Phnom Kulen, "hill lychee", is an isolated sandstone plateau of about 25 km length and 10 km width. There are neighbouring hills to the northwest, altogether the range is 40 km long. The average height of the plateau is about 400 m, the highest point is 487 m above sea level. At the southeastern angle of Phnom Kulen, close to Bang Melea, were the major sandstone quarries for the monuments of Angkor.
Phnom Kulen is a holy mountain for Cambodians, they regard it as the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire, because it is said that in 802 King Jayavarman II declared independence from Java here. This is reported in the important inscription of Sdok Kok Thom dating from the eleventh century, now on display in the National Museum in Bangkok in Thailand. If the term "Java" in that inscription refers to the Indonesian island is under debate. Some historians argue, Java could have been a name for the area of today's southern Laos (Lava) or a Khmer term for Champa in today's central Vietnam. But there is now doubt, that indeed the mighty kings of Java, who called themselves "Chakravartins", intervened in Cambodia in the second half of the 8th century. According to the Sdok Kok Thom inscription King Jayavarman II declared himself "Chakravartin". This is an ancient Indian imperial title for a universal ruler, particularly used in Buddhist cultures outside India, too. The coronation on the mountain called Mahendraparvata, mentioned in that inscription, is considered to be the founding act of a united Khmer empire.
A remarkable sandstone statue depicting the four-armed Vishnu was found in the temple Prasat Krabei Krap on the Kulen mountain plateau. It is in the so-called style of Phnom Kulen (early 9th century). Its tall cylindrical mitra is typical for this Kulen style. The posture is more static than in earlier periods.
There are many ruins of brickstone temples on Phnom Kulen. Most of them are from the first half or middle of the ninth century, some of them with stucco ornamentation. The buildings, which were hidden by thick forest, were excavated by Philippe Stern and Henri Marchal. They are in a style that is considered to be transitional, between pre-Angkorian and early-Angkorian. There are hints of Javanese influence.
However, some Cham examples (in Central Vietnam) have played a more important role. And interestingly, most of the Phnom Kulen temples were not dedicated to Shiva. Instead of Shiva-Phalli, usually Vishnu-statues were found in the temples of Phnom Kulen. This could indicate that their founder was Jayavarman III, successor of Jayavarman II. Jayavaraman III, of whom not much is known, was called Vishnuloka posthumously. This indicates that he was one of the very few Angkorian era Khmer kings who chose Vishnu instead of Shiva as the kingdom's protection deity.
The access road to Phnom Kulen is not passable for Tuktuks, it starts near Banteay Srei and ends at the centre of the main plateau, where the three major attractions are located. Close to the car park is the streambed called "1000 Lingas". (It is not to be confused with the similar "1000 Lingas" of Kbal Spean.) There are more than 1000 small stylized depictions of Lingams (Shiva-phalli) carved into the sandstone of the streambed, 5 cm below the water surface. The underwater carvings represent a fertility cult. Water was the elixier of agricultural life in the plains of Angkor, the Lingams symbolically sanctified the water to the plains.
The Buddhist monastery on Phnom Kulen is called Preah Ang Thom, it is the major pilgrimage site on Phnom Kulen. The object of veneration is an 8 m long reclining Buddha, the largest rock-cut sculpture in Cambodia. It is from the 16th century. The Buddha sculpture is situated on top of the rock bolder, but now sheltered inside a hall.
The main waterfalls of Phnom Kulen are 20 m high. They are within walking distance, but have additional nearer car parks, too.
Those three attractions close to the central car park can be visited on a half-day excursion. Combined with visits of Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean this becomes a full-day excursion.
In case you intend to see the bats cave and the rock-cut elephant statue on Phnom Kulen or some 9th century temples, too, you should must spend a whole day for the tour to the Phnom Kulen National Park and hire a motorbike with a driver. By the way, Phnom Kulen offers amazing off-road experiences.