Day III: The pilgrimage to Phnom Kulen
Yabbing beyond the wee hours did not deter us busy bodies to wake up bright and early this Saturday morning. After all, it’s not everyday I get to visit the birthplace of the Angkor civilization – Cambodia’s most sacred mountain – Phnom Kulen. It is here in 802 on the peak of the mountain; King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java, giving birth to modern-day Cambodia.
At the cry of the morning rooster, we speed raced out our old school Corolla and off our adventure began. Driving on nice paved road, we passed through the Angkor Archaeological Park where we noticed truckloads of waving teens smiling as they try to catch the attention of onlookers passing them. The kids would squirt water from their bottles as Tony and I could only make monkey faces and wave back in retaliation.
The kids had a rainbow of kramas and flowers (out of some fruit shell) for sale. We had our breakfast there under a simple roof and bench set-up. For two thousand riels, we had a bowl of authentic nom banjok, a Khmer dish that consists of long thin white noodles with yellow curry like sauce on top. No, it’s not the Khmer version of spaghetti! I bought a couple kramas as I waved my good-byes to the beautiful smiling kids.
Smooth concrete now transform into red dusty dirt road. Peering in the distance is Phnom Kulen! Alas, we are nearing our destination. The spiral road leading to the foot of the mountain comes to a complete stop as we approach the entrance. Susan had to purchase a ticket for a whopping $20, whereas, us Khmericans, paid a thrifty 2000 riels (USD $0.50).
I anticipated traffic congestion, but did not expect it to such magnanimous magnitude! A thirty kilometer trip could easily be accomplished within 20 minutes, but not during Khmer New Year celebrations. In 56 modem like pace on a slim two way road, we lost patience half way up. Many locals have already started walking on foot; which served a faster medium than the four wheel machinery. We could not resist either.
I grabbed my backpack equipped with the essentials – a water bottle, camera, journal book, couple pens, krama, a swimming short and towel – and off in my Uncle Ho tire sandals trekking up to the peak.
In common Cambodian anarchy, thousands make the pilgrimage fighting the madness and confusion that engulfs the area. At the apex, locals would pay homage to a sacred temple where a large reclining Buddha structure resides. Vendors lined the path selling atypical touristy items: jewelry made of precious bones and stones, BBQ baby monkeys, and other tidbits uncommon at the temple confines of Angkor. Instead, I restocked up with water and changed for Khmer riels of 100. I am not going to make the mistake of donating dollars at every temple spot, it adds up fast!
I reached the top after climbing a long series of cemented stairs. First thing after taking off my sandals, I washed my face using sacred water that spewed from a well. It was ice chilled. Barefooted, I walked in crammed space to light incense and make money donations to various shrines and monks. One of the many attractions was a large snake that young kids petted. Naturally scared, I built the courage to touch the reptilian. (This new found strength might be due to my previous Sihanoukville trip where I had cobra blood whisky concoction and cobra meat soup). I did not have the patience, however, to walk up the stairs to the sacred temple because of the traffic. My view at the present was unbearable to imagine.
So we left the area and took a comfortable walking cruise along the river. Our goal was to head towards the waterfall for a swim before we have our late lunch. It was already 2 PM; the crowd was still growing by the second.
Clustered together are groups of families situated all along the stream where sets a tarpaulin mat and a cooler with food and beverages for picnicking. Young kids and adults could be seen running around and playing in ice cool shallow water. We continued strutting through the madness; extra attentive to our friends. We did not want to get separated and lost. About 25 minutes later, we found our bungalow where we took a breather and laid our belongings.
I changed into my swimming trunks by using a room rented for 500 riels (USD $0.12). Susan, Tony and I left the bungalow and walked down a long series of wooden stairs. It was quite a descent and a challenge due to its slippery nature. I could hear the water roaring louder and louder but the thick marshy greenery added to the climax before finally reaching the foot. There it was – the majestic Phnom Kulen waterfalls!
I can’t swim and for much of my life, been terrified of water beyond the chest level. But fortunately, the large pond area where hundreds of kids and a few dozen adults dipped in to, the water level was only around my hips. Regardless though, I was a bit weary walking inside.
Tony and I courageously climbed over a dozen of overgrown pebbles to get closer to the velocity of the raging falls. Photographers flock taking souvenir pictures of us re-enacting fighting scenes depicted on the walls of Angkor. With hanuman style poses characterized by its arching juxtaposition, kids naturally jump to look in our direction. Twenty snapshots later, the two of us meditated in Buddha style fashion under the waterfall, focusing and filtering out every sound. A tough challenge, I might add.
My once indestructible tire sandals gave up as the right shoe snapped while walking up towards our bungalow. We ordered a late lunch at around 4 PM that consisted of a BBQ chicken with thinly sliced sour mango and fish sauce, deep fried battered squid, beef skewers, spicy papaya salad, and an array of fresh vegetables. It was finger licking delicious!
At this time, pretty much of the crowd had dissipated. Young scavengers in their large empty rice bags have already begun searching for coconut shells and used bottle waters to resale. We finished our meal, called our driver just in time before sunset had befallen. We snapped a couple group pictures with the remaining amount of 100 riels found in the crevices of our pockets. I bargained last minute for a Buddha necklace made out of white stone or bone. Our day adventure had come to a relaxing conclusion and off we cruised back to Siem Reap city.
This was my first trip to Phnom Kulen and surely a memorable one to add to the rich collection of travel adventures in Cambodia.