Cambodian theology is characterised by mixture of Buddhism and Animism, the belief that everything has a life, a spirit and a soul. This factor may contribute to the fact that there are so many places all over the Kingdom considered sacred and thus worshipped by its people for generations. Among those is Saang Phnom, a jagged hill situated in the middle of a sparse forest in Kandal. Apart from its religious role, the mountain and its surrounding area is also an attractive spot for people in Phnom Penh to escape from their busy and polluted lives by drawing them into the realm of nature. Story by Taing Rinith.
To reach Saang Phnom commune, located about 30 kilometres from Phnom Penh or 20 kilometres from Takhmao, the capital of Kandal, you have to drive or cycle south-eastward along National Highway 2. When you reach the statue of a golden swan, which stands near the bank of a beautiful river, you have to turn right at a Tela gas station and go on for another 20 minutes.
The serpentine road is difficult, especially during rainy season, but a true adventurer should never complain about that. Besides, you may find the long travel under the hot sun well compromised when you reach Saang Phnom Natural and Cultural Resort and witness what await you there.
Although it is not completely covered by groves of trees, Saang Phnom is still a beautiful mountain, with the existence of the natural boulders as well as the man-made structures, including a stair with a naga railing on each side leading to a small Buddhist temple on the top. The air is always cool and fresh here while during the wet season, the hill resembles a “forest island”.
It will be uncomfortable to continue your exploration after a tiring drive and on an empty stomach. So, take a rest at one of the food stations run by the local folks and enjoy Khmer country cuisine. Their signature dish is the Chha Moan ($7.5), the stir-fried meat of naturally-raised chicken with kaffir lime, lemongrass and sweet-and-sour tamarind, enough for three people. The steamed white rice is provided for free while you do not have to pay anything for the seating.
After a short break, it is time to arouse your inner Indiana Jones. As you take the first few steps of the stair that goes up the mountain, you are guaranteed to detect the fragrance emanated by tropical mountain flowers, a far cry from the car fumes of rush hour in the city.
Halfway, you will reach a shrine which is dedicated to Saang Phnom’s divine spirit. Sim Khan, a 76-year-old caretaker of the resort, is reading peoples’ fortune using a kumpi or sacred book, which “have been here for generations” without naming a price but just accepting any donation.
“You have to put kumpi on your head and insert a long stick into its sheets,” Khan says. “Then I will interpret the text for you.”
“The divine spirit here is so powerful,” Khan adds. “He will grant peoples’ wishes if they come here and pray faithfully.”
As you are approaching the windy top, what greets you is the soothing symphony of chirping birds, cicada and rustling leaves. The sounds, combined with the breath-taking view, will calm your heart and remove stress. For an unforgettable moment, remain on the hill until 5pm to take in the stunning sight of the orange sun sinking into the river.
At the foot of the hill lies a Wat Saang Phnom, an old Buddhist monastery, and facing it is a natural lake with many fish and lotuses. Fishing on the lake is likely to be frowned upon by the monks since it is a sin. Picking a few loti is preferable, more so as an offering to the Buddha statues in the temple, and if you are not a Buddhist, it’s a souvenir to be put in your room.
Whether as an enthusiastic explorer or simply to chill out among nature, Saang Phnom is the sanctuary for you.