Issue 178, Fall 2006
On a mountaintop in the year 802, the Khmer monarch Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a god and established the kingdom of Cambodia, initiating the dynasties that would—over the next four centuries—create the vast temple complexes of Angkor before abandoning them and vanishing. The mountain was called Phnom Kulen, and a river ran down its side, a river that Jayavarman had diverted for a time so that its bedrock could be chiseled into phallic carvings. When the water was returned, and the carvings submerged, the stream became a sacred bathtub for the king. His courtiers bathed downstream in his runoff, and the commoners swam at the base of the mountain in the spectacular jungle glade beneath a sparkling cascad. Phnom Kulen, from whose sandstone flanks the Angkorian temple stones were quarried, remains one of Cambodia’s most revered pilgrimage sites. Until a few years ago, however, Phnom Kulen was a Khmer Rouge stronghold and the commoners’ pool was just a memory of old folks. Landmines are still strewn around the mountain, but with the civil war over, the waterfall and basin are once again crowded with splashing Cambodians—perhaps the happiest place in a country not known for happiness.