I can remember the sense of excitement I felt the first time we left the dusty plains of Siem Reap behind and snaked up the now concreted path onto the Phnom Kulen Plateau. And awe as the forest closed in bringing relief from the relentless Cambodian sun.
“Why aren’t we cycling this bit?’ Carla, the GM from La Residence asked? ‘Don’t worry we’ve got plenty more to ride where we’re going,’ I replied.
The Kulen ‘Resort’ lies 15km along the main forest dirt road running West to East. This is where Khmer families come at the weekend to play in the waterfall and have their picnics. A few kilometers beyond is Preah Ang Thom where Cambodia’s largest Buddha reclines and the same Khmers come to pay homage, stuffing 100 Riel notes and lighted incense sticks into every hole they can find in the hope of winning their life’s lottery.
Indochine Exploration’s partnership with Ben & Alistair’s biodiversity survey (see Blogs Phnom Kulen; Porpel Village to Kbal Spean Parts 1 & 2), has given us a legitimacy with the MoE (Ministry of Environment), who are in charge of the park.
After a gentle couple of kilometers beyond the reclining Buddha, past Phum Thmei Village down the main forest track, we turned off along a path over rocky outcrops through open dry deciduous forest. I’m not what a technical bike ride is but maybe this section qualified. You have to think how your going to get across the rocks and fissures and the patches of sand in between before you ride over them. A hard but rewarding half hour later we were back in the cool of thick vegetation where we left the bikes with Mr Huon and climbed up through the forest to find the stone elephant.
On reaching the site a slight tingling to the back of my neck on first sight was evidence of it’s magical feel of. A comic element was added by what Manus says is a frog, many times life size and a legless cow that looked like a lump of rock. A Crested-serpent Eagle soared above and Bulbuls flitted from branch to branch adding to the wildness of the clearing.
It was a steep ride over the rock face up to a gaudy pagoda, Wat Preah Leur. There had been no sparing the gold and silver paint, which liberally coated stupas framed between rock formations overlooking the forest below and the plains beyond. A little further along an even narrower and steeper path, we’d reached the summit after which the route felt easier with more down than uphill.
The encroachment of ‘chamcars’ or traditional slash and burn agriculture on the forest was all too evident with trees still smoldering where a chunk had been cut and burnt to make way for a cashew nut plantation. The fruit lay fermenting below the trees. When you bit into them a slightly sour fruity juice filled your mouth though the unrefined nut is poisonous.
Descending down the rutted path at speed I lost concentration and hit a patch of sand broadside on, sending me over the handle bars, leaving patches of skin on the path below and me well grazed. The relevance of a bike helmet started to dawn on me.
Alone in the forest is Prasat (temple) O’pong, excavated by the French in the early 20th Century, it predates Angkor Wat to when Kulen lay at the heart and the launch of the Angkorian Empire under Jayavarman II. For us it was a cool shady site to have lunch and a medicinal beer to recover from my war wounds while Carla checked out the ancient brick structure.
Kulen’s been dry for a couple of weeks so the streams we crossed had lost their sparkle but Manus found flowers in the bushes for Carla and a bootlace tree snake slung around a branch a few inches from his nose.
Anlong Thom is the largest village on the mountain and seldom visited by tourists but there was a steady stream of local villagers driving motos – or so it seemed after the route we’d cycled, along the forest way to Preah Ang Thom where Sophat was waiting with the van back to take us back to Siem Reap. Carla wanted to stop at the Buddha to catch a little kitch before a holiday to it’s epicenter in Myanmar next week, so we took off our shoes and squeezed between the Khmers trying to stock up on their luck.