Scenic mountains are ideal tourist destinations in Cambodia not only for their beautiful natural atmosphere and fresh air at the peaks but also their cultural aspects, associated with religions, animism, history and legends. Phnom Santuk, a hill of 207 metres in elevation, is a perfect example of such attractions. Considered the most sacred site in the second largest province of the Kingdom, it is a lure for all kinds of travellers, from enthusiastic explorers to landscape photographers. Taing Rinith brings you on a journey to the natural and cultural site.
Once upon a time, in the land which would become Cambodia, there was a powerful king, who built his palace in the province of Kampong Thom. With his queen, the King had one son, his rightful heir whom he loved more than his life.
Near the palace, there was a beautiful hill, where the royal family prospered, along with their soldiers and servants. For its abundance of wild fruits, picking them for dessert was the prince’s favourite thing to do.
One fateful day, while the royal families were sightseeing at the peak of the hill, the prince suddenly fell ill. The king and the queen were so distraught, they asked their servants to build a camp at the foot of the mountain for their son to rest. Although they had brought the best physicians and medicine to cure the prince, he did not show any signs of recovery.
The beloved prince eventually passed away, leaving his parents and servants grief-stricken. His body was cremated there and the hill since then has been known as “Phnom Ason Mean Tuk”, translating as “the gloomy mountain”. As time went by, the name was shortened to Phnom Santuk.
“This is the story which my grandmother told me,” says Sarin Broscheat, a 12-year-old ‘tour guide’ on Phnom Santuk, located about 17 km south of Kampong Thom town.
“This is just one of the many stories you can hear about this mountain.”
To get there from the capital of the province, travel on National Highway 6 and turn left at a large sign bearing the name of the resort, where Phnom Santuk can be sighted at a distance. Going on for about 10 minutes on a dirt path, you reach the foot of Phnom Santuk, surrounded by dense tropical forest. Nearby is a large car park and several food stations, in which you can rest after a long journey and order a variety of inexpensive country dishes.
There are two ways to reach the top of the mountain, each of which has its own plus.
For outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy physical activity, try huffing up the 809 stairs featuring a concrete handrail in the shape of small people carrying naga, a mythical creature. Ascending, you will see many curving, especially those of the Buddha, on engraved on natural boulders amidst the sweet fragrance of mountain flowers. Yet, the staircase is also home to hundreds of macaque which are ever ready to steal the snack you are carrying. To protect tourists from the mountain macaque is the job of Broscheat and other young tour guides.
“I simply pretend to shoot them with my slingshot,” Broscheat says. “But, they don’t attack travellers. They simply want to beg for food.”
Many may see the macaques as a part of Mother Nature and their adventure, and thus buy vendor food to feed them (although we do not recommend it). However, if you are not a fan of that concept or prefer saving your energy, simply wimp out and take the paved 2.5km road, sandwiched by dense jungle to the top. On a lucky day, you may have the chance to see wild animals such as roe deer or civet cats.
Either go up the hill by staircase or paved road, and reach a platform, on the right just below the peak known as Chanre. Here, there are huge boulders, from which a panoramic view of the surrounding areas or in the evening, catch a beautiful sunset.
Another interesting feature in this Chanre is a musical experience at Chan Dare, a slit about 5cm wide and 3m long formed by two stone precipices (see pic). For centuries, the traveller who arrives here always drops coins into this small crevice. The coins then make soft, beautiful voices like the singing birds, as they trickle downwards. Next to Chan Dare is the spirit house of Meada, a deity famous for granting the request of those who pray to her for a baby.
The peak of Phnom Santuk hosts a unique ensemble of colourful temples and stupas, with both ancient and new architectural styles. The most remarkable landmark is probably the gigantic statue of the reclining Buddha.
Covering 16 sq metres and built with a red-tile roof, the main temple of the mountaintop pagoda not only features numerous murals but also the Tmor Andet, a 12-kg stone, which ‘miraculously’ floats on the water. While it is likely that Tmor Andet is a piece of pumice, a very light and porous volcanic rock formed “when a gas-rich froth of glassy lava solidifies rapidly”, local folks believe it to be a sacred stone and worship it.
There are many other structures to explore, including a Chinese temple behind the main temple which faces east and houses a Bodhisattva Guan Yin statue. Meanwhile, you can have your fortune told by Buddhist nuns or listen to several old men playing traditional music while savouring the stunning view. We recommend spending at least two hours at the summit.
If you still have time and energy, continue your journey to Phnom Srah Kmao, another mountain next to Phnom Santuk. Its peak is home to an old brick temple and a bat cave, where every day, thousands of bats flit by between 5pm and 6pm.
“Please come to visit Phnom Santuk, where there are many things to see and do,” Broscheat, the tour guide, says. “Coming here also means you are helping poor children like me, and you will not be tired of listening to my stories.