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Introducing Koh Ker

Abandoned for centuries to the forests of the north, Koh Ker, capital of the Angkorian empire from AD 928 to AD 944, was long one of Cambodia’s most remote and inaccessible temple complexes. Now, since the opening of a toll road from Dam Dek (via Beng Mealea), Koh Ker (pronounced ko-kaye) is within day-trip distance of Siem Reap. But to really appreciate the temples – the ensemble has 42 major structures in an area that measures 9km by 4km – it’s necessary to spend at least one night.

Several of the most impressive sculptures in the National Museum come from Koh Ker, including the huge garuda that greets visitors in the entrance hall and a unique carving depicting a pair of wrestling monkey-kings.

Most visitors start at Prasat Krahom (Red Temple), the second-largest structure at Koh Ker, named for the red bricks from which it is constructed. Sadly, none of the carved lions for which this temple was once known remain, though there’s still plenty to see – stone archways and galleries lean hither and thither and impressive stone carvings grace lintels and doorposts. A naga-flanked causeway and a series of sanctuaries, libraries and gates lead past trees and vegetation-covered ponds. Just west of Prasat Krahom, at the far western end of a half-fallen colonnade, are the remains (most of the head) of a statue of Nandin.

The principal monument at Koh Ker is Prasat Thom (Prasat Kompeng), a 55m-wide, 40m-high sandstone-faced pyramid with seven tiers. This striking structure, just west of Prasat Krahom, looks like it could almost be a Mayan site somewhere on the Yucatan Peninsula. Currently, the staircase to the top remains closed for safety reasons, as it is crumbling apart in places. Some 40 inscriptions, dating from 932 to 1010, have been found here.

South of this central group is a 1185m-by-548m baray known as the Rahal. It is fed by the Sen River, which supplied water to irrigate the land in this arid area.

Some of the largest Shiva linga in Cambodia can still be seen in four temples about 1km northeast of Prasat Thom. The largest is found in Prasat Thneng, while Prasat Leung is similarly well endowed.

Among the many other temples that are found around Koh Ker, Prasat Bram is a real highlight. It consists of a collection of brick towers, at least two of which have been completely smothered by voracious strangler figs; the probing roots cut through the brickwork like liquid mercury.