The River of a Thousand Lingas in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Dry season River of a Thousand Lingas Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

The River of a Thousand Lingas in Siem Reap, Cambodia, provides a hands-on (and feet-in) look at Hindu mythological and religious carvings in in Kbal Spean River. This river is very important spiritually, historically, and culturally (in terms of agriculture) because it flows down to Angkor Wat and into the Siem Reap River, which in turn flows into Tonle Sap, the largest lake in Cambodia. It is the spiritual and historic ties the River of a Thousand Lingas has to Khmer culture that make it an especially interesting part of travel in Cambodia.

Kensington Tours private guided tour Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

Now, the majority of travelers to Siem Reap stay near Angkor Wat, visit Angkor Wat for a couple of days, and then relax by their Angkor Wat-adjacent hotel’s pool and pack up and leave. But Siem Reap is more than Angkor Wat. Traveling to Cambodia is no mean feat for Westerners; now that we’ve taken the long, multi-flight trip to get to this country, it’s a great idea to experience more of the country than its most renown tourist attraction. After all, we can laze by a pool almost anywhere. How often do we get the chance to immerse ourselves in the living history and culture of Cambodia, where Hinduism and Buddhism meet and intertwine? Kbal Spean, also known as the River of a Thousand Lingas, is northeast of Angkor Wat. It’s a half-day trip to get there, hike to the bridge head, and experience Cambodian history in an uncrowded, untouristy environment.

Cambodian jungle Siem Reap (Jennifer Miner)

The hike takes approximately an hour to get to the top, and we have to watch out for thick, twisting roots that often drape the rock-and-dirt pathway through the jungle. It feels very remote; Kbal Spean certainly is a far cry from the camera-happy crowds of Angkor Wat. As we make our way up the tricky mountain we see only four other groups of people, and this adds to a sense of adventure and discovery. Wide, flat boulders jut out in irregular patterns, and as we climb over them it is easy to imagine monks, so long ago, doing so without the aid of bug spray, rugged water shoes, and sunblock hats.  All along, we could hear the quiet whisper of the tropical jungle. This is an ancient, ancient part of the world, with nature taking over any attempts to tame her. How insightful of the monks, to integrate their mythological symbols into this river, rather than to try to change its path. Nature is paramount here, and more significant alterations would have been foolhardy.

Jungle hike Siem Reap Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

We hike up to the River of a Thousand Lingas (Kbal Spean River) in the heat of the summer; the thick Cambodian jungle may provide some shade from the sun, but it sure doesn’t do the humidity level any favors. While we sweat our way up the mountain, we notice that our Kensington Tours private tour guide barely breaks a sweat — and he is wearing a long sleeved button-down shirt! We listen carefully (and gratefully, as he also provides water bottles) as he describes the historic and cultural significance of what we will see at the peak of Kbal Spean River’s Kulein mountains.

Ancient Hindu carvings in Kbal Spean Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

The Cambodian mountain range is no more hot and humid now than it was in the tenth century: back then, monks carried heavy carving tools up these hills to carve the thousand lingas and other bas relief images of Hindu gods and goddesses. Where are most of these rocks carved? Right on the large flat boulders that the water flows over! Lingas are phallic symbols, basically, and the flow of the river over them sanctifies the water. This water, thus sanctified, continues down the Kbal Spean River through Angkor Wat and eventually becomes a tributary feeding into Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia’s biggest lake.

River of the Thousand Lingas, Siem Reap Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

The monks’ task of carving these Hindu gods and symbols here was very important, in that the carvings served to sanctify so much of Cambodia’s water supply (and nearly all of Siem Reap’s). Imagine the effort it took to lug their carving equipment up and down the Kulein Hills. I’m certain that those monks were as uncomplaining and serene as our Kensington Tours guide. As we make our way along the sometimes treacherous, grown-over path, we know that we’re the ones who are out of place: surely, people climbing to the River of a Thousand Lingas ought be wearing handmade sandals and flowing saffron robes. We are visitors here and fall into a respectful quiet that matches that of the jungle.

The Thousand Lingas dry season Kbal Spean Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

Besides the thousand lingas, we see carvings of Shiva, Brahma, Lakshmi, Vishnu and Rama. There are hidden carvings, and our guide carefully parts vines to show ancient works that had, for centuries, rested undisturbed as they kept watch over the flowing river. The River of a Thousand Lingas is an astonishing, rich and detailed area, so deep in the jungle that it feels like a discovery to finally reach the area after the long ascent. Cooling off in the waterfall is its own reward, as is the joyous splashing around in the river.

Family travel Experience in Siem Reap, Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

The hike back down can be muddy, and we visitors will end up dirty and sweaty when we rejoin civilization at the bottom. That’s perfectly okay with us, even our teenage daughters. After all, we are so lucky. We were able to experience Kbal Spean, feel its significance for Khmer culture, and touch the waters made holy by those monks so long ago. Muddy legs and dirty faces are nothing compared to the deeper, richer understanding of Cambodian history that we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives.

Kensington Tours guide pointing out carving of bug in Kbal Spean Cambodia (Jennifer Miner)

Kensington Tours provided private guided tours of Cambodia for my family during our Southeast Asia vacation.


31 Comments on "The River of a Thousand Lingas in Siem Reap, Cambodia"

  1. wandering educators | November 10, 2014 at 8:38 am | Reply

    Incredible! You find the best places to explore.

  2. Looks incredible! I can’t wait to see more of Asia, particularly Cambodia.

  3. The stone carvings are extraordinary. Sounds like skipping pool-time should be mandatory.

  4. Fascinating. I enjoy popular tourist attractions, but I love exploring less-known places like this as well. I agree that it would be a shame to miss this on a trip to Cambodia.

  5. This looks so cool! What an adventure.

  6. This is really fascinating! I agree with you, why go all that way and not really go all the way!

  7. Cambodia! Wow, it looks as if you all have an enlightening and non-touristy experience. Great that you found a tour company that takes people off the popular paths.

  8. I love the carvings! Can you go there on your own or do you have to join a tour group because its not easily accessible?

    • Good question! DJ, you can go on your own, but it’s easy to get lost. At a certain point you can hear and follow the sound of the waterfall, but that isn’t until you’re around 4/5 there.

  9. This is majorly cool! Thanks for sharing. Love the word “linga” 🙂

  10. Cambodia looks and sounds amazing!

  11. Truly amazing. Putting this on my list.

  12. The Kbal Spean River looks like an amazing convergence of the spiritual and cultural worlds. Thanks for sharing this special uncrowded destination. It is exactly the type of place we like to explore on our travels.

  13. What a cool experience. Yep, most people just go to Angkor Wat and duck out. We won’t make that mistake when we go (hopefully sooner rather than later).

  14. this article contains a lots for the infant professionals. knowledgeable and full of informations. i got somthing new to step forward. keep going, visit again to read some more nice articles.

  15. Got your point… Well written article… Will follow you on Social on networks also…Thanks for sharing

  16. It’s nice and knowledgeable. i appreciate the way by which u describe the topic. visit your authorship to gain more.keep posting.

  17. My wife and I recently took this day trip also, but we continued further up the mountain, to the ancient Elephant Pool, which is no longer a pool but which has amazing elephant, and tiger statues, huge, and in a semi-overgrown clearing that you come upon after about a 30-minute hike, once you leave your 4-wheel drive vehicle. You won’t get close enough to make it a comfortable day’s outing unless you use a 4-wheel drive.

    This sacred site pre-dates Angkor Wat and we only saw two other people on this part of the trip.

    We stayed at the lovely Heritage Suites Hotel, off the beaten track and not one of the international hotel chains so prevalent in Siem Reap. Their in-house tour company, Heritage Tours, arranged the day trip for us, as well as helicopter tour of Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap lake. We also visited the source of the Kbal Spean river, which is a tiny pool, the base of which is a fountain of ever-churning sand……they say if you drop paper in the pool it will float but if you drop paper money it will be sucked into the churning sand….this day out was indeed the highlight of our visit…

  18. I like cambodia but rather i’ve been there in many times i could not remember this rivers location. Is there anyone help me ?

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  20. This place seems fascinating! Thank you for sharing. We’d love to have you guest post on Ecophiles 🙂

  21. I’ve heard great things about Cambodia and after reading this, I’m even more stoked in going there some day. Did you happen to find out from the locals why it’s called The River of a Thousand Lingas? Anyway, cool suggestion, as what the others have said, this seems to be a great alternative to the typical Angkor Wat visit. Thanks!

  22. Cool suggestions with nicely written article,, ive been to Cambodia many times and each time i find something really worth to see. Khmer are nice and would love to mingle with tourists and thats probably the only thing that makes Cambodia worth to think about. And Angkor Wat, its truly a gem

  23. Cambodia looks like an absolute beauty!Hoping to visit this country soon! Thanks for the photos!

  24. Respected sir please send my mail id this temple photos two mp resolution.thank u so much.

    my mail id: [email protected]

  25. Been researching all about Cambodia lately as I am going to there soon! After reading this, I am even more excited!Thank you for posting!

  26. It’s so amazing! The forest here looks very great. Gonna add Cambodia in my must-visited list. Thank you for sharing the experience.

  27. This looks so cool! What an adventure.

  28. Hi, Thank you for sharing your beautiful story, very detailed and well written! I would like to commend you as the Author of this Blog for sharing us an interesting idea. Keep it up a good job!!
    Hope you will make more Blog and include the DUBAI EVENING SAFARI:

  29. Amazing Campuchia … It is the spiritual and historic ties the River of a Thousand Lingas has to Khmer culture that make it an especially interesting part of travel in Cambodia.

  30. Hello Jennifer,
    You have captured stunning pictures of Cambodia. Next Month me and My Family planning to travel Poipet. Worth to Read.
    Happy Travelling.

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