Kbal Spean is not as breathtaking as other ancient Khmer heritage sites, but is evocative and charming. It can not at all be called a landmark, but it is one of those attractions that are unique to Cambodia, a place of magic beyond imagination. Surprisingly, Kbal Spean was found and explored not before 1969.
The modern Khmer name "Kbal Spean" is pronounced "Gbal Speern". "Kbal" means head, "spean" means bridge. It is the name of a rock boulder lying across a river bed and tunneled by the water of the stream, becoming a natural bridge. There is a picturesque little waterfall only 120 metres downstream. It is this section of the river below the "head bridge" plus 30 metres more upstream you have to study in detail, in order to to discover the extraordinary.
There are other and more famous names for Kbal Spean: a suitable Sanskrit name is "Sahasralinga", meaning "1000 erected penises". Kbal Spean therefore is also called the "Valley of 1000 Lingas" or "River of 1000 Lingas". Don't be confused, there is another 1000 Lingas site, quite similar to Kbal Spean, on top of the Kulen mountain. But Kbal Spean is the riverbed with even more artistic details than "only" numerous stone phalli.
What makes the "1000 Lingas" exceptional is that they are underwater carvings. The Lingams are at the bottom of the river bed, a few centimetres below the water level. Works of art under flowing water, that is the hallmark of Kbal Spean, one more incomparable appeal of Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonder.
The Lingams were carved in the eleventh century, some of them date back even to the 9th century. The Lingams are of different sizes, most of them about 25 centimetres square and 5-10 centimetres deep. They are arranged in grid patterns. The most intriguing underwater carvings are Lingams forming in a kind of Mandala, with one in the centre and 4 or 8 more in the cardinal directions and surrounded by a square frame with an outlet, constituting the Yoni, a stylized vagina. The Lingas sanctify the water and symbolically "fertilize" the plains of Angkor, with holy water flowing to its soil giving the power to grow rice.
Apart from the Lingam bas reliefs on the river bed, there are more carvings along the banks of the river. The sculptures cut from the sandstone banks depict scenes from the Hindu mythology. Depending on seasonal water levels they are partly under water or picturesquely sprayed by small rapids.
The common subject of the largest rock carvings is the creation of the world by the reclining Vishnu. The lotus flower emerging from Vishnu’s back (in Khmer art not from the navel) bears god Brahma, the divine craftsman who creates the fittings of the world. Vishnu is sleeping on serpent Ananta on the ocean. This creation myth symbolizes both, water as the base of the world and the necessity of undisturbed rule to transform the chaos of the sea into an orderly world. Besides the Churning of the Milk Ocean, another symbol for fertility, this creation myth is the most common theme of Vishnu mythology in Khmer art.
Other rock-cut sculptures depict Brahma and Shiva with Uma on Nandi, and a crocodile of unknown symbolism, it belonged to a sculpture of Shiva as an ascetic hermit, which is rare in Khmer art, but this sculpture was looted.
According to an inscription of Kbal Spean the site was established by king Suryavarman I in the first half of the eleventh century, but most epigraphical records found along the river bed mention his successor Udayadityavarman II. The inscriptions also mention that King Udayadityavarman II consecrated a golden Lingam here in 1059. Usually the underwater Lingams are ascribed to Suryavarman I and the figural sculptures to Udayadityavarman II.
This remote area was inhabited by hermits, who were the initiators or even sculptors of the Kbal Spean rock carvings. Kbal Spean continued to be a holy place in the twelfth and thirteenth century.
The stream of Kbal Spean is one of tributaries of the Siem Reap river. There is a marked trail from the car park to the "head bridge", about 2 km long. It is a nice hike in a tropical forest. Those who prefer not to walk can not reach Kbal Spean. They could prefer to see the 1000 Lingas on the top of Phnom Kulen close to a car park. Kbal Spean is located about 10 km north of Banteay Srei.
The Angkor ticket is valid and mandatory for a visit of Kbal Spean.