A Kulen Mountain Bike Temple Odyssey
Phnom Kulen lit Kulen Mountain or Mountain of The Lychees is our mountain bike playground, bisected by the Kulen super highway (in fact a red earth road), which climbs the mountain at the Western end. Runs to the central tourist village of Preah Ang Thom and continues to the Eastern escarpment above the town of Svay Leu. It’s crisscrossed by routes across the rocky plateau, forest paths shaded by canopy 10 meters above, sandy tracks that turn instantly to mud whenever it rains and dry trails through the cashew nut plantations.
The plateau was isolated until the end of last century. Floating 500 meters above the Siem Reap plains and still harboring remnants of Khmer Rouge in what must have been thick forest across the 40,000 hectares of hills.
And you’ve got JII (Jayavarman II) and his God delusion that lead to the whole Angkorian business, which inevitably meant a lot of temples that over the centuries got overtaken by jungle.
We follow the main road from Siem Reap to Banteay Srei Temple past the palm sugar sellers who line the way. I admire their optimism of demand for palm sugar. We climb the escarpment and enter a cool green filtered light as trees close branches above the red earth road and shut out the dusty badlands we’ve left behind.
It all started 1200 years ago in the river, where JII crowned himself emperor of the world, as they knew it then. To mark the spot he left a ..
Symbolic phallic symbols carved into the riverbed to ensure the fertility of his reign – and lots of fish. And this being a good Hindu empire the images of Shiva and Vishnu can be made out beneath the glassy waters. A new bridge spans the Kulen River, its easy to miss this magical link to the past – unless you know its there.
A little further and we arrive at a causeway leading up a hill to the Reclining Buddha. A skyscraper size boulder fashioned into an enormous Buddha. A Khmer pilgrimage site where merit is obtained by stuffing 100 riel notes into every stone orifice.
The reclining Buddha at Preah Ang Thom
The Ministry of Environment Station is the start for our adventures accompanied by a wired together moto that mechanically shouldn’t work anymore. Mr Pum or whichever ranger is with us for the day has precariously strapped our cool box to his seat and we set off in search of adventure.
The Silver Langur forest butts up to the village. This is where these rare monkeys thought to be gone were rediscovered in 2013. The biggest trees on the mountain still penetrate the canopy, sometimes supporting chicken wing beehives hanging from the top most branches.
Squirrels bark and occasionally when the Kulen fruit are falling from the trees we spot a Silver Langur. Always spiders, great black and yellow shelobs spin their webs across our paths waiting to catch a tourist.
I feel for the precarious existence of the little red males clinging to the furthermost silken threads of the web.
Silver Langur on Mushroom Rock and Golden Orb Spider
We have trails that climb up to Chomran’s hole, nothing personal just an unusual rock formation containing a Buddhist shrine that Chomran climbs into. And descend through a bat-cave to the Kulen River, where we have lunch.
Chomran & his hole and the Bat-cave with a tomb bat
Today we’re slip-sliding through sand on route for Porpel Village and on to Phum Kla Kmum Village for our first temple. It’s a head over handle bar rutted oxcart trail that sort of dwindles to where we walk.
Soma-sutra at Prasat Krahom & Lors and his linga
So we leave our bikes and clamber over rocks to a platform above the forest and Prasat Krahom (lit. red temple). There’s a decorated spout or soma-sutra on the outside while inside the temple water falling onto the linga is caught in a yoni (the female part) and fed through the brick walls via the soma-sutra to be collected as holy water fit for a fertility or two.
Today we’re trying out a new trail across the cashew nut plantations to Sangke Leak Village.
Mountain biking on Kulen involves thinking about where your going to cycle and what gear you should be in before you need to change but don’t think too hard or you’ll end in a rut and on your ass. Then there’s the sand, ‘look to the horizon, pedal hard and head straight’. Or shout out expletives, “—-ing sand!” As our guests have been known to do.
Enjoying the scenery after a disagreement with the track
Kulen is carved into mounds – that you need to cycle up and down and a myriad of small streams that you need to cross. The gradient and terrain are the perfect habitat for a mountain bike.
Cambodia was once a big forest and it wasn’t long ago. The majority of forest has gone but the traditional chamkar or slash and burn agriculture remains. A few villagers across thousands of hectares clearing and burning a couple of hectares for small paddy fields was sustainable. Wholesale logging for cashew nut plantations forcing those villages to cut down what’s left is not but lets not spoil a good story.
Ganesha @ Perng Komnou
There are not many routes out of or for that matter onto Kulen. Scrambling through the burnt logs and small banana plantations down the steep slopes above Svai Leu Town at the Eastern end of the plateau was one not very good option that has now unfortunately got easier. A logging magnate is dynamiting a road up the mountain for an unknown reason. There’s not enough forest left for the obvious. Nearby are the petroglyphs of Perng Komnou (lit. rock shelter). 9th century engravings of Hindu deities like the Ganesha above chiseled into car sized boulders littered around the base of the hill. The excitement of stumbling across these archeological phenomena is one of the reasons I stay in Cambodia.
Today we turned right and avoided the ominous portent of what the road might bring. Phum Ta Pin, Pum Thma Chruon and Anlong Thom, sandy rutted roads between cashew clearings and through small patches of forest. Not great distances, not great roads and ever changing landscapes equal exciting riding.
Smoky mountain villages with towering coconut palms framing stilted wooden houses, chocolate and tan coated pigs plowing their snouts through the mud and litter. And chickens running for their lives as we ride into the village hungry!
Anlong Thom in the center of Kulen
Anlong Thom feels like the spiritual center of Kulen surrounded by remnants of its lost kingdom, temples that lie not far from the village.
Sweaty, disheveled but bright with the excitement of the ride we moor our bikes in the shade of coconut palms beside the local blacksmith. The cool box is unstrapped from the remains of the moto. Cold beer is served.
We wait while the lady catches one of those unfortunate chickens or a fish from the stream that runs at the bottom of the village and lunch is served.
The local blacksmith
The big wooden houses tell of a time when the forest canopy was raised by massive trees providing abundant timber. Lifting your room above the ground stops the rats that eat the insects and the snakes that eat them. Motorbikes, cows and timber are secure in the space underneath. Fires were lit to provide a rudimentary if risky heating system when the world was a little cooler.
We head out through the cashew that surrounds the village to the islands of forest (protected by Apsara the temple authority) hiding the ruins we’re searching for. Ok we’ve done it before but today we’re connecting a loop across the mountain. The first stop is the single brick tower of Prasat Thma Dap (below).
We cross the dam of what the 2013 Lidar survey revealed to be an Angkorian reservoir. Lidar is a laser strapped to a helicopter that records the topography of the terrain. Data fed through a supporting app strips away the vegetation to show the underlying structures of what was a conurbation 1200 years ago. No new Angkor Wat as the press stated at the time but just as astonishing.
Next are the three brick towers of Prasat Domrey Krab, lit. Temple of the kneeling elephant (left), and a short walk away Perng O Eisei (below).
A mysterious and shady hollow, once the home of a hermit, a small spring forms a clear pool with a rock fashioned into a turtle. A stone doorway carved into a boulder is flanked on either side by an Apsara or celestial being.
There’s the sense that the king might not be far away.
The 10m high brick tower of Prasat O Pong (above) and the pyramid temple of Rorng Chen are not far away. The latter sits on top of a small hill or is a small hill. We could make out the blocks of laterite that form its base but not much else. This was where JII hung out i.e. his palace.
The temples are not far apart but it’s easy to get lost hence the accompanying decrepit moto though of course its main function is to bring cold beer.
Perng Tbal is a first. Tbal means pestle and Perng carving. We didn’t see any carved pestles but a lot gets lost in translation.
A gully between great slabs of stone, not sinister but not explained, a space in a time of its own.
Reclining Vishnu @ Perng Tbal
Another turn in the forest will take you to the kitch Wat Preah Kral. A working pagoda where the wealthy buy their way to heaven via silver and gold stupas perched across the bare rock face. I reclined in Buddha’s chair to view Phnom Bok and on a clear day the Tonle Sap Lake. I sat on his carpet and looked at these strange rock formations. Today we carried on to The Srah Domrey, the most wonderful element of Kulen.
I can remember the hairs on the back of my neck electrified as I first caught sight of this two-thirds life size statue. In those ancient days eleven years ago when I first came to Cambodia there were few visitors to this exceptional place, relative to the swarming hoards that descend on Angkor, there’s not many that make it here now.
The Sra Domrey above and 3 stone lions seen through its legs.
The story finishes 10 kilometers away at Preah Ang Thom where it started. The mixed evergreen forest around the magical elephant gives way to dry dipteropcarp trees growing out of the rock. The cycle past the village of Phum Thmei and over the bridge across the delightful Kulen mountain stream, where we once swam in its cool pools. Then we’re back in Preah Ang Thom and the hiss of a cold can of beer as I pull the tab. A fitting end to another Kulen adventure.
The Race to the Middle of Nowhere – The Scramble for Kulen
About a thousand years too late but then it wasn’t for the first time, the Angkorians had been here before. And anyway the British, French, Germans and Italians took it in turns to claim large chunks of Africa. I reckoned all we needed to do was plant an Indochine Exploration flag on the top of Phnom Srok, Mr Leang said was the tallest hill on Kulen, to guarantee safe rights of passage across Kulen for our Grasshopper guests the following week.
Lors filled Kuong’s van with enough equipment to rival our pioneering colonial peers, a week perhaps? No just one night but that wasn’t the half of what he’d take for the customers. We were going to swing ourselves to sleep in hammocks under the stars but I wasn’t leaving it to chance and had my camping kit (Vallium, whisky and ear plugs) within easy reach.
The escarpment up Kulen marks a departure from the dusty plains and chaos of Siem Reap. The forest canopy contains a calm that penetrates even Kuong’s van. The MoE Station at Preah Ang Thom by association the furthest reach of our adventurous ancestors into the unknown. Pushing it but that’s where we start our trips from so we emptied the van onto Mr Chou’s Oxcart, while Phum rode round the station getting used to the mountain bike we’d brought him.
Setting off by oxcart
Lors fresh from his muscle contest in Phnom Penh rippling in lycra, conducted our expedition as we embarked on our mission to cross the empty quarter by way of Porpel Village to Kbal Spean. North of Porpel the path serves the chamkar hacked and burnt out of the original forest.
The forest over years painstakingly accumulates a fertility that the cashew nut plantations gorge on then slowly wither to a scraggy halt.
We halted where the path went back under the trees and waited for Chou and his cows. Lors had bought a chicken for them. I’d got a squashed breakfast bagel from Little Red Fox and then on in the adventure started. The chamkar and reason for using the path stopped including logging? Phum said so, incredible! He seemed to be right. It appeared that nobody had been this way for years. There was a path but it was well disguised such that when it changed direction I didn’t and came to an impromptu halt in the bushes.
Chest high grass gave way to forest as we reached the valley and the canopy closed in. Two years ago the saddest logging was taking out the remaining big trees. Now the vegetation was striking back, linking limbs to lock in the road and block the oxcarts that bore the bloodied corpses of the felled trees.
We emerged out of the jungle into a flower studded grassy veld bisected by the Kulen River. Our campsite was given away by rusty pilchard tins now hidden in the tall grass, evidence of Alistair’s search for Silver Langurs.
Relaxing on the trail and arriving at the campsite
It seemed impossible that Phum and Chou would get the oxcart down the escarpment with no apparent path and then through the jungle so we headed back, fully expecting to abort our mission and spend the night in Anlong Thom. We found them not far along the trail hacking at a fallen tree while the cows contentedly munched the leaves blocking their path.
Our mission to cross Kulen was back within our grasp. Chou had a kettle on the boil while Lors and Phum set up the campsite and I drank tea.
‘Nick get out of the way,’ warned Lors. Phum was flapping his hammock and stamping on the ground to get rid of black ants. ‘I cant get out of the way! Aaargh’ the little bastards stung, but they weren’t immune to deet.
Lors and other flowers of the veld
Only a trickle of water made it down the stream despite the recent rain but the bathing pool remained. I reduced its surface tension by soaping up in the slightly cool water then went back to the campsite to drink beer and watch Lors shirtless cook dinner.
One week on from coming second in The Angkor Body-building Championships, he looked like he could glide like a flying squirrel on his enormous deltoid muscles. Wielding a large bladed kitchen knife he alternated between slicing onions and swatting mosquitoes on Phum for some reason remaining immune to their bites.
We were missing Dean but in his stead he’d sent a family sized pack of chicken casserole supposedly just for Lors and I, actually enough for all of us and their breakfast the next morning. Beer then whisky as Lors and I contentedly chatted about nothing in particular. Mr Chou was wrapped in his hammock betrayed only by his gleaming white smile, 22 and with a baby on the way.
Lors and Pum preparing supper
A full moon appeared through the canopy and reflected on the bark of the trees that seemed to grow taller in the dark.
I lay in my hammock looking up through the branches at the stars. A simple camp in the forest worth a million times more than whatever the 5* Sachaya on Bintan Island had cost the week before.
The lingering chill from the night lifted as the sun lit up the leaves around us. Mr Chou and the ox-cart returned to rendezvous with Kuong, while we struck through the wilderness to find a route via the North Escarpment to Kbal Spean, not quite ready for how wild it turned out to be.
Our campsite at breakfast
Elephant vomit or pig-shit grass life a soft fur covered our way but unlike soft fur it sticks its scratchy seeds to your socks and in your shoes. Enchanted glades of open dipteropcarp deciduous trees gave way to dark caverns shaded by green and lit with white flowers on the forest floor.
The rocks and ruts were throwing me at every opportunity sapping confidence such that I pushed the bike as much as rode it.
Phum on the trail
We met Leang the policeman with Chomran from Porpel village and 2 rangers with guns though it seemed unlikely that they worked. A few months ago they’d arrested 2 loggers who were in jail presumably trying to find enough money to get out and fined 5 others $1250 each. They were confiscating every chainsaw they found and fining the owners, which explained why the road was disappearing as it had been the loggers that were using it. 3 months ago they’d seen the scratch marks of a bear at Kbal Spean though they reckoned they were still there in the Porpel Community Forest. An old bear had been hunted and killed for its bile. The hunter got $1000 and the middleman $6000 all for some fat, ugly bong thom and his libido.
The North Facing Kulen Escarpment
It had been logging central 2 years ago, oxen and carts congregated above the escarpment with crude cut planks from freshly felled timber below, hidden so they couldn’t be spotted from the Wildlife Alliance helicopter that was surveying the mountain. Piled and ready to be collected and taken out via the Forestry Administration HQ who extracted its toll and waited for the next batch to tax. Today there were no signs of logging.
Dr Livingstone I presume? Said Stanley, rather more usefully ‘would you like a beer?’ greeted us as we arrived at Kbal Spean. It had only taken 5 hours but as Dave Taylor had said while lying flat on the grass, ‘this is challenging,’ and technically not a mountain bike ride.
The Mobileiron Mekong Challenge
The Mekong, its islands, public ferries and the East Bank, the antidote to a frenetic Phnom Penh on the other side of the river.
Areykhsat on the East Bank of The Mekong
Phnom Penh on the West bank of The Mekong
Khmer games; Climbing sugar palm trees to pluck sugar palm fruit, or strategically placed little bottles of sugar palm wine in grass baskets. Shooting slingshots, a blindfold bash of clay pots with more containers this time filled with Mekong Whisky. A tug of War in a cow field, volleyball heats at a pagoda, a muddy mountain bike ride and a Buddhist water blessing (they had to find the monks first).
Initially sixty, worn down by the ravages of the conference dinner leaving 35 survivors grouped in teams of 5 tech execs working for a multi national data protection company.
The Build Up
Buntha and I got off the ferry at Areykhsat and looked at each other, ‘what are we going to do next?’ Find a pagoda. ‘Can you bless some Americans?’ We asked a monk, then cycled along the road in search of a silk farm, a main road with the usual crazy Khmer traffic? ‘This wont do, ‘Buntha come back tomorrow and find an off-road route.’
Setting up the games with our Team the day before
First problem; there were too many bikes (60) and not enough space at the Prek Leap Ferry. Buntha called, ‘flying bikes have set them up at the pagoda,’ which pagoda I wondered? Which lead onto the third problem.
Second problem; bladders, probably abused over the conference week, they weren’t holding what they should in the midday Cambodian heat. Everyone wanted a piss. The men were easy, ‘go in the bushes,’ I waved in a wide sweep towards the pagoda’s bush-bereft horizon. The lady was more difficult but she disappeared with Ra and came back happy.
Third problem; ‘Follow me,’ I confidently cried, over my shoulder and headed off down a bumpy road in the wrong direction. The phone rang, it was Buntha, ‘Nick you’ve gone the wrong way.’ ‘False start guys,’ I shouted and turned round which left the Vice President and boss at the back and the slowest at the front. A little ruse I mused.
Like an unleashed tribe of braves on the warpath, they bore down on me and the ferry. The first casualty skidded up the ramp onto the deck having parted company with his bicycle but no obvious damage done.
Mobileiron Braves on the warpath
The boat had left the dock as a well-proportioned member cycled to the waterfront. ‘Too late’ I shouted fearing that the employee might try a death- defying leap across the Mekong. I was drowned out, his colleagues roared and the ferry returned.
Lors had done us proud placing the Mobileiron direction indicators at each turning except they were upsi down and read Wobileiron. Also in his zeal to help the teams he’d written the distance to the next challenge in kilograms, confusing his metrics and indicating that the Wobileirons would be 2kg lighter by the time they reached the Tug of War.
The Sugar Palm Challenge
Buntha had gone to incredible lengths to construct ladders akin to the bamboo poles that run up the side of the sugar palm trees.
They were metal tubes with welded lengths of steel for rungs, enough for a gravitationally challenged tech executive we thought except they started pinging like bursting pods and left our Wobileirons clinging on for dear life.
Wobileirons climbing the sugar palm pole
The Slingshot Trials
The incentive of winning and alcohol meant this didn’t deter them for long and soon they were off to shoot things. They loved it so the slingshots were a success with the Anglo Saxons. The Japanese kept hitting their hands and sending the pellets backwards.
On second thoughts perhaps a missed opportunity as we could have combined the palm tree challenge, slingshot trials and water blessing by shooting monks out of palm trees.
The ferry man had us by the balls and the more the Anglo Saxons screamed to leave and keep their lead the more he grinned and asked for another dollar.
I pointed out that they would need a competing team for the tug of war and volleyball so we waited for the Grey Team.
The Breaking Pot Bash
Across the river we’d tied clay pots to a Boddhi tree ready for the breaking pot bash.
The idea was for us to leap frog in front of the Wobileirons but the Anglo Saxons and the head office team were going too fast.
Sreymom was left trying to tie blindfolds on burly Singaporeans two times her height, spin them round then run for dear life as they started blindly bashing their bamboo staffs to hit the pots and reap the rasping reward of the Mekong Whisky inside.
The Anglo Saxons reaching the foregone conclusion that they’d won
Tug of War
We sent Lors, our adventure guide racing ahead to the Tug of War field. He found his métier as the macho muscle man and appealed to the Anglo Saxons.
Spectators @ The Tug of War (below)
The Japanese Team kept loosing so they asked the Anglo Saxons if they could have one more tug but this time with Lors. This time they pulled the Anglo Saxons off their feet then fell backwards as the rope came loose.
The Volleyball Heats
Wat Svey Chrum was just across the road. There was a Wobileiron sign but the VP and his financial director headed off towards Vietnam unnoticed until another of the Anglo Saxons suggested it might be PC to find him. We duly found them a few kilometers down the road and directed them back to the pagoda.
Buntha’s rules as interpreted by Jin appeared arbitrary but with only 3 pax on each team our brave contestants did their best. The VP fell in a leaping lung while another team member nearly killed a bystander so Jin speeded up the scoring to get one of the teams past 5 points.
Muddy Mountain Bike Ride
Buntha and I had carefully researched a particular route but the teams seemed to find quite a few, which they chose at random throughout the afternoon. I took advantage of my proximity to the Anglo Saxons to lead them along the prescribed path to Wat Areykhsat where they had to find a monk and receive their blessings.
The monks mindful of the promised payments per contestant found our teams then made them follow the ceremony with the appropriate and traditional respect. The contestants duly knelt and touched the ground with their heads then hands together bowed three times to the monks who represented Buddha.
The Anglo Saxons were still up for it though their team was dispersed across Kandal and possibly Takeo Province by this stage. They were on the first ferry across The Mekong then raced beside the river through Phnom Penh to the FCC unsurprisingly winning the race.
I leant on the railings above the ferry station with a blissful beer. Lors had just lead what we hoped were the last teams to the FCC. Buntha hung on the other side of The Mekong to look for lost Wobileirons in case they hadn’t made it.
The all clear came through, 35 counted out and 35 counted back.
We were lucky that the weather was kind and it helped that we chasing after 35 not 60.
Bunthy had chosen a restaurant half way between Phnom Penh and Battambang for dinner, which stopped being amusing after 50 minutes in the tuktuk trying to find it.
Once a beer had been placed in my hand and the manager dispatched to find wine I realized with a rising tide of pride what a fantastic team we are.
Oh and Jin sang a song and established that Lors would not interfere with him.