Discovering the ancient Angkor temple ruins at Siem Reap is undeniably magnificent, but the crowds are not. On our last day in Cambodia, we wanted to go off the beaten track and get away from other tourists so went on a tailor-made day trip with Backyard Travel to explore the nearby mountain Phnom Kulen and the lost city of Mahendraparvata.
We were collected in a private car from our hotel at 7.30am to drive the 50km to the most sacred mountain in Cambodia. Once there, we hopped on the back of motorbikes to explore for a few hours, riding along bumpy dirt tracks, over volcanic rocks and through shallow streams. We saw a giant reclining Buddha at Preah Ang Thom, remote temples and stone carvings at Poeng Tbal and the River of a Thousand Lingas where there are well-preserved carvings of Hindu gods and over 1,000 lingas (Shiva representations) on the riverbeds. We visited one of the most important sites in Cambodia: three tiered pyramid temples called Prasat Rong Chen - there's little to see today but it was here that King Jayavarman II declared himself the monarch of the Cambodian Kingdom, announced independence from Java and founded the Khmer Empire in AD 802. There are small villages of Khmer people living on the mountain, but a 2012 archaeology survey using airborne laser mapping discovered that the ancient lost city of Mahendraparvata once stood on Phnom Kulen, so in the 9th century it would have been a huge, bustling hilltop capital.
We took torches inside a bat cave filled with hundreds of screeching bats, visited the life-size stone statues of elephants and lions at Srah Damrei and Damrei Khrap, and watched local families splash around at the impressive Kulen Waterfall. We stopped for a simple packed lunch before jumping back in the car and heading back to our hotel for a swim, once last dinner in Siem Reap and to get ready for an early flight the next morning. Next stop: Hanoi.