Exploring the Lost City of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen or the ‘mountain of the lychees’ in northern Cambodia has so far been one of the highlights of our time here as travellers in Cambodia as well as a writer and photographer fortunate to be able to report on groundbreaking new archaeological discoveries.

We’ve been fielding more questions than usual about exploring the lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen or Phnom Kulen or in northern Cambodia ever since its mention under Siem Reap (#47) on the New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2014 list, having been the first media after the Sydney Morning Herald to cover the exciting new archaeological discoveries resulting from the groundbreaking Lidar survey.

We’ve been getting asked for directions to the “majestic temples” on Phnom Kulen that the New York Times describes. However, there are none. Aside from the splendid elephant statues above and some dilapidated brick towers, the vast archaeological sites on the mountain, 55kms or a 90-minute drive from Siem Reap, are buried beneath the jungle floor and the towers that can be seen are few and are in a ruinous state.

If you are expecting another Angkor Wat, Bayon or Beng Mealea you will be extremely disappointed. That’s why we don’t recommend that after seeing Angkor Wat you make a beeline for Phnom Kulen if you’re keen to see more of the same. In my Angkor Wat and Around in Three Days itinerary on The Guardian I suggest a drive to Phnom Kulen on the third or fourth day, after you’ve seen the star attractions, such as Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, and Ta Prohm, and you’re not yet templed-out.

A trip focused on exploring the lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen (which was never really lost, but read on) and a smattering of its atmospheric sights, and countless archaeological ruins, is as much about the journey of getting there as the experience of seeing the sites themselves.

There’s a real sense that you’re on an adventure of discovery as you bounce along the plateau on the backs of motorbikes, seeking out hidden archaeological sites buried deep within jungle forest, seemingly ‘secret’ mountaintop villages that suddenly pop out of nowhere, and isolated pagodas, monasteries and secluded shrines. Here’s the story of our first visit to the remote plateau.

Exploring the Lost City of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen

The silhouette of an enormous, squat, snake-like figure that seemed to be slithering along the surface of the earth suddenly appeared to emerge from the rice fields. Was I seeing things in the dark? I rubbed my bleary eyes, for I’d not long been awake.

It was pitch black when our Cambodian guide Raftanak arrived at 5am in an air-conditioned four-wheel-drive vehicle to collect Terence and I from our hotel overlooking the river in Siem Reap, the city that’s a popular base for exploring the magnificent UNESCO World Heritage-listed Angkor Wat and other spectacular archaeological sites in the area.

The night before I’d fallen asleep with a book on pre-Angkorian history that told the legend of Kaundinya, a Brahman prince from a solar dynasty of Indian origin, who had arrived in the area and threw his javelin to identify the site of his future capital. That decision made, he married a snake-woman called Soma (moon), the daughter of the naga or cobra king, thereby uniting the solar and lunar dynasties. So maybe I was dreaming.

Thirty minutes later, as the sun began its rise from behind the mountain, its light piercing the low-lying clouds above, a strange phenomenon had me rubbing my eyes once more.

Enormous pink, peach, apricot, and gold puffs of cloud rose in a formation resembling smoke signals from old Hollywood cowboy and Indian movies, then disappeared as quickly as they had came.

The sun illuminated the sky and the countryside between the road and mountain range, revealing clusters of coconut palms and ramshackle wooden huts on spindly stilts reflected in the still waters of the sodden rice paddies.

“Is that Phnom Kulen?” I asked Raftanak, pointing to the python-like plateau. ‘Phnom’ means ‘mountain’ in Khmer.

“Yes, that’s Phnom Kulen — Mountain of the Lychees!” he confirmed, his white teeth glowing in the dimly lit interior of the car, as he turned to face us in the backseat.

“It’s our holy mountain,” he announced proudly, “Our ancestors called it Mahendraparvata, Mountain of Indra, King of the Gods.”

Indra was also the Hindu king of men, the god of the sky and rain and prosperity, who was frequently seen with his steed, the elephant Airavata, often depicted with three heads. Yet it was the gods Shiva and Vishnu who were more important to indigenous Khmers, who adopted the Indian deities easily to worship alongside their own.

Shiva, to whom many temples were dedicated, was supreme protector of the empire, responsible for the kingdom, while Vishnu was protected universal order and harmony. Shiva was identified by his three eyes, representing the sun, moon and fire, the trident in his hand, and the ox that carried him.

Vishnu carried a wheel-like chakra, club, conch, and a ball representing the earth, and rode a half-eagle half-man garuda.  The Khmers worshipped Shiva in the form of a linga, a stone phallus that represented the essence of the god that was mounted on a pedestal representing a yoni, a woman’s organ, and it was the focus of ceremonies conducted by Brahman priests.

Our journey today was with the aim of exploring the lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen to see what we could find of what was left of that early Khmer capital. For it was on the Mountain of the Lychees that the Khmer Empire was founded in AD 802, when a Brahmin priest performed a ritual that made Jayavarman II ‘universal monarch’ of what would become one of Asia’s most powerful empires.

The young prince Jayavarman II had initially established his capital at Hariharalaya, now known as Roluos, not far from what is now Siem Reap, before moving it some 30km or so northeast to Phnom Kulen, and then some years later moving it back down to the shores of the Great Lake, where he ruled until his death in 835.

Until recently, archaeologists working on the mountain had long suspected the ruins scattered across the plateau of isolated vine-covered towers, massive moss-covered statues of elephants and lions, and sprawling carvings of lingas lying on the bottom of the streams, among other sites, suggested that Phnom Kulen was the location of Mahendraparvata.

Inscriptions on porticoes and stelae found at archaeological sites across the Khmer Empire, many now on display in the Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, also supported this. But according to our guide, Kulen’s locals residing in the nine villages that dot the plateau had always known this was the case — the people of Mahendraparvata had been their ancestors, after all.

However, it wasn’t until July 2012 when Australian archaeologists Dr Damian Evans and Dr Roland Fletcher of Sydney University watched the results of a hi-tech airborne survey that Evans had spearheaded unfurl before their eyes, that there was finally confirmation of what they’d long suspected, that Mahendraparvata was buried beneath the heavy vegetation that blanketed Phnom Kulen.

Not only that, but the data on their computer screen in the form of precise digital models revealed that Mahendraparvata was far larger than anyone could ever have imagined — as was Angkor Wat.

Collected by a laser instrument known as LiDAR that had been strapped to a helicopter that criss-crossed 370 square kilometers of Khmer Empire archaeological sites, the data confirmed what Fletcher and other archaeologists had surmised some years before.

Angkor was one monumental, highly engineered urban landscape, one without parallel in the pre-industrial world, and Phnom Kulen, along with Koh Ker, another remote ruinous city that had been included in the survey, were probably later incorporated into the conurbation as service cities.

Phnom Kulen after all was resource-rich, the source of the spring water that flowed down the mountain into the Siem Reap River and along streams and canals to the massive barays and smaller ponds built to store water for the colossal city.

The mountain was also home to the quarries that provided the stone that built stupendous Angkor Wat and other temple cities, and skilled artisans and craftsmen who carved the elaborately decorated stonework and exquisite statues.

It wasn’t until June 2013, when a peer-review process was completed of the report on the findings, authored by Evans, Fletcher and others from a consortium of archaeological groups — including Cambodia’s APSARA authority, which manages Angkor — that the news was publicly released.

Terence and I had returned to Siem Reap at the time and had already revisited Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and other temples, including the Roluos group, but we hadn’t been to Phnom Kulen and were eager to experience the mysterious Mahendraparvata about which so little was known.

Half an hour after the sun rose — the 32-kilometre long plateau teasing us each time it came into view on the way there, reeling us in closer with its history, myths, legends, and its recent news — we reached the base of the 492-metre high mountain. It was another hour of measured driving over a rough road, cracked and pot-holed from monsoon rains, to the River of A Thousand Lingas.

There we met APSARA Authority archaeologist, Mr Hak, who was responsible for maintaining the Phnom Kulen sites, and we hopped on behind local guides on motorbikes who Raftanak organised to take us on a daylong bone-rattling ride to see some dozen sights. The additional guides were needed because much of Phnom Kulen, once a Khmer Rouge stronghold, was still riddled with landmines.

While few foreign tourists explore the plateau of Phnom Kulen — Raftanak and his moto guys do the trip on average twice a month — the River of A Thousand Lingas, its waterfalls, and the nearby massive 16th-century reclining gold Buddha carved out of solid rock at Preah Ang Thom is a popular destination.

Buddhist pilgrims, picnicking families and groups of friends, along with expats, come here looking for respite from Siem Reap’s sticky heat. Other than that, only the occasional hikers, dirt-bike enthusiasts and bird-watchers visit.

We went to Phnom Kulen to see the sites few people see, so after photographing the carved lingas that lay beneath the water as best as we could, we were on our way, bouncing along rough tracks, volcanic rocks and muddy courses. We crossed dilapidated wooden bridges and whizzed through rapidly flowing streams.

We climbed slippery clay hillsides and hiked narrow trails lined with towering trees. We puttered along routes through thick forest only our guides could identify, and when none existed they carved out one with a scythe. That was our routine for the day, each arduous journey ending with a reward.

We gazed in awe at gigantic stone elephants and lions resting in the dappled light at Srah Damrei (Elephant Pond) and a massive moss-covered elephant at Damrei Krap (Kneeling Elephant). Time and again, we wearily alighted from the bikes in a shaded clearing only to be startled to life by the appearance of a solitary temple or trio of towers hidden beneath foliage.

There were the tumbledown brick temples of O’Thma, Prasat Neak Ta and Prasat Chrei, surrounded by long grass and grown over with shrubs, some decorated, others bare, their riches having been stolen long ago. At the latter we felt like Indiana Jones when we discovered a lintel, adorned with lotus flowers, abandoned to the undergrowth.

The most impressive site was the lone tangerine-coloured temple tower of Prasat O’Paong, tufts of long grass sprouting between its bricks. Also enchanting were the carvings of Shiva, Vishnu and a row of rishis (wise men) on immense lichen-covered boulders at Poeng Tbal, where we got caught in torrential rain. 

But the most special experience was not the most impressive visually.

After scrambling over the tumbledown remains of the laterite three-tiered pyramid temple of Prasat Rong Chen, we arrived at the top at the very pedestal that had held the linga that marked the place where the Brahman priest performed the rite that made Jayavarman II absolute monarch.

The photos I took aren’t much to look at. There were no majestic temple, no ornate gates, no intricate carvings. But it was enough to know that this was the birthplace of the Khmer Empire.

When to go to Mount Kulen

The best time for exploring the lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen is December to February when the skies are clear, weather cool, and humidity and rainfall are at their lowest. While very few people visit Mount Kulen, unfortunately the crowds at Angkor Wat are at their peak at this time. March to May is also good, but this is when it’s hot and the heat builds up until monsoon starts. There are occasional showers and sometimes the humidity can be oppressive in May.

Once monsoon starts in June, short showers are welcomed although downpours can inhibit your temple scrambling as the stones get slippery. June to November is monsoon season when there’s every chance of heavy rain and localised flooding, especially up at Mount Kulen. Things can get very wet and muddy in September and many tracks may become impassable. You can read more about the monsoon season in Cambodia here.

How to get to Mount Kulen

If you are serious about exploring the lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen, you should plan at minimum a long day trip from Siem Reap. We recommend leaving in the darkness so the sun is rising as you get there for the best light.

We travelled with Backyard Travel a couple of times on something of a bespoke adventure that we developed with the company, guided by the temples we had wanted to see on our first trip, and by local archaeologist Hak on the second.

Backyard Travel can do a bespoke one-day ‘Kulen Discovery Tour’, which covers what we think is the best of what we saw over a few trips. It includes return transfers from Siem Reap to Phnom Kulen, entry tickets, motorbike hire, guides and lunch for US$160/UK£90 per person, based on two travelling together. Backyard Travel can also organise longer trips covering all the sites we visited, or shorter tours only covering the more popular sights. These trips can also take in some of the more off-the-beaten-track temples.

This is the only tour company we have used for exploring the lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen so it’s the only one we can recommend until we try out others. If you’ve been to Mount Kulen with a guide or tour company you loved, please let us know in the Comments below and we’ll test them out.

If you decide to go it alone you can hire your own moto drivers when you get there. They’re lovely and eager to show you around but be warned: they speak little English so you’ll need to be very good at miming if you can’t speak Khmer. You’ll get more out of the experience with a guide.

However you go, note that you shouldn’t simply wander off on your own and start slashing your way through the jungles, as parts of the Phnom Kulen plateau are still riddled with landmines. If you do a hike, stick to the well-worn paths.

What to read about Mount Kulen

There is little information about exploring the lost city of Mahendraparvata at Mount Kulen in travel guidebooks but you can get some background on the Angkor period by reading Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques’ Ancient Angkor; Michael Coe’s Angkor and the Khmer Civilization; and David Chandler’s History of Cambodia

For more on the LiDAR survey and its results see our other stories in The Guardian, CNN Travel, and National Geographic Traveller (UK), based on interviews with Dr Damian Evans, Roland Fletcher and other archaeologists working around Angkor, and our trips to see their fieldwork.

You might also find the following useful: our guide to experiencing Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples, an archaeologist’s guide to Angkor Archaeological Park (an interview with archaeologist Dr Damian Evans) and how to get the most out of the Angkor Archaeological Sites (part two of that interview).

If you enjoy exploring Phnom Kulen, do try to see more of Cambodia’s lesser visited temple sites, such as Banteay Chhmar and Sambor Prei Kuk. Your efforts will be rewarded.

A shorter version of the story above appeared in Wanderlust magazine in October 2013.

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