In the far north-west of Cambodia, beyond the waters of the Great Lake, a line of blue mountains rises from the rich plains of ripe paddy fields that stretch up from the Mekong delta. At first, these hills climb sharply from the lush flatland; then, quite suddenly, they crest into a long, straight sandstone plateau that seems to float mysteriously above the low clouds.
These are the heights of Phnom Kulen, the “Mountain of Lychees”. For Cambodians, this is a sacred space: the birthplace not just of the great Angkorian Empire but also of the holy rivers that watered its plains and lapped around its most precious temples.
Here, in 802, the Khmer prince Jayavarman II performed a ceremony initiating what would soon become the richest and most powerful state of its time. He had spent his teens as a hostage of the Buddhist rulers of Java, where he may have seen the building of the great pyramid-temple of Borobudur, still the largest Buddhist monument in the world. But Prince Jayavarman was a passionate Hindu who looked to Lord Shiva as his God. He escaped from Java aged around 20, and in the 790s returned to Cambodia, declaring himself independent from foreign overlords.