Travel Report: Prasat Thom Temple, Koh Ker.
Prasat Thom Temple, Koh Ker.
When I look back on the highlights of my Cambodia adventures, I know there’ll always be a special place for Koh Ker. While we’d had an amazing time exploring The Angkor Temples, there was something about Koh Ker that appealed to my more intrepid instincts.
Scattered across an isolated jungle region of northern Cambodia, most people simply can’t be bothered to get all the way out here. And yet, Koh Ker’s temples are every bit as significant and stunning as their world famous siblings in Angkor.
Getting to Koh Ker certainly is problematic. Firstly, there are no public transport options from Siem Reap. Secondly, the length of the journey and the generally poor state of Cambodia’s roads rule out taking a tuk tuk. As non-drivers, the only choice we had was to hire a private car for the day.
Hired through A Mei Travel in Siem Reap, our driver was a friendly Khmer man who did everything he could to make our day memorable. Having picked us up from Apsara Greenland Boutique Hotel, his air conditioned Toyota Highlander made short work of the drive. In just under two hours we were smoothly cruising towards the entrance gate of Prasat Thom, Koh Ker’s principal structure.
Visit Koh Ker.
With the tourist industry virtually wiped out due to COVID-19, I figured we’d more than likely have this ruined city all to ourselves. And so it proved, with just a few baffled looking vendors in attendance as Sladja and I jumped out of the car.
From the 24 temples accessible to visitors, Prasat Thom stands as the most dramatic of all. Not that we could feel that as we entered the complex via the understated East Outer Gopura. Rather, its majesty takes time to reveal itself.
Prasat Thom was built by King Jayavarman IV in AD921, some seven years before Koh Ker became the capital of The Khmer Empire. For a brief spell this temple was the most important structure in the country, until 944 when the seat of power shifted back to Angkor.
Prasat Thom Temple, Koh Ker.
Soon after entering, we found one of several elongated libraries, now roofless. Walking through the deserted library was highly atmospheric, with no sound other than our own footsteps and the rustling of the leaves.
Not that we were completely alone, I should add. At the far end of the library, we came across this furry guy, slithering his way over to a crack in one of the walls.
This overgrown Gate Tower is known as Prasat Krahom. Apparently King Jayavarman IV was an ardent worshipper of Shiva. Hence he had a statue of the Hindu god built within the tower’s shrine.
Today there’s nothing but a stone pedestal inside the tower, the statue of Shiva having long disappeared. We saw a number of offerings at the shrine that day, including money, plants and incense sticks.
Prasat Thom Temple, Koh Ker.
On the other side of the Gate Tower stands a long, rubbly causeway flanked by a colonnade of pillars. It’s an amazing stretch of the temple, where many of the columns and other stone tablets lie fallen on the ground.
Taking a closer look at the details of the stonework, we found all kinds of Khmer engravings and mythological imagery. Including a broken pillar decorated by a single lion’s paw.
The Central Sanctuary features nine brick towers, most of which have plants and flowers sprouting out of their roofs. There are more broken statues and fallen pillars here. Some articles mention a buffalo sculpture connected to Yama, the god of judgment over the dead.
The Central Sanctuary.
Unfortunately, we didn’t find the buffalo. However, we did discover this weird and wonderful broken sculpture. Was it a likeness of the king? A Hindu god? Or, as Sladja likes to think, some manner of ancient genie?
As fascinating as our explorations had been, nothing could compare to the genuine wow moment when Koh Ker’s stupendous pyramid temple came into view. This amazing seven-tiered structure is called Prasat Thom Prang, the highest ancient temple ever constructed by the Khmer empire. Also referred to as simply Koh Ker Temple, it was constructed using a mixture of volcanic rock and sandstone blocks.
Towering thirty six metres above the forest floor, we simply couldn’t wait to climb the pyramid. Happily, there are a series of wooden staircases for just that purpose. So up we went, with a spring in our step.
Prasat Thom Prang.
The climb to the top quickly got us out of breath, thus we stopped for a breather half way up. And of course to take in these magnificent views of the surrounding lawns. As I sat posing for this photo, I saw a young Cambodian boy emerge from the trees in the corner of the compound. Heading straight for the stairs, he sprinted up, dashed past us and duly disappeared onto the platform at the summit.
When we reached the top there he was, kneeling down in the dirt. His hands clasped together in a direct plea for our kindness. It was a surreal moment, just the three of us atop one of Planet Earth’s greatest temples.
The views from the top are just awesome, nothing but lush greenery as far as the eye can see. Back in ancient times there used to be a four metre linga enshrined up here. Now, there’s nothing but loose bricks, irksome insects and a few resting benches.
If you want to visit Koh Ker, bear in mind that you can’t gain access with The Angkor Pass. Instead, there’s a separate entry fee before you enter the forest. Tickets go for $15 per person.
Check out more of my reports from The Temples of Koh Ker.
You can also read my articles from the amazing Temples of Angkor.
Or maybe delve further afield with my travel reports from all across Cambodia.
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