If you happen to stay longer in Siem Reap and allow yourself some time to explore more than just Angkor Temples, then you should head to Phnom Kulen. It is a perfect place to spend a day. Khmer people like to go there over the weekend to have a dip in the refreshing waterfall, enjoy lunch at a shaded spot and hang out with their families. It is considered by locals to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia. Phnom Kulen waterfall briefly appears in Tomb Raider where Lara Croft jumped into it. It is not as famous as the scenes at the Ta Prohm temple though.
How to get there
Phnom Kulen is about an hour and a half drive from Siem Reap. The best way to get there is with a private van or by renting a motorbike. It is important to arrive there before 11 a.m. as the road to get to the top is a one way road. It closes after that time to allow people to drive back down. The entrance ticket can be bought on arrival but if you purchase it from a travel agent in Siem Reap before going it costs 15 USD insted of 20 USD. If you go there for sunrise, then it is better to take a van as tour guides know all the best spots for sunrise watching.
If you want to go there with a peace of mind, then you should opt for one of these 1-day excursions from Siem Reap. You can choose between a small group tour, a private tour or a tour accompanied by a professional photographer:
What to do at Phnom Kulen
Admire the sunrise from the top of the mountain
If you are a sunrise and sunset catcher, then this spot will not dissapoint you. I had to leave Siem Reap at 4 a.m. that was worth the effort as the sunrise was one of the most spectacular I have ever seen. The area is peaceful, you can meditate to the sound of the birds and enjoy a rewarding view on the lush green jungle.
Cool off by the waterfall
After the sunrise watching, go down to the waterfall and swim in its refreshing waters. It is such a great feeling to get refreshed during a hot day. At this time of the day it will still be early enough to have it all for yourself before it is taken over by local families, monks and some tourists. That day, I was unable to swim so I sat down on the rock at the edge of the waterfall. Small fish started to swim towards my feet and I had a gentle fish pedicure spa (not recommended for sensitive feet :)). There is a swing next to the waterfall that makes a perfect backdrop for pictures.
Have lunch in the picnic area
There is a large picnic area on the upper part of the waterfall with shaded spots. The restaurant serves local food and you can buy a coconut for 1 USD. We grabbed some food before, just outside of the lingas river that consisted of delicious grilled chicken with fresh lime and pepper sauce with rice as well as some dried beef. By the picnic area there is a river that drops to the waterfall where you can dip your feet.
Visit the Wat Preah Ang Thom Pagoda and the River of Thousand Lingas
The pagoda is a place of worship for Cambodians. Visitors are asked to take off their shoes before entering the site and cover their shoulders and knees. It houses a giant statue of reclining Buddha that is one of the biggest in Cambodia.
The river of Thousand Lingas (or Kbal Spean) features carvings of sacred lingas that represent the essence of God Shiva. Some sources say that they have been carved into the river for nearly a thousand years. Cambodians believe that the water is sacred and brings good luck and fertility. A monk invited us to go into the river to have a closer look into these beautiful carvings. If you want to visit more lingas, read this Lonely Planet guide.
I was positively surprised by the beauty and the rich cultural identity of this spot. I still dream of swimming in refreshing waters of the waterfall on a hot day!
–> For other authentic experiences near Siem Reap, visit the floating village of Kompong Khleang.
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