A day on the Kulen hill

Trip Start Jun 01, 2010
Trip End Mar 11, 2011

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Where I stayed
Sala Bai Hotel Siem Reap
Read my review - 5/5 stars

Flag of Cambodia  ,
Monday, January 31, 2011

It was a bloody early morning I must say. We were on our way to do yet another must do thing in Siem Reap. Go and see the sunrise at the Angkor Wat, what are we thinking? Anyhow it is pitch black when we reach the temple, but already the hordes of people are streaming in to the front entrance finding a spot somewhere on the lawn. The sun rises on the east slightly to the right of the temple towers today. We wait for first light for a while playing some games on our phones and about half an hour later the sky slowly lights up and our camera starts clicking away.

We notice that the lens of the camera is having issues as it gives errors when we zoom in. Also the automatic white balance is way off, so we have to play around in manual mode. We fear for the survival of our faithful lens as we carefully click some shots. As the sun turns the sky red and orange we head towards the pool where you can make the famous Angkor Wat reflection shots. It was fun observing the wannabe photographers as they tried to make their price winning photos. One obviously American girl kept screaming 'excuse me sir, you are in my shot, we are trying to make photos here' as the poor guy was trying to do the same.

The whole scene was quite amusing. Sim should be her boyfriend, she and him would make an excellent couple. We did the best that we could with our handicapped lens and after fifteen minutes or so we decided to have some breakfasts.

On our way out we saw a professional photographer making some very cool shots of a couple of monks that he had posing on the bridge over the moat. Of course the crowds armed with long lensed canons snapped away as the photographer tried to do his job. We also committed this sin and snapped a couple of the shots as well.

There are a about a dozen of feeding stations around the temple grounds that all cater for the early morning crowds. The breakfast was greasy and the substance that was advertised as coffee would do great as lubricant. When I walked to the back to attend to some personal business I had to jump over a couple of cockroaches the size of small birds, so I hope our stomaches would tolerate the early morning abuse.

As we continued onwards towards the hill of Kulen we stopped at the red temple of Banteay Srei. This temple is known for exquisitely fine decorations in the panels above the doors. And indeed it was amazing the level of detail and the preservation of these fine arts. Another hundred photos were added to our memory cards. The selection and editing of the photos is going to be one hell of a process and I fear it will not be completed before Christmas. The Angkor temples are amazing, but in a way they are all very similar. Three or more stupas, build for a king or a god, a square wall around the complex, sometimes a moat and sometimes a few libraries.

The red temple was kind of different though as this complex was a training site for future priests. The complex has lots of libraries, the stupas are not built on towering high platforms and there are remains of quarters where the students stayed during their training.

Now we were on our way to the mountain of Kulen. According to ancient Cambodian legends this is the source of all water. There are springs emerging from the mountain where the fresh mineral water breaks the surface and forms small creeks. This was of course quite a miracle in those days, and for this reason the king Jayavarman II decided to settle down on this mountain. Later it was declared a holy place. Still to date the Cambodians come up here to pray. It is believed that if you speak badly on the mountain, it will condemn you and your ill words will become reality. Therefore I was urged to refrain from any sarcasm , which is of course quite a difficult task for me.

The drive to the hill took us through the Cambodians countryside where we passed villages and ox carts. It took a bit over an hour before we reached the mountain gates. The road up is a one way road, and before two o clock traffic goes up, after that traffic comes down. So you would have to arrive before two otherwise you would be out of luck and would have turn around without seeing the hill. The Cambodians know how to raise money from their tourism industry, we have to pay another forty dollars for us to be allowed up the hill as this park is not a part of the temple pass we bought a few days earlier.

We were informed of this so this was not a surprise. But the hill being off the beaten track and the fact that it costs some extra dollars makes it nice and quiet. Tour buses cannot go up the steep roads so this greatly reduced your chance to run in to a battalion of Koreans. Up on top of the hill we first had a glance at the man made carvings in the river bed and the springs from where the water softly bubbles up forming small streams down to the river. When we booked the whole tour we were promised a hike into the Jungle to find some temples hidden deep inside the woods.

But Sim conveniently forgot about this part of the itinerary. I insisted on going in to the forest as I was looking forward to this. But instead of walking he had the driver drive his car up a road that was barely suitable for 4x4 vehicles. After a bit we stopped at a couple of rocks which were the remains of an ancient temple. According to Sim this was it, everything that was out here was supposedly in this shape, unrecognizable piles of stone. This was quite a different picture than the girl at the hotel painted us when we booked our excursions so I was a tad disappointed. I don't know if Sim was just unwilling to go in to the Jungle with us, as he has his selectively restrictive 'knee injury' or if the girl at the hotel just painted a too pretty picture. Anyway I felt sorry for the driver who turned his Toyota sedan into a Landcruiser, so we decided to turn around and head back.

At the river bed we went down to the restaurant area for lunch. We saw some hotel that had organized what looked like a fabulous picnic Cambodian barbecue, they sat around under a cabana by the river side with some sorts of grill similar to the ones you see at the Korean BBQ places. The group brought their own chefs whom proudly stood around their field kitchen with tall white hats. It looked like an awesome experience. Unfortunately we were brought to a restaurant next to this feast where we were served some not too spectacular dishes. After our lunch we walked down to the waterfalls. We climbed a very dangerous ladder down to the base of the falls. Downstairs it was very pretty but also a bit crowded with a happy blend of locals enjoying a day off and a few tourists.

We crawled over the rocks to the water side and sat around watching the water fall about fifteen meters into the pool below it surrounding it there is a dense impenetrable Jungle. We tried to imagine the site without people, it must have been a magical moment for the explorers when they cut their way through the greens and then suddenly face this marvel of natural beauty.

After our visit to the falls we headed up to a Buddha temple nearby. The statue of a reclining Buddha sits on top of a rock and is reachable by a staircase. At the sides of the staircase beggars with missing limps are lined up to receive money from the visitors. You can even buy a stack of small change to give out to the many people. It is a sad sight but unfortunately part of what is Cambodia. We pay a brief visit to the temple and walk around the premises for a bit. But the heat took the fun out of it and we were kind of glad to be back in the car where the driver cranked up the AC.

On the way back from the mountain to Siem Reap we made one last stop at a temple. It could not have been more perfect. It was a rather large complex, similar in height to Thom Phrom, but not marked on the maps as a mayor site., Sim told us that this particular temple was not finished completely as the king that had ordered the construction passed away before its completion. When we arrived there was no one there, we were all alone and had the whole pile of ancient rocks to ourselves. Even Sim left us for a bit as he seemed to have lost his wallet and was franticly looking for it in the car.

We walked around and even climbed up to the top of the temple from where we enjoyed the cool breeze and the views over the Jungle. In the distance I could see the towers of Angkor Wat sticking out of the dense jungle greens. We spend quite some time here climbing and exploring and out of all temples in Siem Reap I think this unnamed one will get a special place in our memories.

Back in town, we freshened up at our little hotel before heading out for evening dinner. We were driven to town by a very nice tuk tuk driver whom we would try to find tomorrow for a short tour around Siem Reap. We started the evening with a drink or two too many, and ended up having dinner in the restaurant above the bar. In the restaurant they had a dance show showing traditional Cambodian dances which was entertaining even though we saw only a glimpse of it from the distance of our table on the balcony.
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