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Stairway to heaven

Stairway to heaven

Spectacular and grand, Phnom Kulen’s stairway symbolises the vast and varied Kingdom.

Discover wild forests, stunning views, a thundering waterfall and religious artefacts on an easy daytrip to Siem Reap Province’s sacred Phnom Kulen, a pleasant site for anyone’s pilgrimmage

It’s 7:30am, and I’m snoozing in the back of a minibus, the chatter of my friend and our driver washing over me as we head out of Siem Reap town. After one-and-a-half hours of bumping along we reach the base of Cambodia’s most sacred mountain.

The mountain is surrounded by a deep mystique, and thousands of Cambodians make pilgrimages here every year, particularly during religious festivals. An archaeologist with the Phnom Kulen Archaeological Programme, Jean Baptiste Chevance, thinks the mountain’s sacredness grew from its topography and importance as a water source.

“It’s important because it’s the only mountain in the Angkor region and also because all the main rivers come from there. It’s also supposed to have been the capital of the empire at one stage, before Angkor.”

Chevance says the mountain has been sacred since “at least the end of the eighth century”.

After paying for a ticket, US$20 for foreigners, 2,000 riel for Khmers, we begin the half-hour ascent. The winding narrow dirt road is almost engulfed by majestic trees with vines winding their way up the trunks. One is overwhelmed by all the green and can’t help grinning. Massive boulders appear beside the road that has only enough space for one vehicle, so before noon it’s all uphill and after, all downhill traffic.

We arrive in a small village, one of seven on the mountain, where locals ply jewellery, ivory products and curious local medicines such as dried-out goats’ heads. We’re quickly picked up by a young girl who guides us up a wide staircase guarded by statuary to where the famous reclining Buddha spends his time. Guides only speak Khmer, so it’s handy to have a bilingual friend on hand to translate.

The staircase is lined by children and older people begging, so it’s a good idea to take lots of smaller riel notes. They are very humble and accept each small offering with a smile, thank you and sometimes a blessing.

Up the staircase and we reach a courtyard where an old man is filling a soft-drink bottle with holy water provided by the linga fountain. We ascend a tall set of stairs that I dub “the Stairway to Heaven” for obvious reasons. The views of the forest below are spectacular, and the golden Buddha, casually reclining under a large roof, impressive. Mostly Khmer visitors file past, take photos and say prayers. Back out on the landing I’m asked by a monk to pose for a photo with him. Apparently I’m as much a curiosity to them as they are to me.

Our little guide regales us with superstitious and increasingly far-fetched myths about various sites on the mountain, which served as a Khmer Rouge stronghold until the end of the war, as we wander among the towering moss- and root-covered boulders and trees. We pay our guide (a dollar) and grab some breakfast, delicious coconut waffles, a whopping 500 riels each. We hop back in the minibus and head to the river, beneath which a thousand carved stone lingas are hidden. We can see one, but the water is too deep for a good view. Dry season would be the best time to see them. Back in the bus, next stop is a thundering waterfall.

Thanks to Typhoon Ketsana the amount of water pounding over the 20 metre fall has risen significantly. Some brave Khmers jump and play in the water at the top, but the current is incredibly powerful, and the edge guarded by nothing but a rope. We venture down the wooden steps to the base of the fall. I pay 1,000 riels to pose in a swing decorated by flowers with a garland on my head. I feel like a fairy queen.

We battle through the churning water to a second swing where some friendly monks and girls enthusiastically encourage me to sit and pose for photos with them. I stand and watch the waterfall, and although I haven’t been swimming, the mist that fills the air ensures I’m soon completely drenched. My new friends and I splash around, grinning and laughing. We say goodbye and head back up the stairs. Women dressed in traditional clothing pose with tourists. A woman sells sticky rice with banana and beans wrapped in banana leaves – they really fill a hole (500 riels each). If you’re still hungry, there’s a restaurant that sells mains starting from $2.75.

We change out of our sopping clothes (remember to take a spare set) and climb wearily into the minibus to head home. It costs $60 to hire a minibus from Siem Reap town seating around seven. It’s an easy daytrip that gives you a taste of the wild side of Cambodia.


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