10/03/17 – The Lingam Water-World of Kbal Spean

Why yes, I am gold. And unlike Andrew I can walk around in the jungle without pants on.

One of the irritating things about having to completely replace your wardrobe after losing your luggage is that you can only really buy one of some things. I bought lots of t-shirts, shorts, boxers, two new pairs of socks, but only one pair of long pants for survey. And those long pants hadn’t been washed in two weeks. So because of a very necessary laundry day there was no way in hell I was going to do my back-to-back that I’d planned at Angkor Thom. The last time I walked in there in shorts my legs were cut to shreds in minutes.

I usually only go into the field once every two days and spend the day in the middle compiling notes, comparing photographs, and writing grant proposals. But today I’d filled out my notes early from a rather mediocre survey day yesterday, sorted my photographs into folders early this morning, and planned a route through Angkor Thom with my advisor for Sunday – he’s heading back to Canada on Monday so he wanted to see what I’ve been up to for the past month.

Ed, I promise this big pile of bricks is significant. Just…no, don’t walk away…THERE’S TWO VISIBLE BUILDING PHASES BUT YOU HAVE TO WALK OVER 100M OF THORNS TO GET TO THE OTHER ONE! COME BAAACK!!!

So I said: hey, you know what’d be fun? DOING SOMETHING NEW. Not to say that my survey isn’t fun or fulfilling, it definitely is and I’m finding out really incredible new things about Angkor Thom every day, but when you’re doing any work it sometimes pays to step back a bit and give yourself a day to think about all you’ve seen in order to put it all into perspective. So I grabbed a tuk-tuk and rode up to Kbal Spean, the Angkor Archaeological Park’s most northerly site.

Not my map, but it gives you an idea of how far north we’re talking.
And then, after climbing another 1500m up a path lined with giant boulders (or you just scramble over them), you get there!

Kbal Spean, or “Bridge Head”, isn’t a temple or shrine. The site is, in fact, an area of sacred river-carvings set deep in the jungle atop the Kulen Mountains. Kbal Spean was completed by two Khmer kings, Suryavarman I (r. 1006 – 1050) and Uyadityavarman I (r. 1050 – 1066). The river is dedicated to both Shiva and Vishnu, and the riverbed is carved with hundreds of small lingam-and-yoni (I won’t elaborate on that, but the best way to describe it is the Hindu version of “the birds and the bees”) low-reliefs that bless the water and the fertility of the crops as the river descends from the mountains towards the Khmer heartland of Angkor.

The main site of Kbal Spean, with more reliefs located below the next drop of the river.
Close-up of lingas carved into the rock. Oddly these look less like lingas and more like chedi (stupas).
While there’s been some erosion, it’s surprising how even the most submerged carvings here have remained intact.
A broken lingam…ouch.

While Shiva lingas/yonis dot the river (and this part of the river is appropriately called the “River of 1000 Lingas”), there are also incredibly-detailed reliefs of Vishnu carved on boulders all the way down the Stung Kbal Spean, a tributary of the Siem Reap River.

Reclining Vishnu, hanging with the naga Vasaki while sprouting Brahma in a flower out of his abdomen #coreday.
Another reclining Vishnu – there were at least six of them at Kbal Spean.
This one is either Vishnu or Lakshmi who’s been made androgynous by water erosion. But the gold-leaf paint is still somewhat intact.
This relief is either Shiva’s bull Nandi or the horse Balaha saving sailors from a flood. Reason #999 that all of the world’s predominant religions derive from the same few sources: THEY ALL HAVE A FLOOD STORY.

To actually get to Kbal Spean is no easy feat, as the path upward follows up a dried riverbed full of colossal boulders, gnarled trees, stray dogs, and traction-less sand. Plus, I witnessed a tree approximately an hour away from falling over, so not even the seemingly stable natural elements are stable!

Answering the philosophical question: yes, a falling tree in a forest does make a sound because animals can hear, fool. Also there were a buttload of macques that scrambled away when this one began to lean further.
Still, pilgrims come daily to worship the river and burn incense, and leave their mark by building small Buddhist cairns.
Which not everyone is entirely cool with (Ayutthaya, Thailand). I think the Thais are only interested in displays of “rich people Buddhism” like wats and palaces.

The destination at first seems underwhelming compared to the journey, but the site has been set up so the ascent is tough, the site itself is pretty cool, and the descent is incredibly epic. Vishnu reliefs continue all the way down to a small, picturesque waterfall filled with branches, boulders, and moss, as well as an incredible number of butterflies and even more Hindu carvings, and the atmosphere becomes even more jungly every step of the way.

To the right is a Vishnu relief above cobblestone-like lingas.
Top of the “waterfall”.
The extent of my zoom lens 50m behind a “no entry” sign.
The “waterfall” – in the rainy season you can’t actually get down here.
Isn’t this more of a water-drop?
Arteries and veins of the ecosystem.

But the real treat has nothing to do with Khmer carvings nor the bouldered ascent and descent – it was the view into this old-growth jungle at the very end off a strategically-placed vantage point on the way down.

The photos do the view absolutely no justice.

The jungle here makes everything I’m traipsing through at Angkor Thom look amateurish. It was like staring into a scene from a Planet Earth documentary:

The light was poor but there were gibbons up in the trees.
I’m standing on the edge of a cliff here against a rickety guard-rail.
All of this is the top of the canopy of a river valley, and the forest floor is at least 20m beneath every top of every tree here.

I’d put Kbal Spean up there with Shuiliandong and Jiaohe as my favourite day-trip of the last two-and-a-half months away from home, and definitely my favourite day-trip in Cambodia thus far. No offence to Koh Ker, but Kbal Spean is a notch above.

The only thing that would make Kbal Spean better is if they still allowed swimming. But it was only because I was drenched in sweat. On second thought I should’ve just brought a bigger water bottle.

Tips on traveling to Kbal Spean:

1. Kbal Spean is accessible using the Angkor Pass, so you don’t have to worry about getting another ticket like at Beng Mealea. However, I saw a couple get turned away today because they thought they could buy individual tickets…it’s a long ride so I can only imagine how shitty that must’ve been for them (see below).

2. The trip from Siem Reap to Kbal Spean is approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes, or 58km, from Siem Reap – despite the length of time and distance, it can be done by tuk-tuk. The entire trip should cost you no more than $30. I was initially quoted $29, but because I speak Khmer and use the same driver every day I got it for $25 😀 😀 😀

3. Bring running shoes, a hat, sunscreen, water, and bug repellant – you’re really in the jungle. The amenities at the top of the hill are limited, and the ones at the bottom of the hill are a tourist trap (although you can get a giant bottle of water for $1 but they only had two in their coolers when I went so don’t count on that).

4. It’s a rocky 1500m climb to the top and it gets very hot around 11am – 3pm – don’t attempt Kbal Spean unless you’re in good shape and in good health. 99% of APSARA officials don’t have first aid training and their solution to treating a heart attack is to rub Tiger Balm on your forehead…until you die.

5. Most things at Kbal Spean are off-limits during the non-dry season because of the volume of water coming down over the waterfall. The best time to visit is November – May.

6. My personal recommendation for a day-long itinerary involving Kbal Spean (Day 3 on the 3 Day Pass, or Day 6 on the 7 Day Pass – Day 7 should ALWAYS be used for the Roulos Group…entry forthcoming) is doing the following:

  1. Angkor Wat sunrise.
  2. Kbal Spean around 9am in the morning before it gets hot.
  3. Banteay Srei temple at 11am, 8km south of Kbal Spean, before lunch.
  4. (Optional) Cambodian land mine museum and roadside lunch on the way back.

It’ll have you back in Siem Reap around 12:30-1:30pm, and you can decide whether to take the afternoon off or a) catch a bus down to Kompong Phluk Floating Village for the Tonle Sap Sunset, b) take a tuk-tuk to the Roulos Group, or c) take a car or tuk-tuk to Beng Mealea.

The great thing about Siem Reap being so close to the Khmer Empire’s heartland is that you can never have too little to do unless you really hate temples.

Or trees that look like Liam Neeson yelled, “RELEASE THE KRAKEN!!!”

If you’ve reached your temple quota in Cambodia but still are enjoying the Khmer Empire experience, I would certainly recommend Kbal Spean for something totally different yet more of the same from what you’d see further south at Angkor proper. THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY NO TEMPLES AT KBAL SPEAN, just gorgeous landscapes, intriguing ancient carvings, and some pretty intense ascents and descents. For me, it’s the most unique ancient monument I’ve seen thus far in Cambodia, and I’ll definitely be coming back through a few more times over the next couple of decades.

Maybe in the rainy season, too, when the carvings are completely submerged and the waterfall is actually a waterfall instead of “a really good effort”.

Next Entry: The Lost City of Mahendraparvata on top of Phnom Kulen and some on-site evaluation by my advisor at Angkor Thom on Sunday!

Andrew Harris

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