Cambodian tourists amid the ancient carvings on the solid rock bed of the River of a Thousand Lingas.
W hat's remote, mined, strewn with garbage and extortionately expensive to visit?
Unfortunately, the answer is Cambodia's fabled Phnom Kulen in Siem Reap province.
Sour sightseers Phelim Kyne and John Trezise discover that market forces unleashed
on one of the jewels of Khmer cultural history have placed its long-term viability
- and the lives of its visitors - in jeopardy.
THE SCAM starts at a military roadblock on the edge of a huge clear- cut area near
the base of the mountain.
Here a group of smirking soldiers (who, our driver assured us, were all former Khmer
Rouge) wave to a list of admission prices posted on one of the few old-growth trees
that have survived, then sit back and wait to collect the cash.
It's a lot of cash, as it turns out - twenty dollars for foreigners, though 5,000
riel ($1.25) for Cambodians.
The suggestion of a discounted admission fee for visitors who choose to make the
traditional two-hour walk up the hiking trail to the top of the mountain rather than
drive sparks a ripple of laughter among the assembled soldiers.
Yes, a "special rate" for hikers, does exist, they say: a $10 admission
fee at the base of the mountain, followed by an additional $10 fee levied at the
summit. Take it or leave it, no exceptions.
Welcome to Phnom Kulen.
A monk delivers a high-volume, non-stop homily on the approach
leading to the Reclining Buddha.
Thirty kilometers northeast of Angkor Wat, Phnom Kulen is venerated as the spot where
in the ninth century King Jayavarman II crowned himself the reincarnation of Vishnu
and began the Angkorian dynasty.
If, as legend holds, the dead king's spirit really does still dwell on the mountain's
summit, he's a mute witness to the depredations of private enterprise on one of Cambodia's
most sacred sites, where maximizing profit supersedes safeguarding historical artifacts
and the visitors who come to view them.
Controlled by the Khmer Rouge for more than 20 years, Phnom Kulen opened only briefly
to the public in 1995 before being sealed off again due to security concerns in 1997.
Originally under the administration of Military Region Four, in 1998 the rights to
manage and develop the site were sold as a private concession to a company headed
by Siem Reap MP Sieng Nam.
Sieng Nam wasted no time in improving access to the site, pushing through a road
to the top of the mountain and thus eliminating the previous necessity of a long
hike to the mountain's summit.
The road's completion sparked a flood of upwardly-mobile Khmer visitors to the site,
with crowds during Khmer New Year resulting in a seven-kilometer traffic jam of four-wheel-drive
vehicles snaking up the side of the mountain.
On the surface it would appear to be a rare success story for the often dismal fortunes
of the Cambodia's tourism industry. But Veng Sereyvuth, Minister of Tourism, is anything
but happy about the goings-on at Phnom Kulen.
"Basically our point of view is that you can't declare [Phnom Kulen] open to
the public," Sereyvuth told the Post. He bridled at the $20 admission fee to
the site, calling it "overpriced".
["The company] shouldn't overcharge people who visit the site," Sereyvuth
"Generating revenue should not be the purpose of the admission fee ... profits
should be driven from the sale of souvenirs and services."
Sereyvuth has even more compelling reasons why his ministry has steadfastly refused
to declare Phnom Kulen officially open to the public: mines.
"We've confirmed that there are mines [around the site], but the [concessionaire]
says they're in the process of taking those mines out," he said. "Phnom
Kulen lacks basic security measures to guaranty the safety of visitors."
According to a tour operator in Siem Reap, Sereyvuth in no way overstates the mine
threat around Phnom Kulen.
"When they built the road, they just bulldozed a route up the mountain, pushing
any mines that were there to the edge of the road," the tour operator explained.
As a result, the tour operator said, between five and seven Khmer visitors to Phnom
Kulen had been killed by mines since the beginning of the year.
In spite of the threat of mines and the high admission fee, the vast majority of
visitors pay up and persevere rather than endure the three-hour drive back to Siem
Reap without seeing Phnom Kulen.
The 45-minute drive to the top of the mountain passes maintenance crews busily upgrading
the road by digging drainage ditches and thinning the trees at the edges of the road.
Upon arrival at a rough clearing that serves as a parking area, visitors are funneled
down the road to where a cluster of vendors hawk an identical line of banana dumplings.
A monk stationed in a stall next to the vendors springs into action at the site of
With a practiced sleight of hand, the monk hits a button on a tape machine, places
a microphone next to the speaker and floods the clearing with painfully high-volume
Worse yet, his noise alerts a squad of moto drivers stationed at a small bridge at
the end of the road, who descend en masse, shouting offers to chauffeur visitors
to the area's points of interest.
Ignoring their high-priced pitches of "Three dollars one person, okay?",
we push past them, only to find ourselves without any directional indicators of where
the treasures of Phnom Kulen are to be found.
Our hesitation brings the moto drivers back in force, who thankfully drop their calls
for remuneration and lead us 10 meters along a narrow path to the crown jewel of
Phnom Kulen's attractions: the River of a Thousand Lingas.
From a distance it appears to be an unremarkable narrow stream, but a closer look
reveals the River of a Thousand Lingas to be a natural canvas for one of the most
impressive works of Angkorian art in Cambodia.
Carved into the rock of the stream's bed are a host of painstakingly crafted lingas
that stretch between Phnom Kulen and the downstream Angkorian site of K'bal Spien.
Easily visible through the crystal-clear water, the lingas are arranged in a distinct
grid pattern and measure roughly 25cm square and ten centimeters deep and were designed
to sanctity the waters
flowing through Phnom Kulen on their way the Angkor plain below.
At the urging of our moto-dop escorts we wade into the stream to a vantage point
in the middle where renditions of Vishnu and an apsara companion gaze inscrutably
across the centuries through the stream's shallow, shimmering waters.
Our contemplation of these accomplishments of Angkorian civilization is rudely shattered
by the renewed intrusions of the moto-dop troupe, who are now demanding a dollar
each "for being guides".
We ignore them and proceed back the way we came, provoking a howl of protest from
the moto-dops. "You're going the wrong way - this way to the sleeping Buddha,
seven kilometers from here," they cry, pointing in the opposite direction.
A fakir incants over his wares on the top of Phnom Kulen.
Negotiations quickly break down over price, with the moto dops refusing to budge
from the magical figure of three dollars each, nothing less.
We choose to walk rather than be fleeced for the second time in one day, noting as
we proceed down the path a seemingly abandoned police checkpoint.
It's an unremarkable trip save for the spray of litter that spreads out on both sides
of the path.
The trash documents the snacking preferences of visitors who've trekked the path
over the past months, with pockets of water bottles, soft drink cans and beer bottles
indicating where groups paused for picnics along the way.
With neither garbage cans nor measures to control the waste produced by visitors,
litter is a recurrent eyesore throughout the Phnom Kulen site.
Forty-five minutes later we encounter a group of Cambodians who've climbed the mountain
from its base and who, strangely enough, are on their way to the Reclining Buddha
in the opposite direction we're going.
Silently cursing the deception of our erstwhile moto-dop escort, we return the way
More unpleasant surprises are in store as we again pass the police checkpoint, this
time staffed by three cops carefully checking everyone's tickets.
Predictably, there's a problem. Allowing the Khmer visitors to pass through unobstructed,
our tickets are handled by the three with burlesque expressions of suspicion and
Muttering darkly and shaking their heads in unison, a whispered discussion between
the three produces a less-than-innovative solution to the perceived inadequacies
in our tickets - we must pay again.
A brief but tense standoff ensues, but we hold our ground and eventually the cops
return our tickets and wave us on.
Mindful of the tendencies of our mischievous moto-dop would-be-guides, we stick close
to the group of Khmer we encountered on the path to avoid more cases of intentional
Thankfully, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, Phnom Kulen's other major attraction,
has its own form of audio direction-finder to assist neophyte visitors.
At a stall at the base of a long flight of steps leading to the temple, another microphone-packing
monk is hard at work, alternating the standard amplified chanting with a personalized
pitch for donations.
To the right of the stairs is a series of tables each selling an unidentifiable species
of forest rodent, which judging by its facial expression and burnt fur died anything
but a pleasant death.
The incongruity of such fare in the vicinity of a Buddhist temple is surpassed only
by the brisk trade and enthusiastic patronage of visiting pilgrims,
"Good medicine," a robust elderly Thai visitor says of the rodent in perfect
English. It's apparently his fourth visit to the temple, and he's keen to explain
what brings him here.
"This is a very special, very holy place," he said, indicating he's yet
to become acquainted with the same moto-dop drivers we'd encountered earlier
Accessing the Reclining Buddha itself requires the navigation of yet another steep
set of stairs in a small clearing at the top.
In the temple complex at the top the crowds are as thick as the smoke produced by
the multiple pots of smoking incense salted around the structure as pilgrims jostle
to pay tribute at the foot of the huge Reclining Buddha statue.
Such crowds are justified in terms of the age and size of the statue, which is the
biggest Reclining Buddha in Cambodia and estimated to be more than 900 years old.
Returning to the clearing at the base of the steps to the temple, we again pass the
monk still deep in monotone supplications for donations and - who knows - the souls
of the adjacent roasted rodents, and then proceed down a path toward the river.
Within meters we're motioned over by a full-blown Cambodian fakir, complete with
turban, long white beard and flowing white robes.
From his stall he's hawking the teeth of wild boar and tiger, as well as a wizened
piece of elongated flesh that looks disturbingly familiar.
Gesturing approvingly toward our cameras, he expertly raises the denomination of
riel note he expects in return just moments before the shutters click.
As we scamper away without paying his shouts of protest are thankfully overridden
by yet another monk-with-speaker stall in front of some overgrown, unmarked Angkorian
Just beyond the ruins we rejoin the River of a Thousand Lingas at the point where
it becomes a steep waterfall.
The area below the first section of waterfall is crowded with Khmer visitors frolicking
fully-clothed in the rocky shallows.
A rope strung across the stream above allows visitors the opportunity to negotiate
the slippery water crossing with a view of the area's most easily-visible lingas.
The opposite side of the stream is a busy picnic area where food and refreshment
stalls are doing a roaring trade servicing swarms of visitors relaxing on mats.
Heading back to the parking lot for the return journey to Siem Reap , we encounter
one last time our moto dop acquaintances, who apologize for their previous indiscretions,
and invite us to visit again.
Apologies accepted, but considerations of price, hassle and safety make the prospect
of a return journey unlikely.