Most people are familiar with Khmer Empire’s capital of Angkor in the Siem Reap district in Cambodia, but not many have heard of Koh Ker, the once grand capital of the Khmer empire for a brief period between 928 to 944 AD.
Left for a millennium in the jungle in the northern province of Cambodia close to the border of Thailand, Koh Ker is the most remote archeological site in the country. It was very inaccessible for a long time and was rarely visited until the road development in 2004. The site can now be easily reached by car from Siem Reap in about two hours and forty-five minutes.
Khmer Empire’s capital was moved from Angkor to Koh Ker (pronounced ‘Ko Kei’) by King Jayavarman IV during his reign. Being the least studied among Khmer temple complex, it is unclear what motivated King J IV to move the capital. The capital was moved back to Angkor when his son succeeded him to the throne.
More than 100 temples and sanctuaries were built in Koh Ker during its brief stint as a Khmer capital. However, only about 40 of them are accessible to visitors today. Most of them are still hidden in the thickness of the jungle. Local authorities are unable to clear them of vegetation as they are located in areas that have not been cleared of landmines.
Koh Ker temples housed extraordinary sculptures, but none of them are left at the site as the temples were heavily looted. Many of them are illegally in the possession of private collectors and international museums, and some are kept in Cambodian museums.
Interestingly, New York Times recently published an article reporting that the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York was returning two Koh Ker statues to Cambodia. This was the outcome after Cambodia’s officials successfully documented that the two statues that were donated to the museum were actually smuggled out of the country in the 1970’s.
It looks like efforts are being made to secure some of Koh Ker’s structure from further falling apart, but no restoration works has been done at the temple complex. Archeological surveys were undertaken in the 1960’s but all studies were destroyed during the rule of Khmer Rouge regime.
The main temple in Koh Ker is Prasat Thom, a 7-tiered pyramid that look more like a Mayan than a Khmer temple. A giant linga, a phallic symbol for Hindu god Shiva, used to sit at the summit but has long disappeared.
Our driver, Mr. Pop, who had been to Koh Ker many times, was surprised to get a cell phone signal at the site for the first time. He saw wires going up behind the temple and realized that it is now used a cell tower.
We hopped back into our car to visit some of the Prasats (temples) that dotted the access road that circles the main temple area.
If you’re looking for well-restored temples, then obviously Koh Ker is not for you. What we liked about this site was that it gave us a sense of how the Khmer temples were like when the explorers just stumbled upon them in the 19th century. It also let our imagination go wild on how grand the temple complex was at its peak. Also, Koh Ker may be a long drive from Siem Reap but we very much enjoyed the beautiful and tranquil view of the countryside along the way.
- Koh Ker is located 130 kms north of Siem Reap.
- There are no public transports to and around Koh Ker. A private transportation can be arranged from Siem Rep. A trip to Koh Ker can be combined with a visit to Beng Melea.
- We paid U$120 for a car for a combined day trip to Koh Ker and Beng Melea. The car and driver was referred to us by our tuk-tuk driver. It was cheaper than the $150 being charged by our hotel. We could probably found a cheaper one if we had more time to research while in Siem Reap.
- The admission to the site is US$10.