Despite being the only car on the road, we were moving at a snail’s pace. The large potholes were more like craters. Not too long ago, though, no roads to Preah Khan of Kampong Svay existed at all. With the temple, by far the Khmer Empire’s largest, just becoming accessible to tourists fairly recently, word has yet to catch on. At 100 kilometers east of Angkor, this is one of the last places in Cambodia to go ruins-hopping completely alone.
Preah Khan of Kampong Svay is not to be confused with Jayavarman VII’s Preah Khan temple in Angkor. The ‘great builder king,’ however, has clearly left his mark here too. Supposedly, he hid out here for years before taking the throne in 1181. But the temple is actually far older, dating back to the early 11th century, or maybe even earlier than that.
Just by looking at photographs, it was hard to get a clear picture of what I was about to see. But the idea of the Khmer Empire’s largest temple also being its most enigmatic intrigued me. I sat patiently through the long, bumpy ride until we finally reached the massive complex’s first satellite temple.
Prasat Damrei, which translates to the “elephant temple” is a stepped pyramid made of laterite. Locals have also converted it into a modern, living shrine dedicated to Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god. While Hindu, Ganesha is still widely revered in current-day Theravada Buddhist countries like Cambodia and Thailand. We really have no idea which deity was worshipped at Prasat Damrei originally.
Around the pyramid’s base, there are large sculptures of elephants which were the likely inspiration for turning it into a Ganesha shrine. Two still remain, while the other two were brought to museums in Phnom Penh and Paris. Elephants are far from the only decoration at the temple, however.
Around the pyramid, you can find sculptures or carvings of apsaras, dvarapalas, nagas and even Buddha images. After the anti-Buddhist vandalism that took place in 13th century Angkor, seeing unscathed Buddha carvings at a Khmer temple is not all that common.
Walking up the pyramid and into the shrine, I was surprised to see a local family leaving offerings. They must’ve taken a different road, I figured.
The top of the pyramid offers a clear view of the baray, or artificial reservoir, that was a staple of all Khmer towns. Though the western half is now dried up, you can still get a clear sense of the manmade lake’s monumental size (2.8km x .7km) from this end. In fact, the very center of that baray is where I’d be heading next.
We drove along the side of the baray until we reached the part that was all dried up. It was unclear exactly where we needed to go to find the next temple. All I knew was that it sat in the center of the original baray. There was a little pathway just wide enough for the 4×4, but after a minute of driving we shot down the idea. It was just too muddy, and there was no clear indication that the dirt path would take us to the temple. We returned to the road and I told my driver to wait. I’d go myself to find it on foot.
I followed the dirt path, hoping that it would take me straight to the center. At one point though, the path split into two. I chose left, making note of the surroundings in case I had to backtrack later. The area was full of trees but it wasn’t particularly dense. Just like any forest, though, it all pretty much looked the same. I continued on ahead, expecting to come across the temple at any moment. But then, the path split into two again.
The path would continue to split a few more times and then disappear altogether. There was no doubt about it. I was lost. And just when the realization hit me, a light rain started falling from the sky. I had to make a choice: give up and try to make my way back, or continue on at the risk of getting even more lost – and drenched, should the rain get any heavier. I decided to keep searching.
Several more minutes passed, and I started to regret my choice. But then I noticed something. Over in the distance, peaking through a gap in the trees, was a large stone Garuda eagle staring right at me.
As spectacular as the temples of Angkor are, there’s no denying that they’ve become overrun with tour groups. And even in between the temples, there’s no way to avoid the dozens of hawkers calling out at you. But visiting Prasat Thkol, completely alone in the middle of a dried up baray, was a totally different experience.
The solitude, the slight element of danger, and the temple seemingly appearing out of the blue, all combined to make this one of my most memorable experiences in Cambodia. In 2018, this is the closest you can get to reliving the adventures of the 19th-century explorers who first rediscovered the temples. Interestingly enough, I later learned that French adventurer Louis Delaporte came across Prasat Thkol in the late 1800’s and even sketched it.
Prasat Thkol is what’s known as a mebon, which refers to temples built in the center of barays. Back in the day, this would’ve only been reachable by boat from the baray’s edge. Mebon temples were also highly significant symbolically, as the waters around them likely symbolized the cosmic waters on which Vishnu lies in between cycles of creation.
The temple is vividly decorated and shares much in common with Jayavarman VII’s temples in central Angkor. The main prasat sanctuary, though, features a unique combination of large Garuda eagles over three-headed elephants that’s not seen anywhere else.
The temple is not particularly large, but it’s in relatively good shape considering its isolated location. Figuring my driver would be getting worried, I made my back to the road. Luckily, the return trip turned out to be much easier.
Prasat Stoeng, the last outlying temple before the main Preah Khan temple, was much easier to find, with a road leading right up to it. The main highlight here is a four-faced tower, similar to those found at the Bayon and around Angkor Thom. If Jayavarman VII really did live here before his reign, could this have been a prototype for all the other face towers in Angkor?
Prasat Stoeng isn’t huge, but is worth exploring for at least 15 minutes or so. The face tower is among the more detailed ones in Cambodia, with even the nostrils having been carved! Connected to this temple was a cruciform jetty that people would’ve used to get to Prasat Thkol.
Preah Khan of Kampong Svay (Bakan)
Finally, it was time to explore the main Preah Khan temple, or Prasat Bakan as it’s known locally. And it was here that we encountered staff members for the first time. They seemed fairly surprised to see any visitors. Though I’d read that entry to the temple was $10, I was only asked to pay 5. I didn’t know why, but I wasn’t going to protest.
One of Preah Khan’s architectural highlights is its elaborate entrance gate. The three towers which are connected to each other by gopuras are actually in better condition than the main part of the temple. They’re well worth several minutes of exploration. Exiting the gate and walking into the main complex, I now felt more like I was in the middle of a vast forest than the interior of a temple.
Preah Khan is your fairly typical Khmer ‘temple city.’ Rather than a town square or city hall at the center, the Khmer liked to build their cities around elaborate temples. Angkor Wat is the most famous example of a temple city, but other examples include Banteay Chmar, Phimai, and even the Preah Khan of central Angkor. But this one, at least in area, was by far the largest, encompassing 5 square kilometers. And the entire temple complex overall? Thirty square kilometers!
Despite being the Khmer Empire’s largest temple, at least in terms of area, we know surprisingly little about it. What’s more is that it’s also one of the empire’s oldest temples, dating back to at least the early 11th century. The only inscription in the area dates to the reign of Suryavarman I who ruled from 1002 – 1050.
What we do know is that the temple was gradually occupied and developed over the next few centuries. Just as we saw at the satellite temples mentioned above, Jayavarman VII left his mark all over the area.
If you’ve already visited Angkor, you may recognize one of Jayavarman VII’s trademark ‘fire houses’ near the temple entrance. These enigmatic structures were common features of his temples, but nobody really knows their true purpose.
If this was indeed a fire house, it would’ve had an added significance in this region known for its iron deposits. The prevalence of iron here helps explain the temple’s remote location. Interestingly, it wouldn’t have been the Khmer themselves who worked with the iron, but a little-known minority known as the Kuoy.
The Kuoy were an ethnic group distinct from the Khmer who spoke their own language. They long held a monopoly over iron extraction, keeping knowledge of the process within their clan. The Khmer relied heavily on iron for their never-ending construction projects. And this would’ve given the Kuoy a significant amount of political power and status in the empire.
In addition to knowledge and skill, special rituals were considered vital to the success of the iron smelting process. The local spirits the Kuoy called upon for their work were considered so potent that foundries had to be built some distance from the villages.
This leads us to believe that perhaps the Kuoy were somewhat feared by authorities in Angkor. Could this be why such an elaborate temple was built and maintained for so long, yet went pretty much unmentioned in official records? Perhaps Preah Khan of Kampong Svay functioned as sort of a state within a state.
Walking past some ruined structures, I found myself again in what appeared to be an empty field. Visiting Preah Khan nowadays, it’s hard to believe that many of the Khmer Empire’s most beautiful sculptures were once on display here. Today, many of them can be found in Phnom Penh’s National Museum or in Paris, while a great many more are missing. Unfortunately, due to the temple’s remote location, for many years there was nobody around to guard the temple against looters.
A short time later, I arrived at the central part of the temple. I walked under a photogenic archway, one of the temple’s most impressive structures. Sadly, though, much of the central area has been destroyed by looters over the years. Supposedly, some of the thieves even went as far as using explosives! The sanctuaries around the periphery are in better shape, at least.
I continued exploring the complex, picking out details I could amongst the few remaining structures. it wasn’t always easy to tell what I was looking at amongst the rubble, however.
Apparently, Preah Khan was primarily a Buddhist temple – even before the reign of devout Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. According to one theory, the reason for this is that in addition to their local spirits, the local Kuoy venerated the Buddha over the Hindu deities favored in Angkor.
Despite its grand scale, Preah Khan of Kampong Svay could hardly be considered one of Cambodia’s most impressive temples. At least not today, given its state of decay combined with the damage caused by incessant looting. Preah Khan, then, is for those who’ve already seen the main temples of Angkor and feel that they just can’t get enough.
It’s also for those who enjoy exploring ancient ruins alone. For the time being, at least, this is one of the last places where you can step into the shoes of the original explorers who found these abandoned ruins hundreds of years ago. No need to wait for people to finish up their selfies in front of the ancient stone, and no sound of tour group leaders shouting in the distance. That alone makes Preah Khan of Kampong Svay worth the long and bumpy ride to get there.
Preah Khan of Kampong Svay officially costs $10 to enter, though you may only be asked to pay $5.
Visiting as a day trip from Siem Reap is not advisable, given the distance and state of the road. Ideally, you should visit from the central Cambodian city of Kampong Thom.
Cambodian law prevents foreigners from driving their own vehicles or motorbikes, and you definitely wouldn’t want to visit in anything other than a 4×4.
For round-trip private transport from Siem Reap, you can expect to shell out at least $200, and at least $100 from Kampong Thom.
That’s why I highly recommend a 3-day outlying temple tour which you arrange for around $300 (see below).
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’em.
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 there, 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.
I stayed at a hotel right in the center of the city called Arunras. It cost $15 per night and I was easily able to just walk in and book a room after my driver dropped me off. There are a couple of restaurants on the first floor that are open for breakfast and dinner, while there are also food vendors on the street outside.
Unfortunately, I had to switch rooms due to seeing some bed bug-like creatures! At least the staff accommodated me and I had no problems with the second room.
The location of Arunras can’t be beat, but you may want to do further research on accommodation, especially if you’re staying for more than one night.