It’s been almost five months since we left Siem Reap but we cannot stop reminiscing our moments with the Khmer Empire. While our memories of the unforgettable Angkor Wat and the magnificent Angkor Thom still remain fresh, we can’t help but go back to the time we set foot on the North-Western hills of Phnom Kulen to reach Kbal Spean.
Literally translated to ‘Headwater Bridge’, Kbal Spean was carved our during the reign of King Udayadityavarman II, possibly between the 11th and 12th centuries. Dedicated to the Trimurtis: Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, this Bapuon-style group of sculptures is definitely one-of-a-kind.
To reach Kbal Spean, you will need to park your car at the foothill and trek through the forest for about 2 kilometers which is quite a task but definitely worth it! You are technically walking along River Siem Reap and Stung Kbal Spean is one of the tributaries where you would locate these sculptures. It was only in the year 1968, French Ethnologist and Researcher Jean Boulbet was shown the carvings by a local hermit. The area was however restricted till 1989 owing to the Cambodian Civil War.
The books will always advice you to go right up to the natural bridge and walk from above to below. However, we’re going to take you downstream first and then upstream (what’s the point if you always go by the rules, eh? :))
Please note: you got be careful to not slip and fall because you can get a little overwhelmed with the number of things that you can see around you. There might be carvings in the most unassuming places and you obviously don’t want to miss a thing.
You will be directed to climb alongside a small waterfall which is a natural result of the flowing river.
As you approach the stream (which marks the end of your tedious trek for a while), look a little above your eye-level on the rocks and you will be able to locate a lizard-like/ crocodile-like carving. Right below, on the opposite side is a frog carving on the ground. Ensure you don’t miss the frog; it camouflages with its surroundings. From what we have read, the meaning of the croc is that it might be the remains of a bas-relief that depicted Shiva Bikhshatanamurti, but this still not proven.
As you walk closer to the stream is when you will notice small cylindrical structures that start emerging in the water – this, we tell you, is when held our breath for a good two minutes. True to its name, the River of a Thousand Lingas began to emerge right in front of our eyes. As you move closer to the stream and look to the other side, there are a few humble carvings that you cannot miss. This bas-relief has Lord Shiva and Goddess Uma on Nandi.
At the center of this rectangular pool is a quincunx pattern where five lingas are grouped together. This represents Mount Meru and the Angkor Wat Temple towers therefore. The group is enclosed within a square that has a channel on one side – this represents yoni, or female principle.
As you pass by a few 100 lingas, you will land up next to a group of rocks that look like they have carvings. As you go closer, you will notice that these are none other than the first sighting of a reclining Vishnu. The surprise doesn’t end there. Right beside this, you can see Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Brahma residing beside Lord Vishnu. Your eyes will automatically take you in the opposite direction where there is yet another reclining Vishnu with a different facial structure. We would suggest that you spend a few extra minutes here so that you allow your brain to comprehend what you are seeing. Bhargav and I spent a good 20 minutes trying to figure out the carvings.
Soon enough, we assumed that this was it and started walking towards a waterfall-like sound. A couple of minutes later, we noticed the pristine water flowing downwards and as we got closer is when we realized that this was a big prize waiting for us. This is why you should save the best for the last. The reliefs that you can see upstream in Kbal Spean are definitely a sight to behold.
As we got closer, the lingas re-appeared, carved so impeccably on the rocks. Right above that was a relief that had a couple of reclining Vishnus with Goddess Lakshmis at their feet along with Lord Brahmas residing on the Lotuses. It appears to be that Lord Vishnu is holding on to the stalk of the Lotus. Beside this is yet again Lord Shiva and Goddess Uma on Nandi. As the relief ends, we noticed a figure praying to-we are assuming- Lord Shiva who is depicted as an ascetic. This part unfortunately has been vandalized.
Similarly on the opposite side, we noticed that there was yet another reclining Vishnu with Goddess Lakshmi by his feet and Lord Brahma residing on his lotus. At the feet of Lord Vishnu was yet another stand-alone carving of Lord Brahma beside this. On the other side is what we think is the representation of Mount Meru, which has three towers standing tall.
As we walked towards the natural bridge on the same side, we noticed yet another massive carving of Lord Brahma. It was amazing to see how the water had done very little to affect the features of the carving.
We then walked to to the other side of the stream, towards the natural bridge. Don’t forget to look in the stream – you will find a few hundred more lingas and a BIG quincunx pattern in the water right at the center.
As you walk back is when you can find another reclining Vishnu (much smaller than the others) tucked in with a few more linga carvings.
Kbal Spean is by far our second favorite in Siem Reap (after Prasat Kravan of course). Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are a different league, given the sheer size and scale. And we are so glad we saved the best for the last.
Do not miss out on this Mt. Kulen wonder – this is definitely one of the must-see sites in Siem Reap!