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Ancient architechture, stunning waterfalls and guerrilla escorts await tourists at Phnom Kulen

Ancient architechture, stunning waterfalls and guerrilla escorts await tourists at Phnom Kulen

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KULEN FALLS

A group of Cambodian tourists brave the rapids and former rebels of Phnom Kulen.

PHNOM KULEN, Siem Reap - Khmer Rouge defectors turned

custodians of Phnom Kulen temple could do no better than

enlist in the next remedial human communications course -

a necessary re-education to take the hard edge of current

reception formalities for visitors to this popular

northwest tourist spot.

I'm talking about bellowed orders like: "If you walk

past me they will kill you."

Exactly who "they" were was unclear, but a more

traditional xenophobic refrain of this unique

forest-dwelling minority followed - "I hate all

foreigners." And finally with an added ethnic angle

pitched at the new football World Cup holders - "I

hate all French." The verbal venom was spat during a

recent visit to the temple.

Phnom Kulen, one of Cam-bodia's best-known, but until

recently, least- accessible temples lies about 50km north

of Siem Reap town, about two hours by motorbike.

A well-kept logging road forking off National Route 67

about 10 km north of Banteay Srei village marks the start

of the Kulen escarpment, a prominent landmark on the

horizon and easily recognized as a forest- covered

sandstone ridge running almost due east into the wild

blue yonder.

Arriving mid-morning we had just hiked to the top of the

escarpment before running into four young soldiers, all

bar one dressed in Chinese- style green military fatigues

and armed with an assortment of weapons including a

rocket launcher.

The earlier outburst had come from a short, squat young

man with intense deep-set eyes, wearing rubber sandals, a

T-shirt, shorts and toting a M-16 assault rifle to which

was attached possibly the world's biggest magazine.

We had committed an unpardonable sin in his view by

tartly declining an offer, while he casually waved his

weapon in our direction, that he accompany us to the

temple "to protect us from bandits".

Trading off their old reputation as one of the world's

most feared and formidable bands of guerrilla brigands, a

handful of armed men of the former Democratic Kampuchea

have found a lucrative new means to make ends meet in

these sorry days of Asian economic turmoil.

There is no formal advice, but Khmers and foreigners

arriving to see Phnom Kulen temple should brace to pay

for the services of a former guerrilla guide. This

situation can become more volatile if visitors encounter

soldiers a little the worse the wear from drink.

The amount demanded varies with foreigners being asked to

pay as much as $20 per person, reduced to as little as

500 riel for Cambodians.

Locals say weekends are the best time to visit here

because more people means security in numbers and better

chances of a trouble free hike to the temple. Individuals

or small groups arriving mid-week tend to be accosted

with demands for cash in exchange for safe passage to

this former Khmer Rouge jungle lair.

A cleared parking area just off the logging road near a

sleepy army post and tatty collection of drink stalls

marks the starting point for Kulen expeditioners.

The 8km walk to the temple begins as a single-lane

footpath winding up through a banana grove planted among

the rocky slopes of the lower escarpment. Nestled under a

forest canopy near the top of the ridge is a small forest

pagoda tucked among the recesses of a cool sandstone

overhang and marked with the observation: "The

Suffering of the Cambodian People is Deep."

The hike from this point involves a short scramble to the

top ofthe escarpment, the site of our stand-off with the

soldiers. Continuing calls from the 'Gang of Four' that

we immediately come back off the trail is followed by the

unmistakable sound of someone cocking an automatic

weapon, forcing an abandonment of plans for an

unaccompanied bush walk,our second attempt in a week cut

short by gun-toting goons masquerading as the Royal

Cambodian Armed Forces.

As we filed past the sullen-faced would be guides, the

M-16 man suddenly started mimicking the noise of one who

is about to puke.

The arrival of a long-range reconnaissance patrol loyal

to local

company Diethelm Travel, composed of several well-heeled

French adventurers, suddenly offered the prospect of

strength in numbers and a means of boundary riding the

militia checkpoint.

But a proposal we tag along was received coolly when they

revealed each had earlier paid $20 for the privilege of a

"guided tour." Said one ominously:

"Everyone pays in Cambodia."

On the verge of abandoning hope of ever reaching Phnom

Kulen, salvation arrived in the form of four off-duty

CMAC deminers. We were welcome to join them and so off we

set once again striding forth with endeavor along the

well-trod jungle trail.

Trekking east for 40 minutes, the thick overhead cover

begins to clear and the path emerges at a small sunlit

creek crossing - a crystal stream gliding over an expanse

of hand-carved lingas fashioned by Angkorean stonemasons.

A little further beyond a sandstone clearing lies Phnom

Kulen temple, a teetering shelter perched on a massive

boulder and enclosing a massive 17-meter-long reclining

Buddha surrounded by flags, incense sticks and newly made

offerings from pilgrims.

The temple site offers spectacular views of the

surrounding countryside and is set among an outcrop of

huge boulders forming the camp of the former Khmer Rouge

guerrillas now turned defectors.

At the foot of the concrete steps leading up to the

temple is a second path winding down a gully and leading

to a series of waterfalls, the steepest of which is more

than 30 meters. Recently retired Khmer Rouge Mit Neary

(Female Comrades) now free to dabble in private

enterprise sell cigarettes, beer, soft drinks and roast

chicken from under thatch roofshelters along the track.

Down near the waterfall the crumbling ruins of a small

Angkor-era temple surrenders to the serpentine grip of

the encroaching jungle foliage.

Another relic of the not so distant past lying along the

path is the shell case of a US-made 500 pound bomb minus

its explosive charge.

Lunch consists of fish and rice followed by a shower

under the waterfall and a final eyeball-to-eyeball

encounter with the M-16 gunslinger - now attached to the

Diethelm brigade - before retreating to Siem Reap.

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