Le Phnom Kulen et sa région, Carte et Commentaire | Phnom Kulen and Its Area, Map and Monograph

by Jean Boulbet

Publisher: EFEO, Collection de textes et documents sur l'Indochine, XII. With general map, graphs and photographs

Published: 1979

Pages: 194

Language : French

Tags: ecosystem, forest, Phnom Kulen, Mahendraparvata, agriculture, Siem Reap River, Jayavarman II, Leper King, Kbal Spean, botanic

The rich material for this reference study on Phnom Kulen ភ្នំគូលែន was collected by Jean Boulbet between 1967 and 1972, when he had to leave the country then torn apart by civil war. He completed the map and the detailed notice on history, archaelogy, ecology, ethnology related to this most emblematic area in 1975, in Thailand.

While archaeological research has much progressed during the last decades, the author -- who was to rediscover the site of the 1,000 lingas at Kbal Spen -- asserted some ground-breaking suppositions, including:

  • the symbolical significance of the mountain in Cambodian myths and legends, firstly as the "Mound of the Thlok", "the island with thlok trees" (ធ្លក, Parinarum anamense) where the legendary junk containing the first Khmer people was washed ashore.
  • the scope of the ancient city of Mahendraparvata and its link with Angkor, Preah Vihear and the temple-cities further to the northwest;
  • an urbanistic planning that preceded and inspired later, even larger realizations such as Angkor Thom.

Ahead of his time with his strong concern for environment and cultural heritage preservation, the author minitiously details

  • the geological specificity of the Kulen region, with the particular concentration of "karst gréseux" (sandstone karst) which supported the growth of a particular form of primal forest,
  • the development of a haut-plateau agriculture and social organization, its impact on the forest and the possible solutions to reach a balance between human activity and preservation of a National Park, with guidelines that are still present-day followed by organizations such as ADF Kulen.

The Sacred and The Reality Principle

"Apres l'abandon du "Mont du Grand Indra", lorsque le massif est devenu simplement celui des Litchis et a été réoccupé, les villageois se sont détournés des cours d'eau marqués par des sculptures étranges: les boursouflures régulières et artificielles de leurs lits (les linga gravés) constituaient, à leur yeux une gigantesque râpe pour la préparation des décoctions antilèpre et les fosses contiguës avaient été aménagées pour les bains du fameux roi lépreux. Le souverain, régnant sur l'empire angkorien et résidant alors a Beng Maelea, s'était rendu en grande pompe à ces "têtes de cascades" pour y subir un traitement contre le mal terrible qui devait resterattaché à sa légende." ["When the mountain ceased to be the Great Indra Mountain to simply become the Mountain of the Lychees and was occupied again by settlements, the villagers turned away from the streams and their strange sculptures: the regular and artificial swellings of their beds (the engraved linga) constituted for them a gigantic grater for the preparation of anti-leprosy decoctions and the adjoining pits had been arranged for the baths of the famous Leper King. The sovereign, reigning over the Angkorian empire and residing then in Beng Maelea , had gone with great fanfare to these "stunt heads" to undergo treatment there against the terrible disease which was to remain attached to his legend."]

"Ainsi, les eaux qui allaient vivifier le coeur de l'empire et entourer les temples prestigieux se trouvaient magnifiées, sanctifiées par une exploitation judicieuse des accidents naturels. (...) Il reste remarquable que la Rivière de Siemréap, comme celle "des Bambous"avant sa confluence, coule entre deux rives désertes dans les Terres Plates alors qu'elles pourraient desservir, suivant les règles de l'habitat cambodgien traditionnel, des couloirs humanisés. En fait, aucun village n'est établi le long des rives, en amont des cités angkoriennes irriguées par des eaux prestigieuses et hors d'un monde banalisé." ["And so, the waters which were to vivify the heart of the empire and surround the prestigious temples were magnified, sanctified by a judicious use of natural hillocks or depressions. (...) It remains remarkable that the Siemréap River, like that "of the Bambous" before its confluence, flows between two deserted banks in the Flatlands whereas they could have been, according to the rules of traditional Cambodian habitat, humanized corridors. In fact, no village is established along the banks, upstream of the Angkorian cities irrigated by prestigious waters and outside of a mundane world."]

"(...) Au fil des siecles, le mont de Mahendra est devenu celui des Litchis. Des paysans de la plaine avec leur religion bouddhique, leurs traditions et leur habitudes se sont établis sur le Phnom non pour continuer une brillante histoire mais plutôt à côté de cette histoire, et rnême parfois malgré elle. Ils se sont habitués a la fréquentation de dieux, des génies, des esprits et, a force de familiarité, ils en sont venus a étendre leurs défrichements jusqu'aux abrupts qui semblaient fantastiques, jusqu'aux berges du cours d'eau central hantées par le souvenir du roi lépreux, jusqu'aux temples anciens et aux ennitages qui avaient été laissés, dan un premier temps, largement auréolés de haute futaie. Il n'ont donné leur pleine signification qu'aux sculptures bouddhiques qu'ils ont inclues tout naturelletncnt dans leur domaine religieux. Plusieurs statues du Buddha, dont quelques unes originaires de la plaine, ont d'ailleurs été mises à l'abri de pillards dans des grottes de la montagne et sauvées ainsi du vandalisme." ["Over centuries, the mount of Mahendra has become that of the Litchis. Farmers from the plain, with their Buddhist religion, their traditions and their habits, settled on the Phnom not to continue a brilliant history but rather alongside this history, and even sometimes in spite of it. They got used to associating with gods, geniuses, spirits and, by dint of familiarity, they came to extend their clearings to the steep which seemed fantastic, to the banks of the central stream haunted by the memory of the leper king, to the ancient temples and to the settlements which had been left, in the beginning, largely surrounded by high trees. They only gave their full meaning to Buddhist sculptures which they included quite naturally in their religious domain. Several statues of the Buddha, including some from the plain, were also sheltered from looters in mountain caves and thus saved from vandalism.]

Gods and Trees

"On aurait donc pu tout aussi bien nommer la montagne 'phnom préah thom' ou Mont du grand Buddha, mais la forme géante du Sage sculptée en plein roc n'a été découverte que tardivement alors que le massif entier avait déjà été dénotnmé d'après ce qui avait frappé les paysans de la région. Très pratiquement, les gens de la contrée avaient remarqué, entre toutes chose, la présence d'une forêt d'un type original, caractérisée par l'abondance de certaines essences, ailleurs rares ou meme inconnues; la plus marquante de ces essences étant le fameux kulen, autrement dit un arbre exotique au fruit apprécié et recherché: le litchi. On comprend d'ailleurs fort bien cette optique de paysans forestiers plus à l'aise dans un milieu concret et exploitable que dans un univers d'esprits et de fantômes. On comprend encore davantage en observant l'homme vivant au Phnom, autant dire vivant de la forêt, par rapport à la forêt, que ce soit en la détruisant, en la conservant ou en la transformant." ["It would have then been easy to name the mountain 'phnom prah thom' or Mount of the great Buddha, but the giant form of the Sage carved in solid rock was not discovered until late, when the entire massif had already been denoted by after what had struck the peasants of the region, the trees. Quite practically, the people of the region had noticed, among all things, the presence of a forest of an original type, characterized by the abundance of certain species, elsewhere rare or even unknowns; the most striking of these species being the famous kulen, in other words an exotic tree with much sought-after fruit: the lychee. We understand very well the outlook of forest farmers, more at ease within an exploitable milieu than in a universe of spirits and ghosts.We understand even more by observing the man living in Phnom, in other words living in the forest, in relation to the forest, whether by destroying it, by conserving it or by transforming her. "]

"Que reste-t-il du passé ? Que demeure-t-il d'immüable, de constant mais de vivant à la fois? La grande forêt à Kulen autour de laquelle tout se grignote, se transforme et, inévitablement, se dégrade. Aux yeux des villageois, cette formation forestière est issue de l'introduction, dans la végétation spontanée de la région, des semences répandues par la jonque légendaire, échouée et éventrée. Elle s'est maintenue, grâce aux édits royaux réservant certaines essences, dont le kulen." ["What remains of the past? What remains immutable, constant but at the same time alive? The great forest in Kulen around which everything is nibbling, transforming and, inevitably, degrading. For the villagers, this forest formation is the result of the introduction, into the spontaneous vegetation of the region, of the seeds spread by the legendary junk, stranded and disembowelled. It has been maintained, thanks to the royal edicts protecting certain essences, including the kulen."]

A fragile ecosystem

"En forêt ouverte, les dommages étant uniquement ceux de la coupe contrôlée ne menacent pas l'équilibre des formations végétales, appauvries mais peu changées dans leur aspect et dans leur rôle écologique. Il n'en va pas de meme en forêt dense où la chute de chaque arbre de l'étage supérieur fait une large trouée dans les sous-étages. A ce dégât initial s'ajoute celui du débardage des grumes dispersées dans l'épaisseur végétale et qui sont rarement rassemblées au lieu de chargement par halage au sol. Cette opération, dévastatrice pour les setnis, pour la futaie à venir, s'opère maintenant à l'aide de gros engins mécaniques broyant toüt sur leur passage. A tel point qu'une forêt dense exploitée en coupe est dévitalisée et très compromise dans son équilibre futur." ["In open forest, the damage being only the one of controlled cutting, does not threaten the balance of plant formations, impoverished but little changed in their appearance and in their ecological role. It is not the same in dense forest where the fall of each tree from the upper level makes a large gap in the lower one. To this initial damage is added that of the skidding of logs scattered in the vegetation, rarely gathered instead of hauled on the ground. This operation, devastating for the seedling, for the forest to come, is now carried out with the help of large mechanical devices crushing everything in their path, to the extent that the future equilibrium of the dense forest is under threat. "

boulbet-siemreap-river-canyon-1975.jpg#asset:5766:squareMediumFit

The upper banks of Siem Reap River in the 1970s (photo by the author)

boulbet-phnom-kulen.jpg#asset:5767


About the Author

Portrait of Jean    Boulbet

Jean Boulbet

Self-taught ethnologist, poet, archaeologist, botanist, geographer and cartographer, sociologist, linguist Jean Boulbet (2 Jan. 1926, Sainte-Colombe-sur-l'Hers, France - 11 Feb. 2007, Phuket, Thaïland), had extensively explored the Cau Maa' ("hill people" ethnic minority in Vietnam) territory when ethnographer Georges Condominas called him to take charge of the Angkor site forest conservation in 1963, thus helping in saving him from the South-Vietnamese jails.

While completing his studies in geography and ethnology, Boulbet -- nicknamed 'TaBeh' (Granddad (Boul)Bet) by the Khmer -- established the first permanent scientific post in the Phnom Kulen area. After contributing to the cartography of Central Vietnam, Northern Cambodia and Southern Thailand, discovering several important archaeological sites such as Kbal Spean (the Thousand Linga River, in which his ashes would be scattered by his Cambodian spouse, Moey, after his death), becoming fluent in Khmer and minority dialects (stieng, mnong...), he was briefly captive of the Khmer Rouge militia in Battambang in 1975, and managed to escape to Thailand, where he first settled in Nonthaburi.

A "montagnard" himself -- born and raised among the remote hills of Ariege --, a pioneer in fauna and flora preservation, Boulbet saved several endangered species and actively helped to the reforestation after the war.

His life has inspired French novelists such as Pierre Schoendoerffer (in L'Adieu au roi), François Bizot (Le Saut du Varan) and Loup Durand for his literary saga set in Cambodia, Jaraï.

Further references: One of his four grandsons from his daughter Laure (sired with his first spouse, a Cau Maa´ young woman), Danny Blao, has launched in 2012 a blog dedicated to Jean Boulbet.