Located roughly 40 kilometers (25 mi) from Siem Reap, Cambodia and the world famous Angkor Wat is Phnom Kulen, or in English, Kulen Mountain. Although its highest point is a mere 487 meters (1600 ft) above sea level, when the mountain comes into my view I am immediately impressed. This part of Cambodia is extremely flat; the landscape alternating between plains and farmer’s fields. Kulen breaks up the visual monotony. Not long after our departure from Siem Reap it started raining, not heavily but consistently, and now the mountains’ peak is covered in low clouds and mist, creating the illusion that Kulen is much taller and more formidable than it actually is.
The ancient inhabitants of this area, the Hindus and Buddhists who founded the Khmer Empire and built Angkor, considered this mountain to be sacred. Once known as Mahendraparvata (Mountain of Great Indra), it is believed that the empire started here and was perhaps the first royal capital. Today, archaeologists consider Kulen to be of great historical significance. In recent years, after clearing land mines and other types of UXO (unexploded ordinance), over 17 sites on the mountain have been excavated as part of an on-going program to learn more about the origins of the empire.
Many Cambodians still regard the mountain as sacred and often visit sites on its west side. This area, closest to Siem Reap, is well known for its rivers, waterfalls and the large reclining Buddha statue at Wat Ang Thom. Both Western tourists and locals enjoy taking in the sights, swimming in the river and picnicking on its bank.
Today, I’m headed to the mountain’s less-visited east side to see a site known as Peung Kom Nou. Sometimes known as the Caves of Komnou, this site consists of a field of enormous boulders some of which lean against one another forming cave-like shelters. Other solitary rocks have jagged outcroppings protruding from their tops which form natural stone awnings. At least four of these rocks are adorned with beautiful bas-relief carvings that depict Vishnu reclining on Ananda, Vishnu and Garuda, an eight-armed Ganesh and a fantastic piece with Vishnu, Shiva and a host of other divas and followers. My internet research indicates that the carvings were produced by “hermits” circa 1000 AD. In my opinion, these artists were probably Rishis (or Ruesi in Khmer), Hindu ascetic holy men or sages, who lived alone or in very small groups, spending most of their time in prayer and meditation.
I was particularly intrigued by this site because many local Cambodian people have never heard of it. There are several blog pieces and articles on the web which describe the carvings and include photographs, but no exact location of the caves. One blogger noted the position as being about four kilometers north of Svay Leu village. At the time I was unable to find the site on Google Maps, but it turned out that I was looking in the wrong area. The site is clearly on the map, however the road that leads there is not.
I hired a taxi to make the hour-and-a-half trip from Siem Reap and when a large Lexus SUV showed up at my hotel I was greatly encouraged. Unfortunately, the driver did not know the exact location of the caves either. Off we went to sleepy Svay Leu with a vague plan to inquire with the locals as to the whereabouts of my destination.
Upon arriving in Svay Leu and receiving directions from the locals we turned left from the main road and proceeded to drive up a very wide and well-maintained dirt road. The first one-kilometer stretch was quite good but as we continued, it soon narrowed and became very bumpy to say the least. I was curious to see how far the driver would continue on what was becoming a partially flooded trail before giving up. At a point approximately three and a half kilometers from the main road the driver could no longer continue.
I left the driver and the Lexus and continued on by foot following what was soon to become a trail only passable by motorcycles. Although the path tended to branch out towards different directions, I stuck to the most well-traveled sections following recently-made motorcycle tracks and the occasional piece of trash. I had not (and still have not) confirmed if this area has been completely cleared of landmines. Landmines are still an enormous problem in northwestern Cambodia and it is a good idea to stay on well-trod paths.
After traveling for one kilometer I reached the boulder-strewn area that makes up Peung Kom Nuo. There are a few small houses located about 200 meters from the caves, from which two small boys came out to greet me and show me the carvings. We were soon joined by their father, uncle and grandmother who remained with me for the duration of my visit. The uncle spoke a few words of English; the remainder of the family spoke only Khmer, which tends to confirm my suspicions that few foreigners visit this unique site.
After spending a couple of hours touring and photographing the carvings I returned to the car on the same path, this time encountering a small boy on foot and a couple of local guys on motorcycles. On our journey from Svey Leu to the caves and back I never saw any signs of tourists or tourism, which to me, makes Peung Kom Nuo a truly unique site.