Friday, 30 October 2009

The Sacred Waters of Phnom Kulen

The Kulen hills are about 60 km from Siem Reap and apparently it was here that the Angkor civilisation began. On Phnom Kulen the Siem Reap river rises in a series of mysterious springs and flows down to the Tonle Sap lake and then on down to Phnom Penh to join the mighty Mekong. Without this supply of water to grow rice and other crops, the Angkor civilisation would probably never have developed.

We had a difficult journey on laterite roads washed out by the typhoon and still waiting to be repaired. Often we had four wheels in four different pot holes at the same time. It's a steep climb to the top, slithering in mud and clunking the bottom of the car on ridges left by the torrents of flood water.
There are very early temples here, several hundred years earlier than Angkor Wat, though our guide wouldn't take us, because the usual route was impassable and he wasn't sure which of the other paths were free of mines. He did take us to a pinnacle of rock with a reclining Buddha carved at the top, which is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists, though few europeans come here.
He also took us to the sacred springs where the water seeps invisibly up through the sandy soil into clear pools. Only a puff of sand at the bottoms shows where the water rises. Here, the river bed is carved with a thousand Yoni and Linga - the square with a round stone peg that represents the union of male and female in the Hindu religion. As the river widens and grows in strength, Vishnu is carved in the bed rock close to the waterfall, so that all the water that flows through the temples and into the rice paddies on the plains below, flows from Vishnu.

The river falls off the edge of the rocks at Phnom Kulen into a pool below, sending up clouds of spray. Local people come here to swim in the sacred water. Neil went in, but I hadn't brought my swimming costume and there were too many people around for skinny dipping - the Khmer are a very modest people.

There were stalls everywhere selling incense, lotus flowers, food and chinese medicines. Under the trees, at a little distance, were two men with a freshly cured puma skin. I managed to get a photograph which has gone to the authorities in Phnom Penh. Big cats are almost extinct in Cambodia.
On another stall you could buy jars of yellow liquid with a cobra and a large scorpion pickled inside. Behind them were two small elephant tusks, which made me very sad. The stall holder wouldn't allow me to photograph these.

On the way back down the hill, in the afternoon, we visited another early temple complex - the tenth century Banteay Srei 'Fortress of the the Women'. It was probably called that because of the numerous female deities carved on the walls here - Parvati, wife of Siva, is represented in several of her incarnations as well as Lakshmi. There are also lots of carvings of the Apsaras - heavenly dancers who were created when the Naga snake was twisted to churn the ocean of milk. The temples are surrounded by a moat and it's a serene and beautiful place. The carvings are unusually delicate and intimate and the whole temple complex has an atmosphere of spirituality I didn't find in many other places. Banteay Srei is 30 km outside Siem Reap, so there are fewer tourists here, which may have something to do with it.
The temple was founded by the guru of an early Angkor king and is associated with Siva the ascetic - here pilgrims came to learn the journey from materiality to the Universal Soul. Music, dance and art seem always to have played a big part in the life of the temple - even Siva is seen dancing in the carvings. This is definitely one of my favourite places here.

2 comments:

  1. I continue to be fascinated by your traveller's observations, Kathy. The photpgraphs on this post are particularly beautiful
    wx

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  2. thanks Wendy - Cambodia is the most wonderful place and the photos don't really do it justice. My great regret is not being able to swim in Vishnu's river!
    X Kathy

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