Statues salute visitors at the start of the climb
blue signboard in both Khmer and English welcomes visitors to the historical sites
of Phnom Santuk, near Kampong Thom town. Three kilometers down a dirt road lies one
of the area's most popular tourist spots.
Hundreds of years ago a local king, whose name is lost to history, ordered his followers
to build Prasat (temples), Vang (accommodation for a group of ladies-in-waiting in
the royal palace), Sang Klang (a royal store) and accommodation for bearers of the
royal fans (Cham Bok).
The names of the local villages still reflect these ancient names: Prasat, Vang,
Taing Krosang (previously known as Sang Kleng) and Cham Bok are all near the mountain.
The Khmer legend associated with Phnom Santuk states that the mountain was named
for the suffering of this king, who was distraught at the illness and subsequent
death of his child.
The legend tells that the king and queen took their child to the mountain to collect
fruit as they had often done in the past. The child became ill on the mountain, and
the worried king ordered his subjects to build temporary accommodation for treatment.
Despite the best efforts of the king and his healers, the child died shortly afterwards.
As a result the mountain was known as Phnom Ason Mean Tuk (the mountain of sudden
suffering), which changed over time to Phnom Santuk.
After the death of their child the king and queen left the royal palace and went
to live next to Stung Sen stream. A monk visited them one day, and heard the sad
tale of their loss. The monk offered to help build a statue of the child from earth.
The statue was built at Sam Nak, which is now a village near National Route 6, only
three kilometers from the mountain.
At the entrance gate to Phnom Santuk, two cement statues salute visitors who face
a grueling climb up more than 800 steps to reach the end of the one kilometer long
For those who decide to climb, there are rest areas with views across the surrounding
countryside. Nearby trees carry slashes of red paint, which protect them from being
cut. For those less inclined to walk, there is an easier way. For between 20,000
and 40,000 riel, depending on your weight, a group of men with a sling hammock will
carry you to the top.
A small pagoda sits on the peak. The Buddhist statues and a sacred footprint make
this an important place for believers who come to pray for a better future.
Nearby is another sacred spot, where 500 riel buys the visitor small coins that they
throw in a hole. It is a popular tradition with the young, who believe that a particular
sound emanating from the hole promises a good future.
Sim Song, 67, is one of the caretakers at Phnom Santuk. He says the number of visitors
has increased steadily since the site was improved in 1994. That is, he says, until
this year, when increased flooding has affected the numbers. However, he is hopeful
that a proposed road leading up the mountain will entice more tourists.
Song is not worried that local people will degrade the surrounding forests. The spirit
of the mountain, he believes, will protect the trees, and those who cross it will
suffer its anger.
Phay Dararith, director of Kampong Thom's provincial tourism department, says that
Santuk mountain became a site of cultural importance in 1995, and has been preserved
by the local community and aid group GTZ.
Dararith says that until now there has been no indication that either the government
or the private sector is interested in developing the area, but he says the large
signboard advertising the site from the national road could change that.