From Beaten Track to Jungle Path: escaping Siem Reap’s crowds and exploring Mt. Kulen (Cambodia)

(as always, ‘Practicalities‘ are at the bottom of the page)

Desperate to cool down, I launch myself without grace into the choppy water of the basin. Sweat, motorcycle grease and fatigue strips off me in spades.

Twenty metre high cascades crash down onto the obsidian coloured rocks and splash into the surrounding water. A rainbow spectrum of dragonflies dart through the mist, landing on nearby leaves laced with bubbles and dripping from this vapour in the air.

Feet-nibbling Garra Rufa fish pinch me; patrolling the depths like tiny submarines and acting as a natural foot spa. The whole place smells cold, fresh and fertile; in the same way you notice the countryside does after a period of absence.

It is a fantastic way to refresh on Mount Kulen after a long day riding, hiking and exploring. As well as looking like a Herbal Essences shampoo advert, these waterfalls are a great example of what Cambodia has to offer away from Siem Reap’s (rightly) popular temples and better known attractions.

Earlier that morning, after a brief lesson on how to ride the manual and ubiquitous 100cc Honda Wave scooter, we ride out of the city and soon emerge onto bumpy dirt back roads. We stop at a village farmer’s market. The range and abundance of fresh produce – countless varieties of fresh river fish, spices and radiant vegetables – explain why we have enjoyed Khmer cuisine so much. It deserves to be up there alongside its more famous Thai and Vietnamese cousins.

We arrive at a hamlet on Mount Kulen around an hour later and meet our smiling local guide Many. He tours us round the jungle and, what he lacks in communication skills, he more than makes up for in his ability to find spiders as big as my head. I can testify this method of measurement is accurate as I spend several minutes walking into webs, panicking and thrashing them out of my hair whilst squealing. Needless to say, Many finds this hilarious.

The walk itself is through thick jungle using paths hacked out by an NGO to protect local flora and fauna from loggers and poachers. It is dense and warm, but the isolation it offers is rewarding. Especially after a few days stomping around Siem Reap’s crowds, it really is the middle of nowhere here.

Halfway through we clamber up a boulder and step out onto a rock plateau. The jungle stretches out all around. Blue flycatcher birds cannon themselves in and out of the banyan trees beside us. We loll about in the sun and snack on longon fruit which Many has brought from the local market. They are delicious; like lychees but sweeter and juicier. We hurl the shells off the side and watch them disappear into the jungle canopy below.

After the walk we motor further up the mountain and grab a lunch of spicy stir fried pork with cashews and Thai basil. Then it’s time for the aforementioned waterfall-plunge, followed by a visit to the ancient reclining Buddha and 1000 lingas river sculptures. Both a reminder of the area’s heritage as one of the key birthplaces of the Khmer civilisation. It even outdates Angkor Wat.

Finally, we ride home through the most spectacular prolonged sunset. The entire sky shades purple and gold.

If you want to spend time off the beaten path and doing something unique, this is a worthwhile day trip into the heart of the gorgeous Cambodian countryside.

Hop on that scooter, bring your swim stuff and be prepared for a sore rump in the morning. You won’t regret it.

Practicalities

– I highly recommend using Khmer Ways. The blog piece above covers their ‘Bike and Hike Mount Kulen’ tour.

– It is a little expensive (around $95 pp) but it covers everything and is of a very high quality. Excellent info, safe and they think of everything.

– You should be a confident scooter rider. It is around a 3-4 hour round trip over sometimes steep/tricky terrain. This is a major part of the fun though! I had only ridden a scooter twice before and was fine. I do cycle a lot though.

– N.B. It is illegal for a foreigner to hire a moped in Siem Reap. However, because this is a guided tour, this rule does not apply.

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