Phnom Kulen

Finally back home in Phnom Penh after being gone for so long. I really loved spending time in the countryside but it’s nice to be back and stop living out of a suitcase. I have one last post about my time away about a short trip I took to visit Phnom Kulen, a mountain site not far from Siem Reap that is well-known for its Angkorian period pottery kilns. I was lucky enough to join some folks from a Center for Khmer Studies workshop who came up for a field trip and we got to visit the excavation and conservation project run by the French archaeologist known as JB (for Americans reading that is pronounced Gee Bey). JB is wrapping up the first year of a 3-year project excavating and doing conservation on some of the many brick temple sites located on Phnom Kulen mountain. One amazing side note: his project is privately funded entirely from donations from rich business people in England. Attention rich business people: I am currently accepting applications for the position of benefactor! I mentioned below my lack of jungle experience in Cambodia but a trip to Kulen mountain changed all that. More after the jump.


As I mentioned, Phnom Kulen is just about 40 km outside of Siem Reap/Angkor. It’s perhaps best known for it’s Angkorian kiln sites which produced a very specific type of green glazed pottery known as Kulen ware. (We found some of it on our survey in Banteay Meanchey). It is also well-known as a picnic spot and the site of the “River of 1000 Lingas” which was produced during the 11-13 century. We stopped briefly to check out the river (although there was a lot more to see that I missed).


Above and below: a series of lingas in yonis carved out of the rock with the river moving quickly over it.


Below: A closer view with my toes for scale


Below: Vishnu reclining on a naga carved into a rock in the river


Below: Locals taking a bath in the cool water


Below: Shadow of leaves in the water


JB’s research is much farther up the mountain so we drove for what felt like almost another hour through some pretty bumpy roads before reaching the village of Anlong Thom (spell?). This is where we spent the night and it was amazingly beautiful. Even the group from CKS (urban Phnom Penh dwellers) were astounded by how beautiful it was. (One person even told me it was his dream to live in a place like this).



Above: Kulen (Lychee) tree for which Phnom Kulen is named.

Below: Making dinner for the group


There was also a nice smattering of wildlife. The owners of the house had some very cute dogs and cats.


Also: PIGS!



Below: Can you see what we were trying to avoid in the leaves?


But the real reason for our visit was to see some archaeology. There are many (over 30?) temple sites on Kulen mountain. Almost all but a handful are constructed of brick and during the reign of Jayavarman II (considered to be the founder of the Angkorian empire) during the 8th and 9th centuries. JB, working with the local Apsara Authority chose several temples that were both important site and in need of conservation. While we were on Kulen mountain a furious thunderstorm hit that kind of tangled things up, so we weren’t able to see everything he was working on but we got a good taste. (I should also mention that the prolific Andy Brouwer has visited Kulen and even a few of these sites in the past. Here, here, and here to mention a few of his posts).

The first temple we visited was Prasat Neak Ta. This temple, like the others, was built in the 8th/9th century but used until the 10th/11th. JB is hoping to narrow the time periods with some radiocarbon dating. The French had done a small excavation here in the 1930s, but JB was expanding on their previous research. All of JB’s sites had to be de-mined first (Kulen is notorious for its mines and rockets) so there is a small boundary around each of his sites marked with signs or a red post that denotes the areas that are safe and unsafe to walk.


Above: The Prasat Neak Ta. Prasat Neak Ta is one of a small series of temples that opens to the West (as opposed to the more traditional East facing entrance).

Below: A pile of bricks from the fill. The fill is separated into bricks and dirt so there are giant piles of both around the site.


Another view of Prasat Neak Ta. You can see how the walls of the towers were separating and trees were growing into the building.


Just a few meters away is another temple site in much worse condition that JB is also working on (unfortunately I can’t seem to find the name).


Above: Sandstone doorway

Below: Trench leading up to the temple that exposed a large pedestal sitting outside the temple itself.


The second morning we got up and set out on a 4 km walk to the temple of Thma Dop. This required a walk through some amazing jungle scenery.





Once we arrived we came on a beautiful brick temple emerging from the mist.


JB told us that Prasat Thma Dop was one of the most important temples based on its size and the level of detail put into it. The entire Prasat was surrounded by a small brick wall and had brick platforms and entrance areas with multiple phases surrounding the temple. These areas were exposed with JB’s excavation.


The round holes in the brick were for wooden posts. Although when and why they were added is still TBD.


Above: Admiring the temple

Below: JB explains the excavations


This temple has some amazing brick work on the face and on the surrounding platform.


Here’s a close up shot of the brick, still with some of the original stucco.


Below: The author in front of the Prasat


On the way back we made a quick stop to see the Kulen  kiln site. It is immediately noticeable by the heaps of ceramic sherds all over the ground on the way.


Above: Sherds mixed with leaves on the ground

Two below: Areas with a small mound of larger ceramic fragments and pieces that local people have piled in front of a large tree in the site.


Mixture of roof tiles and jars/lids in this pile


Some of these have been here awhile- notice the moss growing on a ceramic above?


There was also an impressively large tree with a well maintained spirit house at the site.


We left Kulen yesterday afternoon in time to get back and relax a bit in Siem Reap before I caught the bus home this morning. It was great having such a nice break from the city and to have a chance to get out and see what people are doing in other parts of the country. Now it is back to the grindstone for a bit.

10 responses to “Phnom Kulen

  1. Alison, wonderful! I asked for photos of pigs, and I got photos of pigs. Great way to diversify from all those temple images. Also, thanks for the pic of you, helps bring it all home.

  2. And thank you for the photo of the dog!! More dog photos, please.

  3. Man, that is some beautiful country. I’m surprised by how inhabited the jungle is. I would have thought that it would be more deserted. Also, please watch your step!!! Can’t wait to see you! K

  4. Elly Madavi

    I enjoyed so much reading about the shrine that is dedicated to a particularly powerful female spirit in Lokkru. Are there any anthropological reasons behind the creation of this myth?

    My other question is about the large ceramic fragments; are they antique found by local and they left there, or these are part of their custom to leave their own broken pottery there?

    Does any monk or a keeper live in the spirit house at the site by the tree, or is another shrine?

  5. Elly Madavi

    Just to make you laugh, I made a mistake, as you noticed, and I thought “Lokkru” is the name of a place in Bangkok. Reading the article and related link carefully, I found my mistake and started laughing.
    Any how, what is the meaning of the Lokkru, is it a title for person or place, or is it an adjective?

    ….And, although I started a little late to read in detail all your entries in your site, I must say that I am enjoying it so much, they all seems so tangible and I am so curious! Is it ok if I ask you questions from your previous eateries?


  6. alisonkyra

    Hi Elly! I am always happy to answer questions so ask away!! Here are some responses to the ones you asked above:
    -Lokkru is the Khmer word for a male teacher. Once someone is your teacher they are your teacher for life and it is the polite way to address them.
    -About the shrine I visited in Thailand. I’m not sure about anthropological reasons for it, but like all good legends I suspect part of it was based on a true story that has grown and evolved over time.
    -Lastly the pottery in this post is Angkorian (I think around 10-13th C AD). This mountain was a famous kiln site that made pottery that was traded all over the Angkorian empire. The pieces in my post were pieces that were broken, misfired, or misshaped in antiquity and left behind at the kiln site. Overtime people began finding pieces and piling them up near this large tree. But they are all over this particular area of the mountain- left over from the kiln that was operating here several hundred years ago.

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