Near the city of Kampong Thom, almost exactly in Cambodia’s center, stands one of the country’s most sacred mountains. Phnom Santuk, as it’s known, has long been a pilgrimage spot for locals, but remains well off the radar for most foreign visitors. The mountain, though, has something to offer both nature lovers as well as those looking for something a little offbeat and quirky. At the top you’ll find a colorful array of rock carvings, shrines, strange concrete sculptures, a large population of monkeys and a smaller community of monks.
Phnom Santuk’s roots as a holy site aren’t entirely clear. Visiting the mountain today, some of the carvings are said to go back as far as the pre-Angkorian era. Most of the structures and artwork, though, date back to at least the 15th century onwards – well past the Khmer Empire’s peak. But to my untrained eye, most of what I saw on top of the mountain seemed to have been made even much more recently, sometime within the last 100 years. You shouldn’t go expecting to see anything nearly as refined as the Angkorian ruins. Nevertheless, the eye-catching art and the mountaintop views combine to make Phnom Santuk a fun visit.
To get up the mountain, you’ll have to walk up 809 steps. No matter how fit you are, it’s not the easiest climb in the sweltering Cambodian heat. Be sure to bring some water in advance, and expect to take more than one break. There is, at least, plenty to look at on the way.
All the way up to the top are countless figures on either side of the path holding up a long naga serpent. If you’ve already visited Angkor Thom, you’ll notice the clear similarities between this and the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk‘ scene represented outside the city gates. But instead of devas and asuras on each side, they’re people, with women to the left and men to the right.
As you walk up the steep, winding path, you’ll notice how the local artists had to get a little creative to fully implement their idea. When a boulder blocks the way, the naga serpent slithers right over it. In other parts, though, the humans are inexplicably missing, letting the serpent drop to the ground before another group appears to lift it up.
Exploring the Top
Once at the top, you’ll find a peaceful Buddhist monastery where a number of monks live full time. After putting up with the crowds of the Angkor Archaeological Park, one of the nice things about Phnom Santuk is how few people there are. I only saw a couple of other foreign tourists on their way down as I made my way up. Aside from a handful of local visitors, it was just the monks, the monkeys and myself. Some other visitors have complained about beggars, though I only encountered one at the bottom.
The main wooden temple was built in a cruciform shape, while nearby structures take clear inspiration from the ancient prasat towers of centuries past. The main highlight of Phnom Santuk, however, is not its buildings, but its carvings. Around the site, there are no less than five long reclining Buddha images carved out of the rock wall.
While some have been carved more recently, others are said to have been here for hundreds of years. Admittedly, I had a hard time discerning which was which.
It’s immediately obvious that the quality of structures and artwork on top of Phnom Santuk are merely poor imitations of the ancient Khmer masterpieces. Many of the statues, for example, are already falling apart. At some point, the lineage of artists and architects that carved stone at Angkor (and pre-Angkor) for hundreds of years became broken. Sadly, it seems as if the artists of today merely copy the styles of old through guesswork, and not through intimate knowledge of the process.
Nevertheless, that’s also part of Phnom Santuk’s charm. Throughout my time in Asia, I’ve learned to appreciate these somewhat kitschy attractions which seem to be a cross between a spiritual site and a theme park. The Buddha Park of Vientiane, Laos is another such example. As long as you’re not expecting anything on par with the ancient Khmer temples, you should be able to appreciate Phnom Santuk for what it is.
Walking around the area, there are numerous little caves to peak your head into. And every time, you’re likely to find a small shrine of some sort. Just when I thought I’d seen everything, I’d keep coming across something new. While most of the shrines are undoubtedly Buddhist, a number of local animist deities and even historical figures seem to be revered here as well.
One legend of the mountain’s origin tells of a prince and his mother mistakenly exiled by the king. Another prince, intending to usurp the throne, bribed an astrologer to tell the king that his young son was fated to kill him. The young prince and his mother were then sent to drift on a raft down the river. When his mother prayed to the spirits for safety, an island magically appeared. Much later, after the water eventually dried up, this island would become Phnom Santuk. Before that, though, the young prince was able to return the capital, kill the usurper and take back the throne for his father.
Supposedly, this hero prince is represented somewhere on the mountaintop, though it’s not entirely clear where.
As mentioned above, for better or for worse, Phnom Santuk is also known for its monkeys. The monks seem to feed them at regular hours every day, and before I knew it, I found myself surrounded by a group of them. As they chowed down on some mangoes, I looked around for a mango stand for the human guests, but no such amenities existed. I usually have no issues with monkeys, but for whatever reason, the alpha male of the group lunged at me as I was sitting on a bench. Thankfully, I managed to stand up just in time.
The local monks are friendly and some of them even speak English. During my visit, a few of the resident monks were showing some others from another town one of the natural peculiarities of Phnom Santuk. A massive rock sits on top of another, with only a small part of its bottom surface touching the rock below. Somehow, the huge top rock is able to defy gravity and maintain its balance. And if enough people get together, it can even be tilted back and forth.
The monks had fun cooperatively tilting the rock, and I was even invited to join in myself. Apparently, the rocks are also holy, as a little shrine has been placed out in front. I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn of an ancient legend describing its origin!
Before calling it a day, I walked around to see if there was still anything I’d missed. Sure enough, there was. There was a shrine built for what appeared to be an old general. One miniature temple was filled with vivid and colorful, yet mostly faded murals. There were even some type of fertility shrines in the shape of breasts and a hole where people could throw in their money. Apparently, coins are supposed to create a special chime when thrown in, but I didn’t have any. After all, Cambodia doesn’t even use coins anymore.
But no matter how hard I looked, there was still one thing that I couldn’t quite find: a clear view of the surroundings.
As a mountain-top complex, one would think that a major highlight would be the views. I walked all over the top area, looking for an unobstructed view of the distant scenery, but it all seemed to be blocked by trees. I’d actually given up and started to make my way down, when I noticed the viewing spot on a slightly lower level.
Before leaving, walk down the staircase partially until you have the chance to walk off the path and over to the side. And from the top of the boulders you’ll get an excellent view of the forest and rice paddies beyond.
You can also say for sunset, which would mean you’d have to walk down the hundreds of steps in the darkness. By the time I was finished seeing everything, it was still an hour or two until sunset anyway, so I opted to make the descent and return to town.
All in all, Phnom Santuk makes for a nice little stopover for those staying in or around Kampong Thom. It’s certainly not worth coming all the way from another part of the country to see, though. But if you’re in town to see ruins like Sambor Prei Kuk and Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, you should definitely consider adding Phnom Santuk to your itinerary. At only around 17 kilometers from the city, hiring a tuk-tuk or motorbike driver should be well within reason.
As amazing as the Angkor Archaeological Park is, Cambodia as a whole contains several other significant temple ruins that are absolutely worth the visit.
These include Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Beng Mealea and Banteay Chmar.
The problem is, though, that these temples are far from easy or cheap to get to. Furthermore, some of them are just a little too far for a single day trip from Siem Reap. And while you may be able to find a private bus or shared minivan from Siem Reap to the town closest to a particular temple, you’ll then have to negotiate with local taxi drivers each time.
To save yourself time, money and uncertainty, I’d highly recommend you hire a private driver from Siem Reap to take you on a 3 day, 2 night temple tour.
The itinerary goes something like this: Depart from Siem Reap in the morning and begin at Sambor Prei Kuk. If time allows, also stop at the nearby Phnom Santuk, which is not a Khmer ruin but still worth a visit.
Spend the night in the city of Kampong Thom. Depart early the next morning to visit Preah Khan of Kampong Svay (not to be confused with Angkor’s Preah Khan) and its outlying temples. Head north, and if time allows, visit Preah Vihear before it closes in the evening. Then spend the night in the town of Sra’aem.
Next morning, head to Koh Ker (or Preah Vihear first if you couldn’t make it the previous first day). Finally, on your way back, stop at Beng Mealea.
You should be able to arrange a driver, with the help of your hotel, for the above route for around $300 USD. It sounds expensive, and it is, but it’s actually cheaper and much more viable than visiting all these temples separately from Siem Reap. None of the temples listed above are directly accessible via public transport, and group tours from the city don’t go to there, except for maybe Beng Mealea.
A hotel in these towns should cost $10-15, while the temples themselves cost around $5-10 each.
Because of its location, you wouldn’t be able to include Banteay Chmar on this three-day trip. You’d have to make that a separate excursion, but luckily it’s fairly easy and cheap to reach with public and private transport.
You can check this web site for more in depth articles on each of the temples listed above.
I stayed at a hotel right in the center of the city called Arunras. It cost $15 per night and I was easily able to just walk in and book a room after my driver dropped me off. There are a couple of restaurants on the first floor that are open for breakfast and dinner, while there are also food vendors on the street outside.
Unfortunately, I had to switch rooms due to seeing some bed bug-like creatures! At least the staff accommodated me and I had no problems with the second room.
The location of Arunras can’t be beat, but you may want to do further research on accommodation, especially if you’re staying for more than one night.