It’s no big news when you hear about people going to Cambodia for the sole reason of seeing their temples, specifically the Angkor Wat. There’s nothing wrong with that, because these temples are definitely something you need to go out of your way for, and trust me, there’s nothing like it. But with the way I travel, I have a certain desire to explore more than what I came for. And that’s exactly what led me to Phnom Kulen.
My time in Cambodia was sweet, peaceful, and spiritual, to say the least. Going there alone was the best idea, because the experience was even more sublime for me. However, it didn’t really begin that way. Parting ways with my husband in Bangkok as he flies back to Manila and I headed for Siem Reap two days later, it wasn’t particularly easy being on my own. The trip from Bangkok to Siem Reap was already daunting, and I guess it’s safe to say that my first day in Cambodia felt a little empty to me. (READ: Crossing Borders: How To Go From Bangkok To Siem Reap via bus)
But I knew what I signed up for, and I expected the loneliness to creep in as soon as it did. However, I’ve done this before and the feeling was already too familiar, that I wasn’t going to waste a day moping around in my hostel. Because, really, who does that? So instead, I walked around the streets of Siem Reap scavenging for a good deal for the waterfalls. I’ve read up on it prior to my trip and I knew I wanted to add it in my itinerary. Somehow, I still ended up booking with my hostel (The Luxury Concept Hostel), which cost me $30. A little pricey for a tour in Southeast Asia, but I’m pretty certain this is the standard price for this specific one. If you’re with a big group, I suppose you’re better off renting a van for the day.
It was a good call to go there instead of dedicating my first full day exploring the temples. Since I was feeling a bit lonesome and melancholic, I figured nature will snap me out of it. Exploring the temples can also be very exhausting, especially if you squeeze it all in one day, so coming from a long bus trip the day before, it was a wise decision. The tour worked out wonderfully for me since there were only me and a Dutch girl who’s an expat in Bangkok. I’m really not a fan of group tours at all, but sometimes, they’re just more convenient.
We headed out for the mountains at 7 in the morning, and we reached our first destination before 9. The winding dirt roads up the mountains is a bit strenuous and although many people choose to go by motorbikes, I was glad to be in a vehicle to avoid the dust. Our first stop was the river of the 1000 Lingas. Along the river banks are a thousand carvings of lingas, a phallic shape symbol for Hindus that are believed to be holy. It is believed to purify the water, making it fertile before it reaches the rice fields. We came across a small spring, also considered holy. Although the sand at the bottom looks like a shade of light brown or white, it somehow turns into a redder shade once taken out of the spring itself. It was said that once upon a time, the king was the only one allowed to bathe in it.
We then proceeded to our next stop which was a buddhist temple called Wat Preah Ang Tohm. Dating back to 16th century before Buddhist has taken over, the temple is quite famous for the locals. It houses a reclining buddha inside, and there are a bunch of beautiful carvings around the surroundings outside as well.
From there, we took a short hike to the waterfalls, which is mainly what I came to Phnom Kulen for. I wasn’t quite aware of those two previous spots we went to, but I was most definitely glad to have seen it. It never hurts to learn a few more things and to see a couple more sites. It’s those little surprises that I love about traveling.
The hike, which was more like a walk, took us along the locals’ homes in the mountain. We passed by some vendors selling pretty bizarre stuff– from goat fat, to tiger teeth, to bear claws, and everything in between, it was… fascinating, to say the least. Once we reached the waterfalls, there were some people already. There’s about an equal proportion of locals and tourists, I would say.
The water was brown, as the rest of Cambodia is. Seriously, Cambodia is so brown. I think this is Cambodia’s charm– it’s rustic authenticity is humble and completely different from the evolving cities most of us all hail from. Anyway, the water was cold in that February morning, but it was still refreshing to take a dip in the water. There were a lot of those dead-skin eater fish, and some are pretty huge, so don’t be alarmed! They’re not harmful, and those are the kind of fish they actually use for fish spa, but they do feel funny. I also got to hang out with some locals, and my guide was also cool enough to join me to where the water drops, so off we chased Phnom Kulen waterfalls.
We stayed for an hour, maybe less. On our way back, I was able to enjoy the glorious view from the mountains. It almost looks like what I would imagine Africa would be. It’s brown, vast, and beautiful. It was indeed a wonderful start in Siem Reap. Although this isn’t the most beautiful waterfalls I’ve ever seen, or the most striking temple I’ve visited, it’s humble and simple moments like this that reminds me why I’ve fallen for travel in the first place. It’s the unexpected paths and discoveries that I find myself always hoping for when I’m out and about. And to wrap this up, it’s off the beaten paths like this that I thrive on.
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