally antisocial group of teenagers.

Khmer boys playfighting Kulen National Park

Kulen National Park.

Whooping and screaming, they ran around play fighting and splashing each other, getting plenty of other people wet in the process. They also blasted out obnoxious techno music and left all their litter on the sand. Finally, at least, they were gone and we could have some peaceful moments to ourselves in front of the waterfall.

Kulen Waterfall Siem Reap Cambodia

Kulen National Park.

The waterfall is a special place for Cambodian people. Much like the River of a Thousand Lingas, many Cambodians believe these waters have potent powers able to help couples conceive. As a result, it’s not uncommon to happen upon a childbearing ritual carried out by so-called natural medicine doctors. Furthermore, movie buffs might be interested to learn that the waterfall briefly features in the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Kulen Waterfall Siem Reap Cambodia.

Phnom Kulen Waterfall.

We really enjoyed our half day exploring Kulen National Park. We paid $50 for a private minibus to take us there and back, inclusive of ferrying us around the sights and waiting. Entrance to the park is $20 per person. Naturally it’s cheaper if you drive yourself. Just bear in mind it’ll be hard work getting up the mountain and something of a challenge to navigate your way around the key spots.

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  • wetanddustyroads

    That buddha carved from the mountain’s sandstone – that’s quite amazing! I can understand why you enjoyed your hike through the forest when it’s just the two of you surrounded by nature’s wild life (there is definitely something magical about that)! Well, I liked the first “waterfall”, but must admit … the big one is impressive! Definitely a great day out exploring!

    July 20, 2022 - 2:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Corna, this was a great day. And one we took after weeks of largely self isolating at our hotel. It felt so good to be out and about and not bumping into that many people.

      July 20, 2022 - 2:28 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    Looks like you found a good driver/tour guide. He made sure you had seen it all, including the high waterfall. The Ang Thom Pagoda looks like it is from some fairytale. I wonder if the wonder of the temple made the hawkers a bit more subdued. Glad you got outside the city and thanks for taking us along Leighton. Allan

    July 20, 2022 - 2:48 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Allan, I think the vibe around the pagoda was COVID-sombre. Or at least that was my perspective. It was a fine adventure and yes our guide was a really good egg who made all the difference.

      July 20, 2022 - 3:02 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    Love the picture of you two! What a neat place to explore to get some fresh air and see something besides your apartment! Jon and I were definitely getting stir crazy in our place, but didn’t have anywhere really to go.

    July 20, 2022 - 2:57 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks, we had to be really patient to get that waterfall shot. Stir crazy is about right, though truly we couldn’t complain with our amazing boutique hotel. At the time we were pretty stressed out, but looking back we had an amazing adventure. Thanks for reading!

      July 20, 2022 - 3:05 pm Reply
      • Lyssy In The City

        I used to say that I wished Jon and I didn’t have to go to work so we could spend every day together… I think I got my wish but not how I imagined!

        July 20, 2022 - 4:50 pm
  • Memo

    Looks like an amazing day. The reclining Buddha was impressive. Something tells me the musicians had their most important audience for their music. I really enjoyed the nature part of your day. You had a good driver/guide for your enchanted journey to the waterfalls. Great to see some pictures of Sladja. That one of the two of you at the base of the waterfall is framable.

    July 20, 2022 - 4:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Memo, thanks for exploring Kulen National Park with us. You’re right about that waterfall shot being frameworthy. If we ever get our own place…

      July 20, 2022 - 4:05 pm Reply

    Ah your first escape after confinement to quarters. Antisocial teenagers, who’d-a thought it!? Your patience paid off though, clearly. That’s the very first time I’ve ever heard of carvings on a river bed…

    July 20, 2022 - 4:11 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      The riverbed lingas are quite unique. Unlike those tedious teenagers. Thanks for keeping up with the series.

      July 20, 2022 - 4:20 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    Incredible what they carved out of stone! A Buddha carved from the rock of the mountain and those perfect shapes cut into the river bed. Both seem near impossible feats of devotion but the final product is just beautiful. Looks like you found an idyllic place to escape to for a little while 🙂

    July 20, 2022 - 4:17 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Meg, it was the day we so badly needed. There’s a such a rich variety of sights in the park and it was great to have a break from COVID. The driver was a godsend, no idea how we would have done it without him.

      July 20, 2022 - 4:23 pm Reply
  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    Being national park junkies, it is a thrill to see the national parks in other countries. The large waterfall is very impressive – well worth the $70.00 you had to pay to see the park. The reclining Buddha is interesting, but I loved the tiny Buddha offerings too. Sad social statement to see people begging in a national park though. Thanks for sharing another great post, Leighton!

    July 20, 2022 - 4:27 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      So glad you appreciated this look at a Cambodian National park Kellye. The begging was indeed a sad site, and all too common across the country. Thanks for coming along with us and seeing the sights.

      July 20, 2022 - 4:30 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    I like all those little Buddhas surrounding the larger one Leighton and the photos of you both are really lovely. It must have been so nice to get out and about after so long.

    July 20, 2022 - 6:02 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for taking a look Marion. Even glancing through these photos makes me nostalgic for this period, despite everything that was going on.

      July 20, 2022 - 6:18 pm Reply
  • salsaworldtraveler

    This trip was a great way to get over cabin fever and see some interesting sights. Kulen is an example of how civilizations and cultures thrived and disappeared in S.E. Asia. The N.P. reminds me of Soi Yak N.P. in Thailand. The big waterfall there is also used as a swimming hole. It seemed a bit strange but I don’t recall seeing any public swimming pools in S.E. Asia.

    July 20, 2022 - 8:18 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      That’s a good point. I can’t recall a single public pool during my travels in the region. Rivers, lakes, waterfalls on the other hand…. Thanks for stopping by John.

      July 20, 2022 - 8:59 pm Reply
  • Toonsarah

    It’s clear we could easily have devoted our whole trip to the sights in and around Siem Reap, if only time had allowed! That reclining Buddha is amazing, and I loved your photos of the details like the offering on the foot. Of course handing over a few dollars to the beggars in return for a photo is a very reasonable thing to do. I’m often happy to pay for a photo or two while travelling if I think the recipient could genuinely use the money!

    Sadly I think most of us have encountered groups like those teenagers at the waterfall, and some much older than that who should certainly know better. Like the Canadian at a desert camp in Uzbekistan who insisted on playing his radio at full volume while the rest of us were enjoying the remote location and doing a bit of star-gazing!

    July 20, 2022 - 8:18 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Sarah, a photo compliment from you is a compliment indeed. As for the beggar shot, I was torn between not wanting to be opportunistic but also keen to capture every side of the place. Giving them a few dollars at least helped with some of the guilt. A categoric thumbs down to Mr. Canadian Desert Radio Man.

      July 20, 2022 - 9:08 pm Reply
  • I’ve Bean Travelling

    The water level looks like it was quite low while you were there. I had a swim under that waterfall – so fun!

    July 21, 2022 - 1:39 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for reading!

      July 21, 2022 - 8:30 am Reply
  • NortheastAllie

    The Kulen National Park must have been the perfect area to get outside during the pandemic. The Buddhist monastery looks elegant, and the waterfall must have been a refreshing spot to visit!

    July 21, 2022 - 3:39 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Affirmative on both counts, thanks for reading Allie and contributing to the thread!

      July 21, 2022 - 8:38 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    I’m a sucker for waterfalls– big or small– and it appears Cambodia is nothing short of some stunners! Going remote to the Preah Ang Thom Pagoda must’ve been a shock compared to the civilization outside of it: it’s unfortunate to see those in poverty as opposed to the well-off outside, the latter whom can afford vacations at the waterfalls and elsewhere…a very humbling experience, I can imagine!

    July 21, 2022 - 5:06 am Reply
    • Leighton

      The people in the village outside the pagoda had their livelihoods completely cut off by the pandemic. By the time we rolled up that day the situation had clearly gotten desperate. Humbling yes, thanks for your thoughts Rebecca.

      July 21, 2022 - 8:44 am Reply
  • qprgary

    Always trust unruly kids to ruin a day somewhere as amazing as that.

    July 21, 2022 - 9:39 am Reply
    • Leighton

      They were really annoying. But also going crazy during COVID I guess with nothing to do. In any case we were relieved when they finally buggered off.

      July 21, 2022 - 9:47 am Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    Thank goodness for all these parks and green spaces during the pandemic, otherwise I would have gone crazy. What a neat national park with so much history and nice scenery. I thought that waterfall was actually pretty impressive, until I saw the bigger one. That’s too bad about the hooligans who were being loud though, but thankfully they left. That’s a great picture of you and Sladja in front of the waterfall.

    July 21, 2022 - 1:07 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I thought you guys would like this one! It is a gorgeous National park and we’ll always look back on that day of escapism with warm memories.

      July 21, 2022 - 1:55 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    Wow those river bed carvings are incredible. I love the waterfalls as well , just sorry you had to share for a while with loud teenagers!

    July 21, 2022 - 1:54 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for checking out Kulen National Park Hannah!

      July 21, 2022 - 1:56 pm Reply
  • NattyTravels

    I love National Parks! This one looks incredible with all the beautiful waterfalls. Its a shame you had to put up with those annoying children 😔

    July 21, 2022 - 8:47 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      What can you do, life is rarely ever perfect. Thanks for reading!

      July 21, 2022 - 8:54 pm Reply
  • desilvasachitha

    Woha, simply mind blowing scenes Leighton, thanks for sharing them with us!
    Looks like an ideal place to explore, looking at all of these stunning sceneries.

    July 26, 2022 - 1:14 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for stopping by Sacha and for taking the time to leave a comment.

      July 26, 2022 - 1:20 pm Reply
      • desilvasachitha

        To be honest, I was drawn there by your content, so kudos for rolling them out! 🙂

        July 26, 2022 - 1:26 pm
      • Leighton

        Thanks so much, I will definitely take a look at your blog a little later today and drop you a line. Thanks a lot, feel free to follow to keep up with my latest articles.

        July 26, 2022 - 1:27 pm
      • desilvasachitha

        Thanks a lot, i just followed you, let’s stay connected! 🙂

        July 26, 2022 - 1:28 pm
  • rkrontheroad

    Good for you for supporting this village in a difficult time. It’s always a disappointment when people are loud and insensitive where you want to quietly enjoy a special place. (Even sadder to me when they are Americans!)

    August 4, 2022 - 5:33 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ha ha I suppose you have to forgive the locals. I’m the “guest” right? Mm. Thanks for this bumper catch up Ruth.

      August 4, 2022 - 5:46 pm Reply
      • rkrontheroad

        My pleasure.

        August 4, 2022 - 5:48 pm
      • rkrontheroad

        Yes, it’s a different take if they are locals. It’s their place. 😉

        August 4, 2022 - 6:00 pm

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