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Cambodia (Day 33) Phnom Kulen Sacred Mountain & Temple Treasures

Are you still with us? Two weeks into our trip, I thought "Wow, we've been gone a long time." But now at almost 5 weeks, it feels like it's gone by so fast and I don't want it to end. Anyways, this was our last day "templing". It was another early start, but the kids jumped out of bed rushing us awake to make sure they did not miss the hotel-provided breakfast - whatever works, right?! It is a really good breakfast just so you know.

We met Sam in front of the hotel feeling like old friends at this point. As advised, we had brought gear for a "water" day (swimsuits, water shoes, towels). Sam is a chatty fella (in a good way) sharing so many interesting things about life in Cambodia, so the drive went by quick.

Our first temple was Banteay Srei, "Citadel of the Women" believed to have been built by women, as the elaborate carvings are supposedly too fine for the hand of a man. Considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art, Banteay Srei was cut from stone of a beautiful pinkish hue and includes some of the finest stone carvings on earth. This was the first major temple restoration undertaken in 1930 using the anastylosis method, a major success. It is dated AD 967 based on inscriptions found at the site.

It's all on one level and the coloring is beautiful. Sam waited at the car for us and we approached in awe of the detailed architecture lit by the sunlight. There were only a couple people here and we barely saw them.

Because the sandstone used here was of a more durable variety than the stone used at the main Angkor sites, it allowed for a precise, wood-like style of bas-relief carving, which also has retained greater preservation over the centuries.

A false stone door for the passage of deities only. The original doors used by Khmer worshippers were made of wood and long ago deteriorated in the humid, tropical weather.

Incredible free-standing guardian statues still adorn the entrances.

We exited out the back of the small temple and took the path around the perimeter admiring the surrounding countryside.

There's a nice scaffolding that you can climb up to get an upper view of Banteay Srei. The girls really liked it up here and we took our time getting back around.

In between the 2 temples on our day's itinerary, we had plans to visit Phnom Kulen (the most sacred mountain in Cambodia) to see the 1000 linga carvings in the riverbed of the sacred river, the large reclining Buddha carved into a sandstone block in 16th century, and spectacular waterfalls. Maybe you saw the waterfall in the movie Tomb Raider? The water is consider holy and the source of water eventually flows into Tonle Sap Lake, around which more than 3 million people inhabit 5 provinces of the largest body of fresh water in Southeast Asia. Step a little closer so you don't miss a thing! 

Before entering the park, we stopped to purchase our tickets ($20 each). Again, the kids did not need one. As we drove away, Sam told me that the official told him we were the first ones to enter the park. Hahahaha, Sam knows me so well by now. The bumpy mountain drive was spectacular fun! We stopped at a banana drive-thru for bundles of the sweetest, most delicious bananas!

A very interesting tidbit about the narrow mountain road is that it is one-way. That is, you can only go UP before noon. After noon, you can only go DOWN.

Kbal Spean

We made it! Sam pulled over in a big empty dirt lot and had us exit the vehicle.  We then trekked a short distance to the River of 1000 Lingas, the riverbed is carved with lingas, which if you recall from earlier are a phallic symbol of the Hindu god, Shiva. The Kbal Spean river is of extreme importance to the people. The water, purified by the lingas, flows all the way to Angkor Wat and into the Siem Reap river, which in turn flows into Tonle Sap lake, the largest lake in Cambodia.

It was kind of hard to make the lingas out under the water current, but as we walked along the river bank, we spotted clearer sections. Kind of cool to know that these sandstone carvings have withstood the passing of time despite the constant river flow.

Back to the car, we then drove to a busier area and exited the vehicle. This was a bustling market of local fare. Mmm mmm, snack time. Sam purchased us fried bananas and they were delicious!

For some reason, this bee farm captured the full attention of Caitlin and Molly. They insisted we enter and proceeded to check out EVERYTHING on its property. I'm amazed that we are not still there.

The sun shines brightly on Cambodia! Temple steps on the sacred mountain Phnom Kulen. It is here that Jayavarman II is said to have founded the Khmer empire, which lasted from the 9th-15th centuries. Follow us to the top to see the colossal reclining Buddha statue in the Preah Ang Thom pagoda.

This monk was absolutely determined to get Molly to talk to him. She's a bit shy, but give him an A+ for effort. 

Looking down the rectangle-shaped well, my kids were mesmerized by Buddha's footprint.

I don't know how, but he convinced them to partake in a Buddhist blessing. So sweet for me to watch.

It was very nice to have Sam with us to explain the various religious symbols in the temples and rock shelters.

Then, Sam directed us to the base of the temple where we would climb to see the large reclining Buddha. He told us to leave our shoes with him and off we went. Incredible - the Buddha is carved right into the sandstone boulder upon which it is built. It is housed in a 16th century Buddhist monastery. 

While up here, you are able to view the surrounding Cambodian landscape.

There is an uplifting spirit here and we enjoyed learning about this sacred site. As we were wandering, Sam directed the children to put their hands out to accept the purified water as it flowed from the linga for good luck. Just in case, Rob and I decided to partake as well.

Our final stop in the park was to go explore the famous waterfalls. I was worried about crowds as I had read it can get quite busy. Luckily, it was still early and our timing was perfect! Sam showed us the way through the market and pointed us down the path indicating that we would pass a small waterfall and then to continue on the path to get to the large one. Of course, we headed straight for the Big Daddy because we knew it would get crowded first. 

Wow - the waterfall of Phnom Kulen, the most sacred mountain in Cambodia is stunning! Fun fact: this waterfall was featured in the movie "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider". Now, let's go for a swim!

First things first, we forked over a few dollars and took some girly pics on both swings. Of course, we had to adorn ourselves with floral crowns. Hahahaha.

Then, we rented a locker for our belongings, a couple life vests for the kids, and an inner tube (pretty much everything is $1 each, so bring a bunch of ones). Woo hoo! We were set up for some FUN! Where was everybody?

I still had a couple dollars left, so I went back and got a solo mom pic. Hahahaha. You can't tell, but you get drenched by the mist here. Loved it!

After swimming, we kind of plopped ourselves down on the rocks and people watched as it got busy. The walk-up to the water's edge is not that large, so it started to get a bit cramped. Having had our fun, we retrieved our belongings from the locker and slowly made our way away from the now busy large waterfall over towards the smaller waterfall.

Waterfall's edge

It's a fun challenge to cross it! Be careful though as the rocks are slippery.

The kids had a blast playing here in the shallow waters and digging in the sand (dirt). Surprisingly, nobody else got in the water. People just kind of stood around the edge. I think they were watching to see if we were going to slip and plummet over the edge. 

Eventually, we were ready to wrap things up. FYI, there are changing facilities for $1 and Rob said they were clean enough. I didn't bother and just changed in the backseat of the car as we were driving to lunch. The kids quickly dried in their swim pants/tops. We also switched out our water shoes in the car. As we were walking back to the car, we saw groups of locals walking by with coolers, music boxes, and all kinds of gear. Looked like they were planning to picnic all day. 

Of course, Rob got a snack on the way out. More fried bananas. Back in the parking lot, we found our vehicle and Sam letting him know that we had had a great time at the waterfalls. The road had already switched directions and we made our way down the bumpy mountain.

We had worked up quite an appetite, so on the way to Banteay Samre, Sam stopped off at a restaurant for lunch. I don't know where it was or what I had, but the food was so darn good. We had to work hard to find someone to pay though afterwards.

Full bellies, it was a relaxing drive to our last temple Banteay Samre, "Citadel of the Samre", which takes its name from the Samre people (ethnic group of mountain people) that inhabited the area. This is also a smaller temple off the beaten path, but has well-preserved carvings and we were thrilled to be able to freely climb about and explore. It was pretty much empty except for the guards the whole time we explored it.  

This temple is gorgeous! It is a Hindu temple in the style of Angkor Wat. I just couldn't believe that we could walk all over and around it. It is suggested that this temple enclosed a reasonably sized town as well as the temple at its heart and one can easily picture this being true while wandering the perfectly intact structures.

Sadly, lingas are missing. I have seen pictures as recent as 2013 that clearly show more lingas. You can see where they used to stand. I read that there were 5 here.

The grey shades of coloring in the stone is such a stunning contrast. We took our time walking and retracing our steps for another go around again walking the same areas. The kids found a cat wandering and then I didn't see them for a long time.

Amazingly, you can get down onto the "lawn" around the temples and then climb the steep steps back up to the different structures (be careful as some of those steps are tricky). There are also many ledges to walk around. I kept thinking I was in a "no entry" area, but to my surprise accessibility is allowed on these great treasures! Just so hard to put into words this experience making this one of my top favorites!

My heart fluttered knowing that this would be our last temple to explore. But, we picked a beauty, didn't we?

So, the 3-day Angkor Pass did indeed work out perfectly for our 5 full days. This day was so incredible. It felt good to see some of Cambodia's natural landscape and learn about the significance of the sacred mountain to the people, both today and historically. It was a good break from temples with temples :)

Itinerary Day 4: Banteay Srei, Phnom Kulen, and Banteay Samre. Cost: $20 per person Phnom Kulen. No ticket needed for the kids. Sam's fee $65. Wait until you see Day 5 - we are going to learn about Cambodian local life on Tonle Sap Lake with a boat ride around Kompong Phluk floating village.

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