There's a magic about this charming yet confounding kingdom that casts a spell on visitors. An adventure to Cambodia will inspire travelers to contemplate what happens when ancient and modern worlds collide.
An Empire of Temples
Contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the mighty Khmer empire, which, during the Angkorian period, ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of this empire can be seen at the fabled temples of Angkor, monuments unrivaled in scale and grandeur in Southeast Asia. The traveler’s first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is sublime and is matched by only a few select spots on earth, such as Machu Picchu or Petra.
The Urban Scene
Just as Angkor is more than its wat, so too is Cambodia more than its temples, and its urban areas can surprise with their sophistication. Chaotic yet charismatic capital Phnom Penh is a revitalized city earning plaudits for its sumptuous riverside setting, cultural renaissance, and world-class wining-and-dining scene. Second city Siem Reap, with cosmopolitan cafes and a diverse nightlife, is as much a destination as the nearby iconic temples. And up-and-coming Battambang, reminiscent of Siem Reap before the advent of mass tourism, charms with a thriving contemporary art scene.
Experience the rhythm of rural life and landscapes of dazzling rice paddies and swaying sugar palms in Cambodia's countryside. The South Coast is fringed by tropical islands dotted with the occasional fishing village. Inland lie the Cardamom Mountains, part of a vast tropical wilderness providing a home to elusive wildlife and a gateway to emerging ecotourism adventures. The mighty Mekong River cuts through the country and hosts some of the region’s last remaining freshwater dolphins. The northeast is a world unto itself, its mountainous landscapes home to Cambodia’s highland people and an abundance of natural attractions and wildlife.
The Cambodian People
The Khmers have been to hell and back, struggling through years of bloodshed, poverty and political instability. But they are working hard to prevail, relying on their seemingly unbreakable spirit and an infectious optimism. No visitor comes away without a measure of admiration and affection for the inhabitants of this enigmatic kingdom.
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At the heart of Angkor Thom is the 12th-century Bayon, the mesmerising, if slightly mind-bending, state temple of Jayavarman VII. It epitomises the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s most celebrated king. Its 54 Gothic towers are decorated with 216 gargantuan smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara, and it is adorned with 1.2km of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures. The upper level of Bayon was closed for restoration when we visited and is not scheduled to reopen until 2022. However, the lower levels, including the epic bas-reliefs, will remain open throughout the restoration. The temple's eastward orientation leads most people to visit in the morning, though, Bayon looks equally good around late afternoon. Unique, even among its cherished contemporaries, the architectural audacity was a definitive political statement about the change from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. Known as the 'face temple' thanks to its iconic visages, these huge heads glare down from every angle, exuding power and control with a hint of humanity. This was precisely the blend required to hold sway over such a vast empire, ensuring the disparate and far-flung population yielded to Jayavarman VII's magnanimous will. As you walk around, a dozen or more of the heads are visible at any one time, full face or in profile, sometimes level with your eyes, sometimes staring down from on high. Though Bayon is now known to have been built by Jayavarman VII, for many years its origins were unknown. Shrouded in dense jungle, it also took researchers some time to realise that it stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom. There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face. Unlike Angkor Wat, which looks impressive from all angles, Bayon looks rather like a glorified pile of rubble from a distance. It’s only when you enter the temple and make your way up to the third level that its magic becomes apparent. The basic structure of Bayon comprises a simple three levels, which correspond more or less to three distinct phases of building. This is because Jayavarman VII began construction of this temple at an advanced age, so he was never confident it would be completed. Each time one phase was completed, he moved on to the next. The first two levels are square and adorned with bas-reliefs. They lead up to a third, circular level, with the towers and their faces. Some say that the Khmer empire was divided into 54 provinces at the time of Bayon’s construction, hence the 54 pairs of all-seeing eyes keeping watch on the kingdom’s outlying subjects. The famous carvings on the outer wall of the first level depict vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th-century Cambodia. The bas-reliefs on the second level do not have the epic proportions of those on the first level and tend to be fragmented. The reliefs described are those on the first level. The sequence assumes that you enter the Bayon from the east and view the reliefs in a clockwise direction. Moving in a clockwise direction from just south of the east gate you'll encounter your first bas-relief, Chams on the Run, a three-level panorama. On the first tier, Khmer soldiers march off to battle – check out the elephants and the ox-carts, which are almost exactly like those still used in Cambodia today. The second tier depicts coffins being carried back from the battlefield. In the centre of the third tier, Jayavarman VII, shaded by parasols, is shown on horseback followed by legions of concubines (to the left). Moving on, the first panel north of the southeastern corner shows Hindus praying to a linga (phallic symbol). This image was probably originally a Buddha, later modified by a Hindu king. The Naval Battle panel has some of the best-carved reliefs. The scenes depict a naval battle between the Khmers and the Chams (the latter with head coverings), and everyday life around the Tonlé Sap lake, where the battle was fought. Look for images of people picking lice from each other’s hair, of hunters and, towards the western end of the panel, a woman giving birth. In the Chams Vanquished, scenes from daily life are featured while the battle between the Khmers and the Chams takes place on the shore of Tonlé Sap lake, where the Chams are soundly thrashed. Scenes include two people playing chess, a cockfight and women selling fish in the market. The scenes of meals being prepared and served are in celebration of the Khmer victory. The most western relief of the south gallery, depicting a Military Procession, is unfinished, as is the panel showing elephants being led down from the mountains. Brahmans have been chased up two trees by tigers. The next panel depicts scenes that some scholars maintain is a Civil War. Groups of people, some armed, confront each other, and the violence escalates until elephants and warriors join the melee. Just north of the Civil War panel, the fighting continues on a smaller scale in the All-Seeing King. An antelope is being swallowed by a gargantuan fish; among the smaller fish is a prawn, under which an inscription proclaims that the king will seek out those in hiding. The next panel depicts a procession that includes the king (carrying a bow). Presumably it is a Victory Parade. At the western corner of the northern wall is a Khmer circus. A strongman holds three dwarfs, and a man on his back is spinning a wheel with his feet; above is a group of tightrope walkers. To the right of the circus, the royal court watches from a terrace, below which is a procession of animals. Some of the reliefs in this section remain unfinished. In A Land of Plenty, two rivers – one next to the doorpost and the other a few metres to the right – are teeming with fish. On the lowest level of the unfinished three-tiered Chams Defeat, the Cham armies are being defeated and expelled from the Khmer kingdom. The next two panels depict the Cham Armies Advancing, and the badly deteriorated panel shows the Chams (on the left) chasing the Khmers. The Sacking of Angkor shows the war of 1177, when the Khmers were defeated by the Chams, and Angkor was pillaged. The wounded Khmer king is being lowered from the back of an elephant and a wounded Khmer general is being carried on a hammock suspended from a pole. Directly above, despairing Khmers are getting drunk. The Chams (on the right) are in hot pursuit of their vanquished enemy. The next panel, the Chams Enter Angkor, depicts a meeting of the Khmer and Cham armies. Notice the flag bearers among the Cham troops (on the right). The Chams were defeated in the war, which ended in 1181, as depicted on the first panel in the sequence.
A spectacular sight to behold, Beng Mealea, located about 68km northeast of Siem Reap, is one of the most mysterious temples at Angkor, as nature has well and truly run riot. Exploring this Titanic of temples, built to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, is the ultimate Indiana Jones experience. Built in the 12th century under Suryavarman II, Beng Mealea is enclosed by a massive moat measuring 1.2km by 900m. The temple used to be utterly consumed by jungle, but some of the dense foliage has been cut back and cleaned up in recent years. Entering from the south, visitors wend their way over piles of finely chiselled sandstone blocks, through long, dark chambers and between hanging vines. The central tower has completely collapsed, but hidden away among the rubble and foliage are several impressive carvings, including a small but striking rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, as well as a well-preserved library in the northeastern quadrant. The temple is a special place and it is worth taking the time to explore it thoroughly. The large wooden walkway to and around the centre was originally constructed for the filming of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Two Brothers (2004), set in 1920s French Indochina and starring two tiger cubs. Beng Mealea has a large baray to the east and some atmospheric satellite temples such as Prasat Chrey. Apsara Authority has plans to reflood the ancient baray, as they did earlier with Jayatataka (Northern Baray), surrounding Neak Poan temple. There are several stop-and-dip food stalls (dishes US$2 to US$4) opposite the temple entrance. Run by friendly, English-speaking Sreymom, the Sreymom Beng Mealea Homestay is just a short walk away from Beng Mealea. The overnight rates include all home-cooked meals. It is also possible to prearrange lunch here, even if you don't stay overnight. It costs US$5 to visit Beng Mealea and there are additional small charges for transport, so make sure you work out in advance with the driver or guide who is paying for these. Beng Mealea is about 40km east of Bayon (as the crow flies) and 6.5km southeast of Phnom Kulen. By road it is about 68km (one hour by car, longer by moto or remork) from Siem Reap. The shortest route is via the junction town of Dam Dek, located on NH6 about 37km from Siem Reap in the direction of Phnom Penh. Turn north immediately after the market and continue on this road for 31km. The entrance to the temple lies just beyond the left-hand turn to Koh Ker. Allow a half day to visit, including the journey time from Siem Reap or combine it with Koh Ker in a long day trip best undertaken by car or 4WD. Beng Mealea is at the centre of an ancient Angkorian road connecting Angkor Thom and Preah Khan (Prasat Bakan) in Preah Vihear Province, now evocatively numbered Rte 66. A small Angkorian bridge just west of Chau Srei Vibol temple is the only remaining trace of the old Angkorian road between Beng Mealea and Angkor Thom; between Beng Mealea and Preah Khan there are at least 10 bridges abandoned in the forest. This is a way for extreme adventurers to get to Preah Khan temple, but do not undertake this journey lightly.
Beautiful, peaceful and covered in astonishingly intricate bas-reliefs, Banteay Chhmar is one of the most impressive temple complexes beyond the Angkor area. About a two-hour drive from Siem Reap, these remote ruins are also the site of a superb community-based homestay and tourism program. If you're looking for an opportunity to delve into Cambodian rural life and spend some quality time amid a temple complex far from the crowds, you could hardly find a more perfect spot. Banteay Chhmar and its nine satellite temples were constructed by Cambodia’s most prolific builder, Jayavarman VII (r 1181–1219), on the site of a 9th-century temple. The main temple housed one of the largest and most impressive Buddhist monasteries of the Angkorian period, and was originally enclosed by a 9km-long wall. Now atmospherically encroached upon by forest, it features several towers bearing enigmatic, Bayon-style four-faced Avalokiteshvara (Buddhist deities) with their mysterious and iconic smiles. The temple is also renowned for its 2000 sq metres of intricate carvings, which depict war victories and scenes from daily life. The artistic highlight are the bas-reliefs of multi-armed Avalokiteshvaras, unique to Banteay Chhmar, on the exterior of the southern section of the temple's western ramparts. Unfortunately, several of these were dismantled and trucked into Thailand in a brazen act of looting in 1998; of the original eight figures, only two – one with 22 arms, the other with 32 – remain in situ, but they still evoke the dazzling, intricate artistry involved in creating these carvings. The segments of the looted bas-reliefs that were intercepted by the Thais are now on display in Phnom Penh's National Museum of Cambodia. The nine satellite temples, many hidden deep in the jungle and with Bayon-style faces of their own, are well worth exploring for serious tomb-raider types. Guides booked through the CBT Office can show you the way. The easiest to find is Prasat Ta Prohm, hidden in the bush just 200m south of the main temple’s southern wall, its single crumbling tower bearing a well-preserved four-faced Avalokiteshvara. The Global Heritage Fund (www.globalheritagefund.org) is assisting with conservation efforts here, and a wonderful community-based tourism (CBT) scheme gives visitors incentive to stay another day. The scheme includes fantastic homestays, activities and guides for temple tours, all encouraging community development and booked through the CBT Office. Activities include ox-cart rides and traditional music shows, and the office can arrange trips to outlying temples by local transport. The office is opposite and just south of the Banteay Chhmar main (eastern) entrance. Banteay Chhmar can easily be done as a day trip with private transport out of Siem Reap. Shared taxis from Sisophon, 61km south of the temple along the sealed NH56, usually only go as far as Thmor Pouk, although a few continue on to Banteay Chhmar (15,000r, one hour) and Samraong. A moto (motorcycle taxi) from Sisophon to Banteay Chhmar will cost US$15 to US$20 return, a taxi US$50 to US$60 return.
The traveller's first glimpse of Angkor Wat, the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, is matched by only a few select spots on earth. Built by Suryavarman II (r 1112–52) and surrounded by a vast moat, Angkor Wat is one of the most inspired monuments ever conceived by the human mind. Stretching around the central temple complex is an 800m-long series of bas-reliefs, and rising 55m above the ground is the central tower, which gives the whole ensemble its sublime unity. Angkor Wat is, figuratively, heaven on earth. It is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The ‘temple that is a city’, Angkor Wat is the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion. The Cambodian god-kings of old each strove to better their ancestors’ structures in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building, the mother of all temples, Angkor Wat. The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia: it is the national symbol, the epicentre of Khmer civilisation and a source of fierce national pride. Soaring skyward and surrounded by a moat that would make its European castle counterparts blush, Angkor Wat was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built. Simply unique, it is a stunning blend of spirituality and symmetry, an enduring example of humanity’s devotion to its gods. Relish the very first approach, as that spine-tickling moment when you emerge on the inner causeway will rarely be felt again. It is the best-preserved temple at Angkor, and repeat visits are rewarded with previously unnoticed details. There is much about Angkor Wat that is unique among the temples of Angkor. The most significant fact is that the temple is oriented towards the west. Symbolically, west is the direction of death, which once led a large number of scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb. This idea was supported by the fact that the magnificent bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. Vishnu, however, is also frequently associated with the west, and it is now commonly accepted that Angkor Wat most likely served both as a temple and as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II. Angkor Wat is famous for its beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs). Almost 2000 apsaras are carved into the walls of Angkor Wat, each of them unique, and there are 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to check out. Many of these exquisite apsaras have been damaged by centuries of bat droppings and urine, but they are now being restored by the German Apsara Conservation Project. Allow at least two hours for a visit to Angkor Wat and plan a half-day if you want to decipher the bas-reliefs with a tour guide and ascend to Bakan, the upper level, which is open to visitors on a timed ticketing system. The western causeway is currently closed to visitors for an extensive renovation and access is via a floating pontoon, which has become something of a local tourist attraction in itself.
The so-called 'Tomb Raider Temple', Ta Prohm is cloaked in dappled shadow, its crumbling towers and walls locked in the slow muscular embrace of vast root systems. Undoubtedly the most atmospheric ruin at Angkor, Ta Prohm should be high on the hit list of every visitor. Its appeal lies in the fact that, unlike the other monuments of Angkor, it has been swallowed by the jungle, and looks very much the way most of the monuments of Angkor appeared when European explorers first stumbled upon them. Well, that’s the theory, but in fact the jungle is pegged back and only the largest trees are left in place, making it manicured rather than raw like Beng Mealea. Still, a visit to Ta Prohm is a unique, other-worldly experience. There is a poetic cycle to this venerable ruin, with humanity first conquering nature to rapidly create, and nature once again conquering humanity to slowly destroy. If Angkor Wat is testimony to the genius of the ancient Khmers, Ta Prohm reminds us equally of the awesome fecundity and power of the jungle. Built from 1186 and originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. It is one of the few temples in the Angkor region where an inscription provides information about the temple’s dependents and inhabitants. Almost 80,000 people were required to maintain or attend at the temple, among them more than 2700 officials and 615 dancers. Ta Prohm is a temple of towers, closed courtyards and narrow corridors. Many of the corridors are impassable, clogged with jumbled piles of delicately carved stone blocks dislodged by the roots of long-decayed trees. Bas-reliefs on bulging walls are carpeted with lichen, moss and creeping plants, and shrubs sprout from the roofs of monumental porches. Trees, hundreds of years old, tower overhead, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish pall over the whole scene. The most popular of the many strangulating root formations is the one on the inside of the easternmost gopura (entrance pavilion) of the central enclosure, nicknamed the Crocodile Tree. One of the most famous spots in Ta Prohm is the so-called Tomb Raider tree, where Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft picked a jasmine flower before falling through the earth into…Pinewood Studios. It used to be possible to climb onto the damaged galleries, but this is now prohibited, to protect both temple and visitor. Many of these precariously balanced stones weigh a tonne or more and would do some serious damage if they came down. Ta Prohm is currently under stabilisation and restoration by an Indian team of archaeologists working with their Cambodian counterparts. The temple is at its most impressive early in the day. Allow as much as two hours to visit, especially if you want to explore the maze-like corridors and iconic tree roots.
The most dramatically situated of all Angkorian monuments, Prasat Preah Vihear sprawls along a clifftop near the Thai border, with breathtaking views of lowland Cambodia 550m below. An important place of pilgrimage for millennia, the temple was built by a succession of seven Khmer monarchs, beginning with Yasovarman I (r 889–910) and ending with Suryavarman II (r 1112–52). Like other temple-mountains from this period, it was designed to represent Mt Meru and dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. For generations, Prasat Preah Vihear (called Khao Phra Wiharn by the Thais) has been a source of tension between Cambodia and Thailand. This area was ruled by Thailand for several centuries, but returned to Cambodia during the French protectorate, under the treaty of 1907. But sovereignty over the temple has been an issue ever since, with tensions between Cambodia and Thailand flaring up from time to time – most recently from 2008 to 2011, when armed confrontations around the temple claimed the lives of several dozen soldiers and some civilians on both sides. The temple is laid out along a north–south processional axis with five cruciform gopura (pavilions), decorated with exquisite carvings, separated by esplanades up to 275m long. From the parking area, walk up the hill to toppled and crumbling Gopura V at the north end of the temple complex. From here, the grey-sandstone Monumental Stairway leads down to the Thai border. Walking south up the slope from Gopura V, the next pavilion you get to is Gopura IV. On the pediment above the southern door, look for an early rendition of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a theme later depicted awesomely at Angkor Wat. Keep climbing through Gopura III and II until finally you reach Gopura I. Here the galleries, with their inward-looking windows, are in a remarkably good state of repair, but the Central Sanctuary is just a pile of rubble. Outside, the cliff affords stupendous views of Cambodia’s northern plains, with the holy mountain of Phnom Kulen (487m) looming in the distance. This is a fantastic spot for a picnic. Prasat Preah Vihear sits atop an escarpment in the Dangrek Mountains (elevation 625m), 30km north of the town of Sra Em and about three hours by car from Siem Reap. Your first stop upon arriving should be the information centre, where you pay for entry, secure an English-speaking guide if you want one (US$15), and arrange transport up to the temple via moto (US$5 return) or 4WD pickup truck (US$25 return, maximum six passengers). Bring your passport as you’ll need it to buy a ticket. The first 5km of the 6.5km temple access road are gradual enough, but the final 1.5km is extremely steep; nervous passengers might consider walking this last bit, especially if it's wet.
The 3000-sq-km Keo Seima (formerly called Seima Protected Forest) hosts the country’s greatest treasure trove of mammalian wildlife. Besides unprecedented numbers of black-shanked doucs and southern yellow-cheeked crested gibbons, an estimated 115 wild elephants – accounting for around a quarter of Cambodia's total population – roam the park, along with bears and cats. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) helps to manage the forest, and there are a range of ecotourism initiatives under way, including primate spotting in Andong Kroloeng. The bird life is also impressive, and the jungle, which is lusher and denser than the dry forest in eastern Mondulkiri, has been relatively well preserved. Well-trained English-speaking guides accompany guests on wildlife-spotting trips for around US$85 to US$125 per person per day. Overnight stays are possible in the Jahoo Gibbon Camp, located on-site. There's a flat US$30-per-person conservation fee for both day and overnight visits. All visitors must wear neon yellow vests when entering the forest. The idea is that the primates will come to recognise yellow-vested people as harmless tourists they needn't flee from (as opposed to the drab-clothed loggers and poachers lurking on the park's periphery). The road to Sen Monorom passes right through the sanctuary, so keep an eye out for monkeys if driving through. Andong Kroloeng lies about 5km from the NH76 and about 30km from Sen Monorom. The rates include a 4WD transfer from the NH76 for the last 5km to the camp, as the road can get extremely messy in the wet season (after heavy rains, you may need to walk the last 2km). For the latest developments on tours in the park, contact the Hefalump Cafe in Sen Monorom. Book directly with either the Sam Veasna Center – based in Siem Reap and focused on extended stays, particularly for birders – or The Hangout in Sen Monorom, which is focused on more budget-friendly gibbon spotting.
In 1975 Tuol Svay Prey High School was taken over by Pol Pot’s security forces and turned into a prison known as Security Prison 21 (S-21); it soon became the largest centre of detention and torture in the country. S-21 has been turned into the Tuol Sleng museum, which serves as a testament to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. Between 1975 and 1978, some 20,000 people held at S-21 were taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge leaders were meticulous in keeping records of their barbarism. Each prisoner who passed through S-21 was photographed, sometimes before and after torture. The museum displays include room after room of harrowing B&W photographs; virtually all of the men, women and children pictured were later killed. You can tell which year a picture was taken by the style of number-board that appears on the prisoner’s chest. Several foreigners from Australia, New Zealand and the USA were also held at S-21 before being murdered. It's worth hiring a guide, as they can tell you the stories behind some of the people in the photographs. An audio tour is also available, and recommended for greater insight for visitors without a guide. As the Khmer Rouge ‘revolution’ reached ever greater heights of insanity, it began devouring its own. Generations of torturers and executioners who worked here were in turn killed by those who took their places. During early 1977, when the party purges of Eastern Zone cadres were getting under way, S-21 claimed an average of 100 victims a day. When the Vietnamese army liberated Phnom Penh in early 1979, there were only seven prisoners alive at S-21, all of whom had used their skills, such as painting or photography, to stay alive. Fourteen others had been tortured to death as Vietnamese forces were closing in on the city. Photographs of their gruesome deaths are on display in the rooms where their decomposing corpses were found. Their graves are nearby in the courtyard. Two of the survivors, Chum Mey and Bou Meng, are still alive, and often spend their time at S-21 promoting their first-hand accounts of their time in the prison. A visit to Tuol Sleng is a profoundly depressing experience. The sheer ordinariness of the place makes it even more horrific: the suburban setting, the plain school buildings and the grassy playing area where children kick around balls, juxtaposed with rusted beds, instruments of torture and wall after wall of disturbing portraits. It demonstrates the darkest side of the human spirit that lurks within us all. Tuol Sleng is not for the squeamish. Behind many of the displays at Tuol Sleng is the Documentation Center of Cambodia (www.dccam.org). DC-Cam was established in 1995 through Yale University’s Cambodian Genocide Program to research and document the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. It became an independent organisation in 1997 and researchers have spent years translating confessions and paperwork from Tuol Sleng, mapping mass graves, and preserving evidence of Khmer Rouge crimes. French-Cambodian director Rithy Panh’s film The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine includes interviews with former prison guards, including chief interrogator Him Huy, and is shown daily at 9am. Another Khmer Rouge documentary, Behind the Wall, screens at 3.45pm daily.
For tantalising lost-world ambience, this remote temple complex about 90km south of Preah Vihear City can't be beaten. It's wrapped by vines and trees, and thanks to its back-of-beyond location, the site is astonishingly peaceful. You'll very likely be the only visitor, although you’ll need private transport to get here. Preah Khan of Kompong Svay is the largest temple enclosure constructed during the Angkorian period, quite a feat when you consider the competition. Preah Khan’s history is shrouded in mystery, but it was long an important religious site, and some 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 Preah Khan was something of a second city in the Angkorian empire. Don’t confuse Preah Khan of Kompong Svay with the similarly gargantuan Preah Khan temple at Angkor. This Preah Khan covers almost 5 sq km, and includes the main temple as well several satellite temples, including Prasat Damrei, Prasat Preah Thkol and Prasat Preah Stung, distinguished by four immaculately preserved Bayon-style Avalokiteshvara faces. The main temple is surrounded by a moat (now dry), similar to the one around Angkor Thom. It consists of half-toppled prangs (temple towers), entangled with trees and overgrown by forest. As recently as the mid-1990s, the central structure was thought to be in reasonable shape, but at some point in the second half of the decade, looters arrived seeking buried statues under each prang. 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 mess we see today. One entry fee gains you admission to all of the temples in the enclosure. Locals say there are no land mines in the vicinity of Preah Khan, but stick to the marked paths just to be on the safe side. Upgraded roads mean that you can now visit Preah Khan year-round, although it's still easiest in the dry season. It’s an extra-long day trip from Siem Reap; to do it more cheaply, hire a moto or a taxi in Preah Vihear City or Kompong Thom. To get here on your own, turn west off smooth NH62 in Svay Pak, about 60km south of Preah Vihear City and 75km north of Kompong Thom. From here an all-season dirt road (substantially pitted with potholes) takes you to Ta Seng, about 30km from the highway and just 4km from the temple. The last 4km are in surprisingly good shape.
Community Local Shop: Footprint Cafés
Rare glimpse of iconic Angkor Wat free of tourists
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