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The Temples of Cambodia

The Temples of Cambodia

Phnom Penh

I never really warmed to Phnom Penh and I cannot really put my finger on why.  It cannot be the noise, the fumes or the amount of people as I have visited places that were more crowded,  noisier and had more air pollution than Phnom Penh and which I still liked better.  However, I guess it is still worth spending a day or two in Cambodia’s capital. Phnom Penh is a relatively small city which can easily be navigated on foot, which I generally like as it gives you a better feel of the place. So I spend a day ambling around Phnom Penh walking from my hotel to Wat Phnom (the highest point in Phnom Penh at about 30m), via the Royal Palace,  the National Museum and the food section of the Central Market, where I had lunch consisting of noodle soup and Rambutan. The Central Market is absolutely huge and if you are into shopping it is probably an interesting place to visit.

Royal Palace
Phnom Penh: Royal Palace

The most interesting museum in Phnom Penh and unfortunately also the most depressing is the Tuol Sleng Museum, the former High School that was taken over by the security forces of Pol pot and turned into the Security Prison 21 (S-21). The security services kept meticulous records of all the detained and the photographs of the prisoners , most of which where taken to the Killing Fields of  Choeung Ek and killed, are now displayed in the museum making for a pretty harrowing visit.

Central Market (Psar Thmei)
Phnom Penh: Central Market (Psar Thmei)

My plan was to go from Phnom Phen to Siam Reap via Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Vihear Khan in the Preah Vihear Khan Province,  Prasat Preah Vihear, Koh Ker and Beang Meala. Thus after two days in Phnom Pen I took the bus to Siam Reap and got out in Kompong Thom where I dropped off my rucksack at the Sambor Village Hotel before meeting up with Mr. Vothea of the Tourist Transportation Association Kompong Thom (TTAK) with whom I had arranged to take me to the various temples before leaving for Cambodia.  Arranging this tour with the TTAK was very easy as Mr. Vothea promptly replied to all my e-mails and provided me with all the details I needed.  The 4 day trip cost about $320 (not including accommodation and food). This is probably not the cheapest way to see these temples but it had the advantage that I was driving in a modern air-conditioned SUV and that I did not loose large amounts of time trying to get there by public transport or by hitch-hiking.  Preah Vihear Khan is especially difficult to get to and the only way I could think of doing it was either hiring a driver from Kompong Thom or from Siam Reap.

Sambor Prei Kuk

Before setting of for Preah Vihear Khan and Prasat Preach Vihear,  I visited Sambor Prei Kuk which is only 30 km north of Kompong Thom and can be easily reached from Kompong Thom either by tuk-tuk, moto or car. Sambor Prei Kuk consists of three different complexes: the North Group (Prasat Sambor), the Central Group (Prasat Tao) and the South Group (Prasat Yeay Poan) all of which can be reached by foot> Moreover, there are other small temples dotted around the site.  When I visited Sambor Prei Kuk at the beginning of July I had the whole site virtually to myself which was a pleasant surprise. I can only put the lack of visitors down to the fact that I was travelling slightly off the beaten track (only very slightly) during the low season, which in my opinion is the best time to visit Cambodia if you want to visit the temples. Moreover Sambor Prei Kuk was probably not that much on people’s radar at that stage. However, this might well have changed now as Sambor Prei Kuk, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site round about the time I visited.

Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk

The temple complex at Sambor Prei Kuk is one of the oldest in Cambodia and dates back to the Pre-Angkorian Chenla Kingdom (late 6th to 9th century A.D.), established by King Isanavarma I in 613 A.D. as central royal sanctuary and capital, known then as Isanapura. The Chenla Kingdom, a direct ancestor of the Khmer Empire, first appears in Chinese Chronicles as a vassal of the Funan Kingdom. Around 550 C.E. The Chenla Kingdom became independent and over the  next 60 or so years it succeeded to conquer the Funan. Most buildings were built under the reign of King Isanavarman I and are mainly constructed out of brick, a characteristic of pre-Angkorian structures. Later on, Chenla was divided into north and south states, of which the Chinese Chronicles refer to as ‘Land Chenla’ and ‘Water Chenla’, respectively.  The centre of the northern Chenla was at the Champassak province in today’s southern Laos, where you can find the impressive temples at Wat Phu. Southern Chenla occupied the former Funan’s territory along the Mekong Delta and the coast. In 715, both Chenla states were further broken up into several smaller states. In 790 a young Cambodian prince, claiming to be descended from the rulers of Funan, was consecrated in eastern Cambodia under the title Jayavarman II. In 802 A.D. the Khmer empire was founded, which saw a switch of power from Isanapura to Angkor Wat (near Siem Reap), which would be the centre of power in the area for the next 600 years.

Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk

Preah Khan (Preah Vihear Province)

The day after visiting Sambor Prei Kuk, we left Kompong Thom for Preah Khan which is about 150km north of Kompong Thom.  The drive took about 3  to 4 hours (including a lunch break) as not all the roads are fully surfaced and some of the dirt roads contained some large potholes. However, overall the roads to the temple seemed to be in pretty good nick and I got the impression that it should be possible to get to the temple all-year round. From what I gathered when reading up about the temple this has not always been the case.  After visiting Sambor Prei Kuk I thought that the number of tourists could not possibly decrease any further, but they did – here I was the only visitors, even the guards at the entrance said that they had not seen a single visitor in a day or two. When you get you Preach Khan make sure that your driver takes you to all the small temples which are dotted around. The one I liked best was the one located in the middle of the barray, called Prasat Preach Thkol, although this might require getting your feet wet. The other two temples I visited are the ‘Elephant Temple’ (Prasat Damrei) at the west end of the barray and the ‘Temple of Four Faces’ (Prasat Preah Stung).

Preah Khan (Preah Vihear Province)
Preah Khan (Preah Vihear Province)

The main complex of the temple was built during  the reign of three kings: Suryavarman I (1011-1050 CE), Suryavarman II (1113-1150 CE), and Javavarman VII (1181-1215 CE). With regard to the general layout of temple, it is surrounded by four enclosure walls. The main sanctuay and outer enclosure were probably built by King Suryaravarman I; the second enclosure dates to the period of Suryavarman II, while the 3rd and 4th enclosures as well as the barray are attributed to King Jayavarman VII. 

Unfortunately, large parts of the complex have been damaged by thieves while looting sculptures and carvings. In particular the magnificent, central tower collapsed in 2004 during a looting attempt with a mechanical digger. Nevertheless, walking around the temple was definitely worth the effort and I can just recommend a visit.

Preah Khan (Preah Vihear Province)
Preah Khan (Preah Vihear Province)

Overnight we stayed in a ‘homestay’ in a small village close to Preah Khan. Before dinner I wandered around the village and watched people harvesting the rice from their  rice paddies. Dinner, which was very tasty, consisted of some form of ‘lemony chicken’ and rice, which was very different from what you are normally served in restaurants.  Unfortunately, I was not able to ask how to prepare it as I would not have minded having it again.  Looking it up on the web so far has not been successful.

My homestay near Preah Khan
My homestay near Preah Khan
My homestay near Preah Khan
My homestay near Preah Khan

The next morning we left for Prasat Preah Vihear, breakfast consisting of deep-fried bananas which Mr. Vothea purchased on the way. Prasat Preah Vihear is located in the north of Cambodia on the border with Thailand and the drive took another three hours or so.

On the way to Prasat Preah Vihear
On the way to Prasat Preah Vihear

Prasat Preah Vihear

This spectacular temple is perched on a cliff on the the border between Thailand and Cambodia, and until fairly recently was closed to visitors.  Sovereignty over the temple had been disputed for many years until 1962, when the International Court of Justice ruled that it belonged to Cambodia. However, during the civil war that engulfed Cambodia in 1970 , the temple became a military outpost for the Khmer National Armed Forces and remained closed until 1998, when visitors could approach the temple from Thailand.  In 2003,  Cambodia completed the access road to the top of the cliff and from then on it became possible to visit the temple from both sides. In 2008 the border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia flared up again which led to violent clashes between the Thai and Cambodian armed forces in 2011. However,  since then the situation has been fairly stable and the temple can now be visited without any problems.

 

Prasat Vihear Khan
Prasat Vihear Khan

Unfortunately private drivers are not allowed to drive right up to the temple, which is situated on top of a cliff overlooking Thailand and Cambodia. Thus my driver dropped me off a  the information center  in Kor Muy from where it is another 5km to the temple itself.  At the information center you buy your ticket and arrange for transport to the temple. I choose to ride at the back of of a motorcycle which was fine for the first few kilometres where the road was in a good condition and the ascend was not too steep. But the last two kilometres are extremely steep and the condition of the road gets worse and worse until you are basically driving over rock.  I have to say I was happy when I got off the motocycle and did not quite look forward to the way back.  As it turned out the way back was actually worse as there was a torrential downpour!! This was indeed one of the few days where the rain started to come down earlier than I expected and I got completely soaked. You can see the ominous build up of clouds, which resulted in a more dramatic atmosphere, in some of the pictures below.

Construction of the first temple on the site began in the early 9th century and was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The earliest surviving parts of the temple, however, date from the early 10th century, when the empire’s capital was located at Koh Ker, while most of the temple was constructed during the reigns of the Khmer kings Suryavarman I  (1006–1050 CE) and Suryavarman II (1113–1150 CE).

Prasat Vihear Khan

From Prasat Preah Vihear we drove to Sra Em where we stayed overnight before driving to Siam Reap via Koh Ker and Beng Meala. Of these two temples I much preferred the former one. For some reason I found Beng Meala a bit disappointing but I am not entirely sure why.  It is definitely impressive as most of it is covered in dense vegetation and you get a good idea what it looked like when it was first discovered assuming your imagination allows you to blend out the many tourists. Maybe that was the cause for my disappointment – after Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Khan and Prasat Preah Vihear which I virtually had to myself, this was the first temple where I encountered large crowds. Moreover, as there is only one path through the temple the crowds cannot really disperse and you end up jostling for space.

Koh Ker

Under Jayavarman IV (921-941 CE) and his successor Harshavarman II, Koh Ker became the capital of Cambodia for a brief period of time.It is not entirely clear why Jayavarman IV moved his captital to this remote region, about 120 kilometers northeast of Angkor. One theory is that Jayavarman IV may have been a local leader with ties to this region prior to his marriage to the half sister of King Yasovarman I (889-900). When Yasovarman I died without a successor, Jayavarman may have seized the opportunity to establish himself as king, retreating to his homeland where his power base would have been more secure. In any case, Jayavarman IV swiftly went about constructing his capital, in time raising over 40 temples during his two decades of rule.

Among the temples built at Koh Ker none are as grand as Prasat Thom. Its pyramidal temple tower, is the highest ever constructed by the Khmer, rising 36 meters above the forest floor until the construction of Angkor Wat. In contrast to the temple mountains built at the older capitals of Hariharalaya (Roluos) or Yashodharapura (Angkor), the pyramid of Prasat Thom is not a stylized representation of the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology. Instead, it is merely the base for the 4 meter tall linga that was enshrined at its peak. Although no traces of the linga remain, inscriptions record the exact time of its consecration: Wednesday, December 12 at 8:47 in the year 921. As this was very early in Jayavarman IV’s rule, we can infer that the linga was dedicated prior to the construction of the rest of the temple.

Prasat Thom at Koh Ker
Prasat Thom

The whole temple complex measures about 150 x 400 meters (excluding several outbuildings along its eastern approach). It is oriented about fifteen degrees to the northeast, running parallel to the large pond known as Andong Preng which may have been used as a royal bath. Apart from the pyramid on its west side, Prasat Thom is notable for its use of tall freestanding towers in lieu of gopura in several locations, the grandest of which is Prasat Krahom. Another unusual feature is that the central temple grounds to the east of the pyramid do not contain any large sanctuaries in the central courtyard. Instead, there are twenty-one small sanctuaries resembling the ‘libraries’ found at other Khmer temples.

Prasat Krahom at Koh Ker
Prasat Krahom

Beng Meala

Beng Mealea temple is one of the largest Khmer-era temples in Cambodia, with a footprint nearly as large as Angkor Wat. It is located about 30 kilometers northeast of Siem Riep along the old road which lead from Angkor to Preah Khan of Kompong Svay. Although the temple is both large and extremely well constructed, we do not definitively know who built it or to whom it was dedicated. Most likely it was constructed in the mid-late 12th century during the reign of Suryavarman II and his immediate successors, as it shares a number of stylistic similarities to Angkor Wat and other temples built in Suryavarman’s era. However, as it was fairly common for noblemen of Suryavarman’s era to construct temples for their own private religious foundations, it is possible that the temple was not sponsored directly by the king, though he would surely have been aware of its presence so close to the capital.

Beng Meala
Beng Meala

The outer perimeter of the temple is a rectangular moat measuring 1030 x 880m with the main entrance facing east. A five-hundred meter long laterite road extended eastward from the edge of the moat to a wooden pavilion (now vanished) which sat alongside a long baray (reservoir) serving Beng Mealea (see satellite image below, with the forested boundary of the baray clearly visible). In Suryavarman’s era the area bounded by the moat would have contained a bustling town of mostly wooden buildings, housing the priests, attendants, and various support staff and families of those serving at Beng Mealea. Nowadays, the entire area is given over to dense forest and was not accessible to the general public until the early 2000’s due to buried land mines, a legacy of the Khmer Rouge era and its aftermath.

The overall quality of the sandstone construction at Beng Mealea is superb, with joints so closely fitting that it’s impossible to fit even a sheet of paper between them. This attention to detail seems to have been a characteristic of Suryavarman’s age as we also see the same quality at Angkor Wat and other monuments of the period. Unfortunately, we do not know what quality of decorative work this would have lead to as there are very few bas-reliefs or sculpture visible at Beng Mealea–including none of the devatas which are characteristic of Suryavarman’s age. Partly this is due to the temple never having been fully completed, but it is also a testament to the continuous looting which took place over the centuries, accelerating in the late 20th century when the site became more accessible but cut off from prying eyes during decades of turmoil during the Khmer Rouge region and afterward.

Angkor Wat

For a description and photos of the Angkor Archaeological Park click here.

Trip to Banteay Chhmar

In order to get to Banteay Chhmar I took the bus from Siam Reap to Sisophon (also called Banteay Meanchey) where I was picked up by a driver from the Community Based Tourist Association Visit Banteay Chhmar . They provide homestays and drivers/guides to the Banteay Chhmar temple and its satellite temples, as well as further afield such as some small and  little-visited temples on the Thai-Cambodian borders. I have to say that the homestay they provided for me was excellent, the people were very friendly and the room was very clean. Dinner was provided at the CBTs centre  in Banteay Chhmar.

The village of Banteay Chhmar
The village of Banteay Chhmar…
My homestay in Banteay Chhmar
… and my homestay in Banteay Chhmar

The main attraction is obviously the Banteay Chhmar Temple which is very similar to Beng Meala in the sense that it is completely overgrown and it gives you a good sense of what this places must have looked like when the first European archaeologists turned up.  In that sense both temples are pretty atmospheric. However, I much preferred Banteay Chhmar to Beng Meala since you can just wander around the temple complex as you wish and, as it is relatively remote I only shared the place with one Canadian and one Russian tourist.

Banteay Chhmar Temple

Banteay Chhmar is surrounded by 9 satellite temples and slightly further afield is Banteay Top. Somebody from the CBT Association took me around to these temples on the back of a moped, which, this time round, felt more comfortable than the trip up to Prasat Preah Vihear.

The temple complex of Banteay Chhmar is  located about 108 kilometers northwest of Angkor, and about 25 kilometers southeast of the present border with Thailand. Unfortunately due its remoteness it has fallen victim to thieves and treasure hunters who ransacked most of the temple’s important treasures and damaged large swaths of its structure (in some instances, looters absconded with whole sections of walls covered in bas-reliefs). Thieves also made off with (and in some cases accidentally destroyed) several stele inscriptions before they could be photographed or otherwise recorded.

Despite this, several minor inscriptions provide sufficient evidence of the temple’s founding by Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 CE), the monarch responsible for considerable construction in Angkor’s late golden age. Why he chose this barren and desolate site, far to the west of the Royal Road linking Angkor to Phimai (in modern Thailand) is a matter of consider scholarly debate. Apart from the sheer size of the temple, the waterworks required to support the surrounding town required a hydraulic network extending tens of kilometers north to the Dangrek Mountains. One theory is that this colossal undertaking served as the forward command center for Jayavaraman’s war against the Chams. Although it would have been geographically more logical to fight the Chams from a position further to the east, Jayavarman’s status as the first Buddhist monarch in Khmer history may have made this difficult. Operating in what is today northwest Cambodia, a region closer to Jayavarman’s birthplace and the site of “the traditionally Buddhist corrider in northwest Cambodia”, Jayavaraman may have felt more comfortable consolidating military power here than in Angkor with its numerous Brahmin aristocratic families.

Another theory, perhaps not mutually exclusive, is that Banteay Chhmar operated as the head ‘hospital’ of the network of medical stations established by Jayavarman VII throughout the Khorat plateau (today’s Isaan region of Thailand). It is well established that Jayavarman endowed hundreds of such ‘hospitals’ throughout the empire, particularly in the northwest, and that these missions included a strong Buddhist religious component that centered on the worship of Bhaisajyaguru, the Buddha of medicine. Evidence for this is that the largest statue of Bhaisajyaguru found so far was discovered at Banteay Chhmar, and similar statues on a smaller scale have been recovered from hospital sites on the Khorat plateau. Sharrock also notes that Banteay Chhmar’s satellite temples are similar in layout—albeit larger—to the hospitals found to the north. The locations of the satellite temples at Banteay Chhmar—roughly one at each cardinal direction—is also reminiscent of the placement of the four hospital chapels erected by Jayavaraman around Angkor Thom.

On the Way to Banteay Top
On the Way to Banteay Top
Ta Phrom (Banteay Chhmar)
Ta Phrom (Banteay Chhmar)

On my last day in Banteay Chhmar I visited several small temples on the Thai-Cambodian border one of them, Prasat Ta Muen Thom,  doubling up as a military camp. It is possible to visit the temple without any problems although turning up with my CBT guide and a bag full of cigarettes probably helped a lot.

Thai-Cambodian Border Temples

Prasat Ta Muen Thom
Prasat Ta Muen Thom
Gekko at Prasat Ta Muen Thom
Gekko at Prasat Ta Muen Thom
Ta Krabey
Ta Krabey