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Letter From Cambodia

Storied Landscape

Through centuries—and perhaps even millennia—of cultural, political, and environmental change, Phnom Kulen has retained its central role in the spiritual life of a people

January/February 2015



Northeast of the inland Cambodian city of Siem Reap, far from the crush of the morning traffic, noisy market stalls, and mobs of motorbikes stopping for noodle soup and chicken rice, an imposing plateau rises from the hot, flat land. Phnom Kulen, the “Mountain of Lychees,” reaches 1,500 feet high, stretches 15 miles long, and is nine miles wide at its broadest point. It is a rippled mountain range of thick forests and fields and streams that tumble downhill through its rocky ravines.


For millennia, Phnom Kulen has been sacred to the Khmer, the dominant ethnic group in this country both in antiquity and today. Throughout its long history, people have gone there to live and work, to worship and celebrate, and to seek solace and refuge. Kings and soldiers, Hindus and Buddhists, pilgrims and hermits, have all gone to Phnom Kulen. There, in A.D. 802, Jayavarman II declared himself devaraja, or “god king,” of a united Khmer state. And there he founded Mahendraparvata, the capital city of what would become the vast Angkor Empire that flourished between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. At its height, the empire controlled territories in what are now modern-day Cambodia, parts of Thailand and Laos, and beyond.


Phnom Kulen’s exceptional and enduring place in Cambodian life and history is, in great measure, thanks to water. It accumulates in the mountain’s porous sandstone and is released year-round into innumerable sacred pools and rivers, and into the springs and streams that once supplied the Angkor Empire, and today still feed the paddies that produce the majority of the region’s daily rice. In this way, Phnom Kulen is tied inexorably not only to the Angkor-era civilization of the past, but to modern-day Cambodia. Hundreds of generations have gone there and have left behind a record in the form of remarkable sculptures, carvings, and paintings, some of which are just now being discovered and researched. “Mountains are always closer to the gods,” says archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance. “They have always been in many civilizations, many cultures, a sacred place. This is one such place.”



Journey to Phnom Kulen