Travel from Phnom Penh on the nation road no. 6 for about 150 km, at the right side of the road, there is a signage of Phnom Santuk, a cultural historical and natural tourist site in Kampong Thom province.
At about 207 meters high, top with a Buddhist monastery and many Buddha images carved into the mountain rocks, Phnom Santuk has become a sacred worship place for Buddhist in Cambodia.
A stair set with 809 steps, leading to the mountain top, was built in 1996. The first time built was in 1965 with 1550 steps. Climbing Phnom Santuk need time, because visitors need to take rest several times. However, in recent years, people constructed a road that allow cars and motorbikes could reach the mountain top easily, so visitors don’t need to climb the steps any more.
Through out history, there are many names for Phnom Santuk. The names has changed depend on the events happened at this mountain in each period of history and some names are taken from legend stories which related to this mountain.
1. Phnom Krob Tuk (ភ្នំគ្របទុក), since the 1st century of Buddhist era.
2. Phnom Thom (ភ្នំធំ), since 7th century A.D
3. Phnom Asan Tuk (ភ្នំអាសន្នទុក្ខ), since 1028 A.D
4. Phnom Bos Srey Pov (ភ្នំបុស្បស្រីពៅ), from legend
5. Phnom Chamchong Kiri (ភ្នំចមចុងគីរី), from legend
A Buddhist monastery on top of Phnom Santuk is named Chamchong Kiri Phnom Santuk. In a legend said that a wooden Viheara was constructed in 1028 A.D by Preah Bat Baksei Cham Krong (a king in legend) and it might be re-constructed in the reign of King Ponhea Dharma Reacha (1474-1494). Since then, Phnom Santuk has become a holy mountain because there are many Buddha statues were carved from the mountain rocks. Especially, the four Reclining Buddhas, each measured more than 10 meters long. Besides, there are many other Buddha statues also carved on the mountain rocks with smaller sizes and in different gestures.
A historical record has said about the reason of the construction on Phnom Santuk is refer to a dream of Preah Ponhea Dharma Reacha. In dream, his ancestor advised him to make Phnom Santuk a holy worship place for all people. By doing so, the Khmer empire would be in peace and prosperity.
Preah Ponhea Dharma Reacha also built a small stupa (3 meters high), made of sandstone, located next to the present day Viheara. There is also a 10 x 4m ancient pond behind the Viheara.
Some remarkable constructions on Phnom Santuk
Chantare or Chanchare: This is a name of a spot considered sacred where small coins could be dropped down a crevice between the large boulders. The sound the coin makes, promises a good fortune. Since ancient time, the ancient coins made of bronze which was dropped by visitors has become meters thick. But during civil war 1975-1979, all the coins have been stolen.
Preah Bat Chorn Tuk (Buddha FootPrint)
According to a legend, the Buddha footprint on top of Phnom Santuk was built in 1028 A.D by Preah Bat Baksei Cham Krong. Nowadays, a roofed shrine was built to cover the Buddha footprint.
Andong Preng (អណ្ដូងប្រេង)
Andong preng literature means well of oil, but it is a deep well of water. The locals said that, this well is a mysterious ways under ground which connect from Phnom Santuk to Tonle Sap Lake that the ancient Khmer army used. However, there is no proof about that. According to a legend, this well is a place that used to prison a cruel king who like to eat animal flesh as food. The king has two hunters who will go out to the forest hunting for animal every day. One day, the hunters couldn’t catch any animal, they’re keep walking in the forest hopelessly, because they’re afraid that the king would punish them. In the meantime, there is a new-dead-corpse of a young lady who her family brought to throw in the forest. The hunters saw the corpse and cut her breasts and brought back to cook as food for the king instead of animal meat.
After eaten, the king felt that the meat today is very special, the flavor is very delicious. He called for the hunters to ask what was the animal meat that he has got for the food today. The hunters were hesitated to tell the king the truth, but the king promised that he would not punish them. So the hunters told the king that the food he ate was the breast of lady. The king didn’t punish the hunters, instead gave them many gold as their reward. Then order them to find him the breast of lady and cook as food everyday.
Since then, the hunters going out in all the villages to find for young lady, killed them and got their breasts as the king’s command. This practice led to rebellion from the citizens. At last they were led by a person in the royal family to fight against the present cruel king.
The cruel king was arrested and was taken to be jailed in the well on Phnom Santuk. In the same time, the new king order to build a statue of breast on top of mountain too. It’s symbolize the mother’s breast, because after born, it’s breast that people were fed and grow up.
Legend relates to Phnom Santuk
Once upon a time, a king, whose name has been lost to time, built his royal palace on the top of the Dangrek mountain ( now is the border of Cambodia and Thailand ). His first wife, queen Peov Devi had born him a prince named Cham-pongs Kumar. His second wife, Montear Devi had a son named Chong-raks Kumar.
But the greedy prince regent Moha Oup-raj lusted for power. Eventually, he began an affair with the king’s second wife and together they plotted to overthrow the old king. They enlisted the help of an ambitious and corrupt court astrologer, and bided their time.
One day, there was a storms and whirlwinds and torrential rains lashed the kingdom for days, damaging temples and many big trees are falling down. And the king’s most sacred divine statue which he worship every day was damaged, the king began to worry that this was a sign of warning.At last he decided to consult the royal astrologer.
“This is a sign of divine warning,” the astrologer told the king. “It is a warning to you that queen Peov Devi has become evil and bring unlucky, and prophesizes that her son will grow up to be your murderer. But, if you banish them both, you can save the kingdom.”
Frightened, the king had the mother and son arrested and set adrift on a raft in open water. But the gods were kind to them because of merits they had achieved in previous lives.As they drifted, the churning waves calmed. Divine white crocodiles appeared and guided the raft until it ran ashore on a floating speck of land. The crocodiles found food for them, and they stayed safe on the little islet for seven days and nights. On the seventh night, the desperate deposed queen, now called Srei Peov Devi, prayed to the full moon.
“I humbly request all deities and powerful spirits guarding the sea to protect and save my son and I. We are honest people,” she cried.
Immediately, the little speck of land transformed and the pumice, shells and flotsam and jetsam in the water all around joined to form a big, beautiful island paradise.Time passed, and the crocodiles eventually died. Their corpses became huge crocodile-shaped rocks that can still be seen today. One day, a mandarin called Okha Kralahorm Pich stumbled on Srei Peov’s island. He had once commanded a naval division for Srei Peov’s former husband the king, but retired in dismay because he understood the evil intentions of the prince and his mistress. He met the former queen and the young prince and all three sobbed together as they related their sad experiences. Pich confirmed that after the queen and her son had been banished, the prince regent, Moha Ouparaj, had imprisoned the old ruler and proclaimed himself as the new king. Pich began to build an army to overthrow the usurper and reclaim Srei Peov’s rightful place for her and her son.
When the time was right, Pich and the young prince led 100 boats and 10,000 soldiers to the gates of the evil prince’s capital. That night, Moha Ouparaj was carousing at a wild party. The young prince and his men waited, and in the morning, when their enemy was drunk and exhausted, launched their attack. It was a brilliant victory for the young prince. Moha Ouparaj and his evil accomplice Montea Devi were killed and the victorious young prince released his imprisoned father, who had been forced to live in a cave sealed from the light by rocks for many years.
The young prince Cham-pongs Kumar became a new king, but he did not hold the sins of his young half-brother’s mother against him and appointed him as the new Moha Ouparaj.
The island that had been created by Srei Peov’s prayers became known as Phnom Boss-Srei Peov, because it was created during Boss (the second month of the lunar calendar) at the request of Srei Peov (Srei is a word meaning youngest lady).
Over time, the sea receded, leaving a mountain, which today is very close to Phnom Santuk, and still bears the name Phnom Boss-Srei Peov. The capital took on the new king’s name to become Phnom Cham-pongs Kiri (in Khmer kiri means mountain).
Over time, the young king died, his half brother took the throne, and the name changed to Cham-chong Kiri to memorize a very dear brotherhood between the two princes.
As time passes, things change, and the mountain was renamed for the fourth time as Phnom Thom (huge mountain) and then Phnom A’sann Tuk (Mountain of Emergency and Suffering). That name was shortened by the people and became Phnom Santuk, and it remains called that to this day.