Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kulen Unmasked

The so-called lost city of Mahendraparvata on Phnom Kulen has been in the international media a lot in recent months, after new laser technology identified the remnants of a city, where only previously a few scattered temples and forest existed. Thirteen years ago in December 2000, I visited Phnom Kulen for a second time, on the hunt for some of the temples that were part of the lost city complex.
The overgrown temple of Prasat Neak Ta

Phnom Kulen Unmasked
The lure of remote ancient temples seen by just a few serious Angkor enthusiasts and the remarkable carvings at Kbal Spean are worth a day of anyone's time in my opinion. I had visited the reclining Buddha, waterfalls and riverbed carvings on Phnom Kulen a year earlier but the isolated 9th century brick temples, built by Jayavarman II, on a separate part of the Kulen mountain range and the River of a Thousand Lingas, proved to be a double adventure worthy of the time and discomfort I had to endure. It was 5am and pitch-black outside when Phalla and two motodubs, Sothea and Lom, arrived at my hotel to begin a day which would see us spend nearly fourteen hours on motos over some of the roughest terrain in the region. We drove through the Angkor Park, stopping at a food stall in Pradak village, just past Srah Srang lake, for some breakfast of soup, coffee and sticky cakes. Our route took us past a military camp at the foot of Phnom Bok and villagers along the rough track waved and shouted 'hello!' as we passed by. Twice we took wrong turns before reaching the wide, red-dirt logging road that surrounds the mountain range and finally the admission hut. It had taken us four hours just to get to this point. The guards were already deeply engrossed in a card game, paying us scant attention but still alert enough to pocket my $20 entry fee with a wide grin. The thirty minute trip to the top was a bumpy ride and notable for the proliferation of black butterflies fluttering in and out of the shafts of sunlight that broke through the forest canopy.
The food stalls at the bottom of the path leading to the reclining Buddha of Preah Ang Thom was our first port of call, where Phalla explained that we needed to change our motos and use two drivers from a group of men sat under an awning playing cards. The temples we were seeking were up to twenty kilometres across the plateau and through difficult terrain, so employing the services of locals, who later transpired to be former Khmer Rouge soldiers, was absolutely necessary. A brief discussion ensued as Phalla negotiated a price and one of the men disappeared inside a hut, re-appearing after a couple of minutes, wearing a green police uniform with his automatic gun slung over his shoulder. His name was Noun Moy and Phalla climbed aboard his moto, alongwith Sothea, who as well as being a moto-driver in Siem Reap, is also a guide, speaks good English and this was his first visit to the temples on Kulen. My driver was Chea Savun, who proved to be an expert driver in very arduous conditions. Lom, our other driver from Siem Reap, remained with the motos and joined the others playing cards.
The gruelling trek began immediately we left the clearing, as a combination of rocks and tree roots made the track a bone-jarring experience from the outset. Often, it was flooded, necessitating a walk through water or the trail was too sandy to be able to drive on. At other times, our path was barely penetrable, with thorny bushes whipping against my legs and arms and twice we got lost and had to retrace our steps. After an hour and a stop to complete running repairs on one of the bikes, we reached the first of the temples, some eighteen kms from our starting point, according to Moy. On a small rise, surrounded by forest and scrub and barely noticeable until we were up close, stood Prasat O'Thma Dap, a sturdy brick-built temple with white stucco still covering much of the structure, including its carvings. Battling my way through the waist-high undergrowth, I circled the temple and saw that three stucco-covered lintels were still in place above the doorways and another lay on the floor nearby. Savun and Sothea were in deep discussion and told me that it was the most decorated temple on Kulen and they believed it was erected in the latter part of the ninth century. Back on the motos and fifteen minutes later, we reached Prasat Chrei, where we paused before exploring the temple, so we could eat our lunch of chicken and rice, with fresh bread. This temple, another substantial brick structure with traces of stucco, was even more difficult to get close to. The vegetation was particularly thick, the red ants pretty vicious and a landslide made the approach a little more than tricky. Lacking the decoration of Thma Dap, Prasat Chrei is dated a little earlier and is more of a ruin, with the temple split in half. In the doorways, I noticed unusually rounded brick pillars and nearby, half-buried in the soil, was a solitary lintel and carved pilaster.
Sothea, Savun, Moy and Phalla inspect clay pots in the forest

Moy and Savun knew this part of the mountain particularly well and they needed to as the trail was barely discernible from the thick brush and undergrowth. Another hour of jolts, bumps and shocks reverberating through my bottom and spine, brought us to a wooded area which Moy told us was called Sam Phou Thlei. On closer inspection, the floor was literally carpeted with broken brown clay pots and carved lids, allegedly booty from a shipwrecked Chinese junk according to Savun, who recalled a centuries old legend. Nearby, they pointed to footprints in a rocky outcrop that the same legend asserts belonged to the same Chinese sailors, while a little further on, carvings of Vishnu in a rockface were covered in moss and difficult to make out clearly. Contact with the local inhabitants was rare on this part of the trip although we did pass through one hamlet of a few houses before we arrived at Prasat Neak Ta. The sky had clouded over and a few drops of rain were falling as we inspected the brick temple, which had lost its roof and was devoid of carvings, but had retained its four walls and was still quite an imposing structure. Prasat O'Pong, located close by, was our next stop, and as we walked to the temple we heard voices in the distance. As the tall brick structure came into view through the trees, so did another visitor and his two drivers and guide. It turned out to be no ordinary tourist as Jon Ortner introduced himself and it was pretty clear from his camera equipment that he was no amateur snapper like myself. In fact he was taking photographs for his book Angkor - Kingdom of the Khmer. After a chat about the Kulen temples and other sites, I scrambled across the undergrowth for a closer look at the impressive Prasat O'Pong before we parted company and back onto the trail for more punishment.
Our driver Moy inspects the wall carvings at Poeng Tbal

We were now well on our way back to our starting point but it was still forty minutes before we reached the last stopping-off point of our trip. Krus Preah Aram Rong Chen was our destination and it was an unusual spot, allegedly the site of the first pyramid temple and sacred Shiva linga, constructed by Jayavarman II in the ninth century, that signalled the beginning of the great Angkor period. A short walk up a hill, took us to the site and it looked anything but the location of a large pyramid temple. Instead, there was a series of small caves where Vishnuite figures were carved into the rockface and two broken sandstone pedestals were in the center of what appeared to be a natural cave-temple. The site is revered by the Khmer people and a permanent military guard is posted nearby to prevent any wrong-doing. We eventually returned to the stalls at Preah Ang Thom just before two o'clock, thanked our Kulen moto-drivers who'd looked after us expertly and left the mountain, seeing lots more butterflies on our descent, this time they were yellow in colour. Back on the logging road, we sped off towards Kbal Spean and reached the parking lot at the site in just under an hour, but by now liberally covered in red dust. Editor's Note: I've subsequently learnt that the cave site I visited and was led to believe was Krus Preah Aram Rong Chen is more likely called Poeng Tbal. The actual site of the first pyramid temple and the birthplace of the Angkor empire is close by but access is much more difficult. A friend, Merrily Hansen, made the trek in 2005 and located an immense three-tiered laterite platform, composed of large laterite blocks with the top tier about 25 metres square. At the very top is a huge sandstone platform for the original linga (which is missing) and a deep well, some fifteen metres deep. The top tier is five metres high, the second tier is three metres tall and a dozen cruciform-shaped sandstone blocks would suggest a massive column existed in times gone by. Undoubtedly, a much revered site seen by very few foreigners in recent years and a well-kept secret until now. 
Accompanied by a guide from the Apsara Authority who came along with Phalla, Sothea and myself to 'keep us safe', a forty minute ascent along a hot and humid forest trail brought us to the fast-running River of a Thousand Lingas. The natural sandstone bridge, from where Kbal Spean gets its name, spans the river at a point where remarkable riverbed rock carvings from the 11th century display a gallery of gods and celestial beings including Vishnu reclining on the serpent Anata, Lakshmi, Rama and Hanuman. Some of the carvings are submerged by the course of the river, others are open to the elements and a few have been chipped away by unscrupulous thieves. The riverbed and surrounding rocks are covered in these engravings and a few metres downstream, there are thousands of sculpted lingas or phallic images, including a large underwater representation of a yoni (womb). A group of workmen were cutting down a tree as we made our way further downstream to a slippery path which took us to the bottom of a 15-metre waterfall and a pool of crystal-clear water. This water, which has been blessed with fertility as it passes over the sacred lingas, then flows down the mountain to fertilize the fields of Angkor. Well, that's the theory. The whole area was serene and undisturbed, apart from the woodcutter's saw and more by luck than judgement, late afternoon seems a good time to visit this ancient site to avoid other daytrippers. Our return to Siem Reap took us past the entrance to Banteay Srei as the sun began to set, reflecting off the red sandstone walls of the temple. The road from Banteay Srei to the village of Pradak, where we'd stopped for breakfast at the beginning of the day, was under major repair and proved to be as much of a challenge for Sothea and Lom as any of our earlier adventures. Whilst dodging from one side of the road to the other to find the least uncomfortable driving-line, as well as avoiding other traffic including 4WD's returning their well-heeled visitors to town after a visit to Banteay Srei, Sothea suffered a puncture. We called in at a nearby house where the disabled husband and his wife include moto repairs amongst their village responsibilities. Word of our arrival soon spread and in no time, a crowd of about thirty neighbours of all ages had appeared and I took photos, played shuttlecock and handed out sweets to keep them amused. It seemed to work. It was just before 7pm when we arrived back in town at the end of a long and thoroughly enjoyable but strenuous day.
The famous Vishnu carving at Phnom Kulen

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