This week I took a few days to go and visit the Site of Koh Ker, 120km north east of Siem Reap. Koh Ker is one of the lesser known Khmer temple complexes in part due to its distance from the greater Angkor region and also the area is still heavily forested, something that to me, makes them all the more alluring. The main construction at the site took place during the reign of Jayavarman IV (AD 928-941) and while is now accessible via a well formed dirt road, the jungle is well maintained on either side.
The centre piece of the site is seven-tiered pyramid named Prang, which stands 36m high and is set in a rectangular walled enclosure. Dotted around the complex are a large number of Prasat (temples) which stand in various states of repair.
My journey began with a long winding ride on a local minibus. The private services cram as many people as possible into a single vehicle and drive haphazardly through the country with a propensity to over use the horn, warning anyone that gets too close. The bumpy road and cramped conditions, whilst not ideal, did add to the sense of adventure. A local archaeologist who is working at the site accompanied me and we chatted occasionally about my thoughts on the journey with plenty of nervous laughter on both sides. After a few hours and numerous stops we arrived at a small petrol station near to an equally small village.
We waited for around 15 minutes before a moped arrived and the two of us, plus the driver climbed on for the final 9km journey to their base within the temple complex. As tarmac road turned to dirt road, glimpses of monumental structures began appearing in the jungle, but unlike at Angkor, people were far and few between. We passed a single guesthouse, which I was told was overpriced and a small market of 6 or 7 shops, before arriving at the base for the night, a small raised wooden room with a large veranda. The local guys went off to continue their survey of the area whilst I began a long walk around the site.
One of my main research interests in Cambodia is the application of RHX dating to ceramics, and to that end I’m really interested in brick based constructions for which the technique may provide vital new information. I was already aware that Koh Ker featured a number of brick buildings, but their sheer number and quality was impressive. In order to access the Prang pyramid, you must first navigate a route through the sandstone entrance way beyond which is a great brick tower known as Prasat Krahom.
Like most of the construction in the area, trees, vines and other plants still grow indiscriminately from all parts of the building, and fragments of carved stone and brick line the path ways. The tall leafy trees cast shadows across the temples, completing the alluring romance of the place and ensuring a sense of awe.
Heading through more ruins, the Prang begins to emerge through the trees. Great stone built platforms, stacked with geometric perfection in an otherwise wild place. The first view of the pyramid is of the partially collapsed stair case running from the ground to the summit with inch perfect precision. Shrubs and bushes cling to the sides in gravity defying ways and the noise of insects, birds and other animals sit heavy in the thick humid air. To access the summit of the temple, a spindly but largely stable wood stair case has been erected in one corner. Expecting to find at least a few other visitors, I was amazed to have the entire place to myself. As I laboured up the multiple flights of steps along the wide stone platforms, the peace and tranquillity was endearing and the view from the top, remarkable.
It was impossible to capture the beauty and scale of the 360 degree vista out across the jungle to distant mountains, in photographs. Atop the pyramid, broken remains of intricate carvings give a glimpse of the past beauty of the site. Unfortunately Koh Ker’s remote nature has meant that it has been rich pickings for looters and participants in the illicit antiquities trade, not helped by the recent instability in the country. Many museums across the world display carvings and statues from the site and for the largest part, only the most damaged or inaccessible art remains in situ. Despite this, glimpses and fragments of sophisticated designs remain.
I descended the pyramid and had lunch and plenty of water before venturing out to visit other temples and remains scattered throughout the area. The same dirt road we arrived on loops for approximately 7km around the complex and provides a useful base line for exploring further. To my researchers delight I found a large number of the various Prasat in the area featured at least some brick based construction. The buildings in the outlying areas are largely in a poor state of repair but the APSARA authority, which look after the monuments, have done a great job in using wooden supports to maintain the structures. Unlike temples in the greater Angkor region, Koh Ker has not been reconstructed in any way and even the pathways have been shaped to fit around the ruins. For hour after hour, I meandered through the terrain being constantly surprised and delighted at each new discovery. At Prasat Banteay Pir Chean, there is a walled enclosure containing a number of ruined temples, all now well preserved thanks to well-placed wooden supports. A small brick sanctuary still has a beautifully carved lintel above its door way, with a floral design and other doorways still contain their original ancient inscriptions, carved in to the sandstone. The artistry and skill of the craftspeople has survived the ages and remains as testament to their talent and ability.
After walking for hours, I was glad to return to the base and as the sun set and reflect on the latest incredible things I has seen. Koh Ker is a different experience from Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Away from the tourists, it is possible to feel a sense of adventure and exploration as well as experience the monumentality on a more personal level.
The lack of reconstruction means that whilst at first the ruins feel less substantial, they actually evoke a sense of wonder and awe, and the connection to the past somehow feels stronger. The Khmer empire lasted for 6 centuries and in that time so many intricate and wondrous palace temples were created. The reasons behind their construction, the need for new buildings and the lives of the builders still fascinates me and the privilege of working in such a unique and inspiring area is well felt. Hopefully as part of my ongoing research I will return to Koh Ker many times, and I strongly doubt it will ever fail to impress.