In the year 928, King Jayavarman IV decided to move the capital of the Khmer Empire from Angkor to Koh Ker, around 60 kilometers away. To this day, scholars have no idea why. Furthermore, this former capital is also home to one of the region’s most unusual structures. The seven-tiered pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly looks like anything else the Khmers ever built. And while Koh Ker would only remain the capital for two decades, it’s astounding how many temples they were able to build in such a short time span.
When the capital was moved here in the 10th century, the area wasn’t uninhabited. In fact, archaeological evidence has shown that there were communities living at the spot for a long time, even before the birth of the Khmer Empire. None of the stone temples we know of, however, predate the 10th century.
Koh Ker remains off the beaten path for tourists visiting Cambodia, but its popularity is growing. The temple complex, once ridden with landmines, was only made accessible to tourists fairly recently. The area as a whole hasn’t been completely de-mined, though, and only a fraction of all the former capital’s temples can be visited. Nevertheless, Koh Ker remains one of the most impressive and mysterious archaeological sites you can visit in all of Cambodia.
Exploring Koh Ker
The main temple is known as Prasat Thom, and that’s where you’ll find the large seven-tiered pyramid. But as Koh Ker was its own city, there are a number of other temple ruins to explore as well. The road forms a loop so it’s hard to get lost. Coming from the south, you’ll pass by 3 or 4 temples before Prasat Thom, and around 10 structures of varying sizes after it. Most people only bother to stop at Prasat Thom, so you’ll likely have the minor ruins all to yourself.
The journey can easily be completed by bicycle or car. If you take a taxi from a nearby town, you’ll come across a bicycle rental stand in front of the main temple to help you get around. Or, if you’ve hired a private driver (see more down below) he can just drive you along the route and stop for you to get out at each temple.
Access to Prasat Thom costs $10.
Three Small Temples
The initial three structures you’ll first encounter when arriving in the area are also among Koh Ker’s most interesting. A quick stop at each one is highly recommended.
Prasat Pram is a well-preserved temple that follows a standard 10th century temple layout. You’ll find three prasat sanctuaries lined in a row, with the two structures in front being what are known as ‘libraries.’ While we don’t know exactly what the libraries were for, they either contained idols and manuscripts or were used for special ceremonies in honor of the fire god Agni.
Prasat Pram is gradually merging with the jungle, giving off vibes similar to the famous ‘Tomb Raider Temple’ of Ta Prohm.
Prasat Neang Khmau
Consisting of a single prasat, what’s unique about Prasat Neang Khmau is that it’s been turned entirely black. This is the possible result of a forest fire that happened at some point in the past.
Actually, there are a couple of other unique aspects to this solitary prasat. Despite being dedicated to Shiva, it faces west, while almost all other Shiva temples built by the Khmers face east. Furthermore, the lintel carving above the door featured a rare depiction of Brahma, though this can hardly be made out now due to erosion.
This temple follows the same layout as Prasat Pram above, but it was one of the only temples dedicated to Vishnu in the city. Today, the prasats are in poor condition and overall, the temple looks pretty unassuming. It was at this very temple, however, where some of the finest masterpieces of Khmer sculpture art were first discovered.
The eastern tower once contained a sculpture of a scene from the Ramayana epic of Valin fighting Sugriva. While that was discovered back in 1952, another major discovery was made here as recently as 2012. Archaeologists found a group of statues depicting Duryodhana fighting Bhima, a major scene from the Mahabharata epic.
But that’s not all. In 2014, researchers found three more pedestals with nothing left but the statues’ feet. Clearly, the statues had all been looted at one point. One of them turned out to be a famous statue of Hanuman that had long been kept at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Once the connection was made, it was returned to Cambodia the following year. A statue of Rama that likely stood next to the Hanuman statue is believed to be the one kept in Denver. At the time of writing, it still hasn’t been returned to Cambodia.
Prasat Thom was Jayavarman IV’s state temple, equivalent to Angkor Wat or the Bayon of later Khmer kings. While the highlight is the massive standalone pyramid, referred to as the ‘Prang,’ there were also quite a few buildings east of the main pyramid. To begin with, you’ll first encounter a structure comprised of ‘long halls‘ in the shape of a cruciform.
Heading further west, you’ll see a large brick prasat sanctuary that remains in good condition. The causeway, surrounded by a moat on either side, is one of the most interesting parts of Prasat Thom. Clearly, there were once some long structures supported by columns there, many of which have since collapsed. Most of the buildings were probably made of wood, long since rotted, similar to the gates of Preah Vihear.
In the temple area (before the pyramid itself), you’ll find plenty of other structures, mainly prasat sanctuaries, galleries, libraries and gates. Some of them are still standing, but many have been reduced to rubble. The chaotic appearance of the temple only increases the dramatic effect when the massive ‘Prang’ finally comes into view.
If you’ve already explored Angkor, you’ll notice immediately how this pyramid is nothing like anything built there. The Khmer, of course, were very fond of their pyramids. The pyramidal temples of both Bakong and Bakheng both precede this one, but those were adorned with all kinds of statues and sanctuaries on top.
The Prang, on the other hand, is a no-nonsense pyramid without any sculptures, structures or carvings except for at the very top. Supposedly, the highest tier of the pyramid once contained a large shiva linga, and possibly a roofless structure of some kind, but nothing of either remains. The uniqueness of this pyramid, which more closely resembles Mesoamerican structures than those of Southeast Asia, has led people to come up with all sorts of theories regarding the Prang and Koh Ker in general.
Could moving the capital of the empire so far away to the remote location of Koh Ker have something to do with the particular spot on which the Prang sits? In other words, was the Prang, and the linga on top of it, specifically built to channel some type of energy that Jayavarman IV felt was most potent here?
However silly this might sound to you in 2018, bear in mind that the Khmer were heavily into this kind of stuff. Their temples were seen as complex mechanisms whose functions were to establish connections between the divine and earthly realms. And specific mathematical proportions were used to build them, almost like the computer code which works behind the scenes of the software you’re using. With that in mind, the Khmers would not have chosen the locations of these important structures at random.
While the king and his priests would’ve climbed up the central staircase, it’s in no condition to be climbed today. Fortunately, a wooden staircase over to the side now serves visitors wishing to get to the top. The pyramid stands at 36 meters high, and there are plenty of nice vantage points to enjoy on the way up.
The “shrine” at the top contains a hole where the linga would’ve once extended out from. Supposedly, the hole goes down all the way to the bottom, much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon. When the Khmers built their pyramids, they not only intended to symbolize the heavens and the earth, but the underworld as well.
(As an interesting side note, the linga of the Prang at Koh Ker was consecrated on the exact same day as Prasat Kravan in Angkor. As described here, Prasat Kravan is one of the most unusual temples in the Angkor region. Could the two structures somehow be related?)
The very top is also the only part of the pyramid where you’ll see any carvings or decoration, mostly of lion “atlantes” holding something up – but what? Possibly the linga, or maybe even the “sky.”
Provided it’s not too crowded with other visitors, take some time to enjoy the view and the cool breeze.
Back down on the ground, you’ll find pathways from which to view the pyramid at all angles. You’ll also come across a shrine to a white elephant, probably inspired by a local Cambodian legend.
Back at the temple, you might want to take some more time to explore anything that you missed. As Koh Ker was the site of a major stone quarry, there would’ve once been intricately carved statues everywhere around here 1,000 years ago. As mentioned above, those statues are now in museums in Phnom Penh or spread across the world, largely due to prior looting.
East & South Temples
There’s still a lot more to see east and south of Prasat Thom. Simply follow the road and get out at the temples until you’ve come full circle. But first, don’t forget to check out the small temple across the road.
You can find this temple just across the street from Prasat Thom’s entrance. In fact, it was likely even part of it originally. It consists of two groups of ‘long halls’ which each form a rectangle surrounding an inner courtyard. The halls aren’t connected, however. Stylistically they’re reminiscent of the Khleangs in Angkor Thom.
Various Linga Sanctuaries
Next you’ll come across a series of four or five sanctuaries, all housing shiva lingas inside. They’re actually natural rocks which were then carved to resemble lingas. Interestingly, the structures all lack roofs.
The first thing you’ll notice about prasat Kracap is the unusual design of its doorway. These triangular pediments are only seen at two other temples: Banteay Srei, near Angkor, and Preah Vihear, in the Dangrek mountain range. This temple was dedicated in 928, predating those other two by several decades.
Prasat Plae Beng
This temple, in rather poor condition, featured an unusually large gate. Back in the day, it also would’ve been full of statues of various Hindu deities.
Prasat Pir Chean
This temple featured a rather unusual layout of a central sanctuary surrounded by eight smaller ones. It also contained two libraries. A few lintel carvings are still intact, and it’s worth at least a couple minutes of exploration
This is yet another temple in the area to feature the simple trimurti layout that was so popular in those times. Unusually, the prasats are facing west, as do several of the other temples in this section of the city. Some scholars speculate that they were built to face the baray (artificial reservoir), though the exact reason remains unclear.
Prasat Op On
This temple consists of just a single prasat. It’s speculated that it may have been built after the reign of Jayavarman IV, but probably still within the 10th century. Interestingly, while Koh Ker only functioned as capital for about 20 years, the site was not abandoned once the seat of power shifted back to Angkor. Later kings, all the way up to Jayavarman VII of the late 12th century, continued to add new structures to the city.
‘Damrei’ means elephant, and this temple is abound in elephant imagery. It was primarily dedicated to Shiva, whose son was the elephant god Ganesha. You can also find a lintel carving of Indra’s three-headed elephant Airavata.
Prasat Khnar is a rather mysterious temple for a number of reasons. Scholars now believe that the large pedestal once housed a massive linga that reached as high as 3 meters. Like the linga from the top of Prasat Thom’s pyramid, however, nothing of it remains.
Over to the side, you’ll also find carvings of animals and gods in the stone. It’s very reminiscent of the carvings atop Mt. Kulen at a place called Kbal Spean. Generally, carvings in stone like this (as opposed to standalone statues) are pretty rare at ancient Khmer ruins.
Whatever compelled Jayavarman IV to move the capital to Koh Ker (likely a major inconvenience for the nobles, priests and bureaucrats), later kings would return to Angkor a short time later. As mentioned above, though, the site was maintained and expanded over the next few centuries. While the refined sculpture art of Koh Ker would influence Khmer artists for years to come, no later kings would attempt to copy the enigmatic ‘Prang.’ We still don’t know why the pyramid looks the way it does, and who took the linga. But as more research (and more de-mining) takes place, we may one day get closer to solving the puzzle.
There is no public transportation that goes to Koh Ker. You will need to hire private transport. It should be possible to visit Koh Ker and a day trip from Siem Reap, and possibly even throw Beng Mealea into the itinerary as well.
There is a guest house near the main temple, but it’s unclear how you’re supposed to get back to Siem Reap if you stay the night.
If you have the time, I recommend going on a three-day tour to see all the outlying ruins.
As amazing as the Angkor Archaeological Park is, Cambodia as a whole contains several other significant temple ruins that are absolutely worth the visit.
These include Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay, Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Beng Mealea and Banteay Chmar.
The problem is, though, that these temples are far from easy or cheap to get to. Furthermore, some of them are just a little too far for a single day trip from Siem Reap. And while you may be able to find a private bus or shared minivan from Siem Reap to the town closest to a particular temple, you’ll then have to negotiate with local taxi drivers each time.
To save yourself time, money and uncertainty, I’d highly recommend you hire a private driver from Siem Reap to take you on a 3 day, 2 night temple tour.
The itinerary goes something like this: Depart from Siem Reap in the morning and begin at Sambor Prei Kuk. If time allows, also stop at the nearby Phnom Santuk, which is not a Khmer ruin but still worth a visit.
Spend the night in the city of Kampong Thom. Depart early the next morning to visit Preah Khan of Kampong Svay (not to be confused with Angkor’s Preah Khan) and its outlying temples. Head north, and if time allows, visit Preah Vihear before it closes in the evening. Then spend the night in the town of Sra’aem.
Next morning, head to Koh Ker (or Preah Vihear first if you couldn’t make it the previous day). Finally, on your way back, stop at Beng Mealea.
You should be able to arrange a driver, with the help of your hotel, for the above route for around $300 USD. It sounds expensive, and it is, but it’s actually cheaper and much more viable than visiting all these temples separately from Siem Reap. None of the temples listed above are directly accessible via public transport, and group tours from the city don’t go to them, except for maybe Beng Mealea.
A hotel in these towns should cost $10-15, while the temples themselves cost around $5-10 each.
Because of its location, you wouldn’t be able to include Banteay Chmar on this three-day trip. You’d have to make that a separate excursion, but luckily it’s fairly easy and cheap to reach with public and private transport.
You can check this web site for more in depth articles on each of the temples listed above.