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
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
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
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
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.