Who’s up for an adventure deep in the jungley mountains of Southeast Asia? While you’re touring around Siem Reap, come visit this hidden gem called Phnom Kulen.
If you’re heading to Cambodia, you probably already have a few things on your bucket list, like the amazing world wonder Angkor Wat. But that’s not the only thing that should be on your itinerary. You’ll also want to cool off from that hot and humid weather and take a swim in this secret waterfall … am I right? Luckily, it's easily done if you know the details on visiting Phnom Kulen.
It's easy to vacation in Cambodia if you're already living in Thailand.
Volunteer and live abroad in Thailand for a semester, like I did.
Ready for the details so you can see this gem yourself? Here’s what you need to know for a day trip in Phnom Kulen (it's easily done if you're already visiting Siem Reap).
All About Phnom Kulen National Park
The towering waterfall is nestled in the thick jungles of Phnom Kulen National Park. It's supposedly the birthplace of the ancient Khmer empire, who declared Cambodia's independence from Java, along with a handful of natural wonders and religious sites. Along with a waterfall and a few places to go swimming, you'll find a massive reclining stone Buddha, along with a handful of pagodas. It's a place of worship as well as a place of history — I love that combination.
Phnom Kulen is a very sacred spot for both Buddhist and Hindus. If you look carefully, you can see remnants of a huge temple and palace complex that researchers are just starting to check out … they’re not sure, but they think it’s even larger than Ankor Wat (which is ENORMOUS).
Keep an eye out for the brightly dressed monks that are wandering around the ruins of the temple. You might get a little blessing by one of the monks as you climb up the the stone carved temple at the top of this mountain. There’s even a reclining Buddha at the top — like the one in Bangkok, just smaller.
Hours + Costs
Open 7:00 AM to late evening (ask the ticket booth before arriving — it's best to get there early, before 11:00 AM if you can swing it)
$20 USD fee for foreigners
What To See In The Park?
The Thousand Lingas
Sometimes known as the Valley of a 1000 Lingas" or "The River of a Thousand Lingas", this section of the park is heavily etched with Hindu symbolism. Linga is a term used to refer to a carved interpretation of the god Shiva, and you can find hundreds and hundred of carved images etched into rocks lining the pathway, carved blocks submerged under the water, faces shaped from the cliffs, and stories detailed in rocks between sections of the streams.
Preah Ang Thom Temple
This is the main religious site on the mountain (you'll need to adhere to temple etiquette here, so take off your shoes and pay a small fee for the ladies there to keep an eye on them as you wander around). Inside, you'll find the reclining Buddha, along with a handful of other Buddhas and boxes where worshippers may leave a donation or say a prayer. Some ILP volunteers who have visited have been able to get blessed by a monk while visiting.
Around the temple, you'll find a handful of guides who can take you to Srah Damrei, or the Elephant Pond. It's a pond off the beaten path that's surrounded with carved elephants, lions, and other animals.
The Phnom Kulen Waterfall
There is a set of stairs you can climb to reach the lower section of the thundering falls. The water level will fluctuate depending on when you're visiting, but you can try wading into the shallow pools by the base of the falls if the water isn't too powerful. Further down, you'll find smaller sections of the waterfall that have a calmer swimming pool. There are also a handful of flatter sections where you can set up a picnic, or spots where you can just dip your toes into the water to cool off.
The water is really refreshing (some of you might think it’s a bit chilly, but it feels great). You can even stick your feet in the calmer parts and see little fish swim up to nibble on your toes! They do fish pedicures like this in the city, but here you get it done for free.
Things To Keep In Mind
The culture here is very conservative, especially at a religious site. You're welcome to dive in and do some swimming, but you still need be respectful of the culture. Please stay covered up when you're not swimming, and pull on a t-shirt if you're swimming in a bikini. Modest one-pieces are fine when you're in the water.
You'll also need to remember temple etiquette if you choose to enter any of the temples. Please take off your shoes and your hats before entering, and wear clothes that cover your shoulders and your knees. It's not polite to enter temples when you're not dressed appropriately.
A Few Helpful Tips
There are little metal boxes (sorta like lockers) you can pay a couple of dollars to use to stash your stuff in while you swim.
Bring your own towel and lunch for the day (but there are vendors you can buy snacks from, too. You'll find local fruit like red bananas, along with a few other light snacks).
The rocks are slippery so bring your good hiking (and waterproof) shoes to adventure in.
Getting To The National Park From Siem Reap
Mapping things out, you’ll need to know that Angkor Wat is just outside the big city of Siem Reap — and Phnom Kulen is about a 2 hour drive from Siem Reap, making it an ideal day trip. You can also head to the incredible floating villages that are also close to Siem Reap if you’re looking for another day trip, by the way. Plan on arriving early to avoid some of the crowds. It's kinda still of the main tourist map, but locals love to come here to take a quick swim.
There will be lots of guides you can hire in Siem Reap to take you into the lush jungle; the road is bumpy and you’ll definitely want someone driving who knows where they are going.
We’ve had volunteers use a cutie local man named Tra — volunteers said he really wanted them all to understand the history and significance of this country which is a total added bonus. Just ask your hostel if they can help you hire a driver. Plan on paying around $50 USD for a one-way drive there via taxi or private driver, or vans for around $60-$80 for the day.
Ready to this place for yourself?
Volunteers who serve abroad in Thailand with ILP love taking a vacation over to Cambodia — you’re also welcome to check out places like Bali, Laos, Singapore and those dreamy Thai beaches while you spend a semester living abroad here. Oh, and when you aren’t swimming in waterfalls on vacation or eating fresh pineapple at home, you spend your time teaching English to some of the cutest kids around. Sounds pretty perfect to me!