Koh Ker / Beng Mealea, Cambodia
Prasat Koh Ker is a large group of temples located 80 miles (130 km) north of Siem Reap. The site covers an area of approximately 30 square miles (80 km²) and contains over 180 temples and monuments. Many of these ruins have been lost to dense forest and are not accessible to visitors. Due to its remoteness, this site is well off the tourist path and sees few visitors when compared to the temples of Angkor.
When King Jayavarman IV became the ruler of the Khmer empire in 928 AD, he moved the capital to his home city of Koh Ker. He is credited with building the road connecting Angkor with Koh Ker, one of four legs of the “Angkor Highway”. This system of roads would eventually stretch into present day Thailand, connecting the Empire’s distant cities with Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. King Jayavarman IV’s son, Harshavarman II, also ruled from Koh Ker, making it the kingdom’s capital from 928-944 AD.
The highlight of the site is a temple complex known as Prasat Thom.
These ruins are surrounded by a (mostly dry) moat and were built of a combination of sandstone and brick. Very little restoration work has been completed other than shoring up walls and structures to prevent further deterioration. Just to the west of Prasat Thom is an enormous 115 foot (35 m) tall sandstone pyramid, which served as the temples prang. The original stone stairway to the top is no longer usable; a wooden stairway has been built on the north side allowing visitors access to the highest part of the pyramid. The view of rural Cambodia from the peak is very impressive as is the stone structure itself. The center of the prang has partially collapsed, but you can still see great carvings of demons holding up a base that was to have supported a statue of Shiva’s bull Nandi. Towards the east and south of Prasat Thom are an additional 17 small satellite temples which are easily accessed from the main road.
Koh Ker is very difficult to get to using public transportation. There is a small town to the south of the site which has at least two guest houses. However, there does not appear to be bus service there. The best option would be to base out of Preah Vihear City, 37 miles (60 km) to the east, and take a motorcycle taxi or car to the site. Unfortunately that would be a very long ride, perhaps 90 minutes, on the back of a moto.
I was fortunate enough to find a really nice guy in Sra’aem with a car who offered to take me to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea and on to Siem Reap for $70 USD. I invited a fellow traveler whom I had met on a bus to join me. After splitting the fare with my new friend, it worked out to be quite the bargain. The driver, Mr. Roth, wanted to take his daughter to the Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap, so his wife and two charming daughters came with us. We departed Sra’aem at 07:30 AM and arrived at Koh Ker an hour later, travelling by private car is definitely faster and more comfortable than by public bus. We spent several hours touring Koh Ker at a very leisurely pace before heading off to Beng Mealea.
The Beng Mealea temple complex is located 37 miles (60 km) from Siem Reap on Highway 64. Its modern day position, on a direct route between Angkor Wat and Koh Ker, is no coincidence. Scholars believe that Suryavarman II built Beng Mealea during the Angkor period of the early 12th century. It was clearly positioned along the Angkor highway that Jayavarman IV had constructed nearly two centuries before.
Beng Mealea can be reached from Siem Reap in approximately one hour which makes it squarely on the tourist path. The temple can get very busy with visitors but is well worth a visit as the reliefs (carvings) here are fantastic. There are a number of Naga (serpent) statues in excellent condition which are very popular with photographers.
Little restoration work has been completed here and much of the temple is overgrown with plants and large trees. The main complex is accessed via series of raised wooden walkways which are partially shaded by the encroaching forest. The shade gives the visitor some relief from the midday heat and the walkways make this temple unique compared with other sites like Angkor Wat.
We toured Beng Mealea for about an hour and a half before heading to Siem Reap. Upon arriving in Siem Reap around 04:00 PM, Mr. Roth was kind enough to drop us off at our respective hotels. We had a fantastic day touring temples at a leisurely pace with a very kind family. I am grateful to have met Mr. Roth; I might not have made it to Koh Ker without him. Please feel free to contact me via e-mail for Mr. Roth’s phone number.
Until next time,
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