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Introducing Preah Khan

Covering almost 5 sq km, Preah Khan – not to be confused with a temple of the same name at Angkor – is the largest temple enclosure constructed during the Angkorian period, quite a feat when you consider the competition. Thanks to its back-of-beyond location, the site is astonishingly quiet and peaceful.

Preah Khan’s history is shrouded in mystery, but it was long an important religious site, and some of the structures here date back to the 9th century. Both Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, and Jayavarman VII lived here at various times during their lives, suggesting that Preah Khan was something of a second city in the Angkorian empire. Originally dedicated to Hindu deities, it was reconsecrated to Mahayana Buddhist worship during a monumental reconstruction undertaken by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

At the eastern end of the 3km-long baray (reservoir) is a small pyramid temple called Prasat Damrei (Elephant Temple). At the summit of the hill, two of the original exquisitely carved elephants can still be seen; two others are at Phnom Penh’s National Museum and Paris’ Musée Guimet.

In the centre of the baray is Prasat Preah Thkol (known by locals as Mebon), an island temple similar in style to the Western Mebon at Angkor. At the baray’s western end stands Prasat Preah Stung (known to locals as Prasat Muk Buon or Temple of the Four Faces), perhaps the most memorable structure here because its central tower is adorned with four enigmatic Bayon-style faces of Avalokiteshvara.

It’s a further 400m southwest to the walls of Preah Khan itself, which are surrounded by a moat similar to the one around Angkor Thom. Near the eastern gopura (entrance pavilion) there’s a dharmasala (pilgrims’ rest house). Much of this central area is overgrown by forest.

As recently as the mid-1990s, the central structure was thought to be in reasonable shape, but some time in the second half of the decade looters arrived seeking buried statues under each prang (temple tower). Assaulted with pneumatic drills and mechanical diggers, the ancient temple never stood a chance and many of the towers simply collapsed in on themselves, leaving the depressing mess we see today. Once again, a temple that had survived so much couldn’t stand the onslaught of the 20th century and its all-consuming appetite.

Among the carvings found at Preah Khan was the bust of Jayavarman now in Phnom Penh’s National Museum and widely copied as a souvenir for tourists. The body of the statue was discovered in the 1990s by locals who alerted authorities, making it possible for a joyous reunion of head and body in 2000.

Most locals refer to this temple as Prasat Bakan; scholars officially refer to it as Bakan Svay Rolay, combining the local name for the temple and the district name. Khmers in Siem Reap often refer to it as Preah Khan-Kompong Svay.

Locals say there are no landmines in the vicinity of Preah Khan, but stick to marked paths just to be on the safe side.