A temple complex whose magnificence once eclipsed Angkor’s, Koh Ker’s treasures can be found buried among rich, green forests just 130 kilometres by road northeast of Siem Reap. While the site is not quite so spectacular today — largely thanks to looting — it is still a lovely, tranquil site to explore, with plenty to reward curious adventurers; not least, the prospect of being able to explore while very likely having the entire place to yourself.
There is no public bus service to the site, but you can get there by taxi, your own motorbike, or by booking on to a package tour. Taxis cost around $80, and the ticket to get in is $10. If you feel like you’d like to hang around to explore some more, there is a guesthouse just south of the ticket booth, or you could make a real adventure of it and book a two-day, one-night tour with Hidden Adventures Cambodia who have a beautiful Khmer wooden villa in the village behind the main temple.
A monument out of the norm, not just in terms of its location, but also for the proportions and extraordinary form and dynamism of its statuary, Koh Ker was constructed by Jayavarman IV almost 1,100 years ago. We still don’t know why he chose to locate his capital some 80 kilometres northeast of Angkor — it is possible that he was a local prince — but it is very likely that the site had importance before then and continued to be so even after the capital had returned to Angkor shortly after the end of his reign.
The earliest mentions of Jayavarman IV go back to 921, when a huge linga was consecrated at Prasat Thom and he is referred to as the king of Chok Gargyar, which became Koh Ker. Seven years later, after what may have been a very bloody war of accession, he took up the throne of the Khmer Empire which he ruled from Koh Ker until 941. It is thought that power passed to his son, Harshavarman II about whom little is known, in 941. Three years later, Rajendravarman took the throne and reinstalled the royal court back at Angkor.
Jayavarman IV’s city was open-plan and had no boundary walls, much like Bakheng and Phnom Khulen that went before it, and unlike, for example, Angkor Thom. But the huge 81 square kilometres was densely packed with temples and shrines adorned with powerful sculptures unlike anything that had been seen before. Sadly, thanks to the remoteness of the location, almost all of the statuary is looted and lost.
Approached from the south, the site is organised in a sort of oblong, on which the best starting point is Prasat Thom, the principal temple, on the northwestern corner. Surrounded by a large moat, this rather dreamy site held 21 brick sanctuaries and two large libraries, which are now in a state of some ruin. The principal sanctuary that greets you as enter through the east gate would have housed the huge original founding linga. The soft blend of tree and stone that is so characteristic of Angkorian monuments is strongly expressed here.
This cluttered space contrasts with the wide open meadow surrounded by laterite walls where the Prang, a seven-tiered temple mountain, sits. Thirty-six metres tall, this may once have been topped by a 15-metre tall shrine housing a four-metre tall linga. You can now climb to the top via a wooden staircase on the northwestern side. The views from here stretch all the way to the Dangrek Mountains bordering Thailand, and down to Phnom Kulen.
Prasat Thom is also where you’ll find a collection of restaurants and souvenir stalls selling everything from scarves to wooden willies. Known as Lingapura, or the “city of the linga”, one of the other remarkable things about Koh Ker is quite how many and how large were the phallic symbols erected here — a representation of Shiva’s divine power.
We were greeted warmly by the restaurant on the right (north), who looked after our gear and wouldn’t take a penny for it, and then served us excellent strong coffees. However, a friend swears by the restaurant on the left (south). We leave it to you to choose. Squeaky clean toilets can be found just to the north of here, down a small hill.
To continue around the circuit, you will encounter a series of sanctuaries, which are oriented towards the 1,200-metre by 560-metre baray (reservoir), which is buried within the trees to your right. Most of these have been looted, but are still definitely worthy of exploration. The forest threatens to encroach upon them, creating an even more romantic atmosphere, especially around Prasat Plae Beng and Prasat Pir Chean. It should be noted that while Koh Ker has theoretically been cleared of landmines, one should not stray from the beaten path.
Just to the north of the junction between the circuit road and the entrance road, Prasat Chen is a large temple originally dedicated to Vishnu, unlike the rest of Koh Ker where Shiva reigned. Superb fighting warrior statues were stolen from here (see below). These statues are notable not only for their size, but for the dynamism of their form. Looking at them, you can feel the action which is a stark contrast to the normally fixed and static nature of Khmer statuary.
The city constructed here is said to have exceeded even the magnificence of Angkor, raising still unanswered questions about the source of King Jayavarman IV’s wealth. Starting with Prasat Thom, he oversaw the construction of some 40 temples, as well as additions to Preah Vihear to the north.
To the south, Prasat Neang Khmao is a large sanctuary that faces west, like Angkor Wat. The name means ‘sanctuary of the black lady’, a reference to the blackened “glaze”, as though the structure has been baked in a forest fire.
In 2012, a LiDAR (laser analysis of the ground from the air) survey of the area carried out by the University of Sydney revealed that the massive city relied on a hydraulic engineering system as complex as that found at Angkor, enabling the people who lived here to manage annual variations in rainfall and ensure consistent food security. This ability was a key element in the entire success of the Khmer Empire. It would have been essential too in an environment that consisted in the main of sandy, non-productive soil, though there are fertile areas to be found within walking distance of the complex. Preliminary analysis of the results of the LiDAR survey suggest that as many as 30,000 people may have lived here.
Sadly, so much of the statuary that made this site so unique has been looted. And it was in relation to this looting that Koh Ker made international headlines in 2012 when the US Government brought a suit on behalf of Cambodia against global auction house Sotheby’s petitioning for the return of a statue of an ancient warrior, Duryodhana, that had been put up for sale on behalf of a Belgian owner.
Originally from the Chen temple in Koh Ker, the Sotheby’s statue was part of a set of nine representing a famous scene from the Mahabharata, one of the major ancient Indian epics. The scene was represented at Prasat Chen in a manner unlike anything anywhere else in the world; no one even knew until 2012 that two statues in hand were in fact part of a larger scene, when pedestals for the other pieces were discovered.
The suit eventually resulted in the successful repatriation of Duryodhana in 2014, along with two others. Auction house Christie’s had already agreed to return Duryodhanna’s opponent Balarama, while California’s Norton Simon Museum was finally persuaded to hand back Bhima, a witness to their epic battle.
Sotheby’s tried to argue that while the statue may have been looted, it had been so before 1970 when an international convention on the protection of heritage came into force, and hence they were not obliged to return the statue. They even sought to introduce evidence that someone had seen the statue in London in the late 1960s. However, the Cambodian government had pretty solid evidence that the temples of Koh Ker were looted in 1972. Then an eagle-eyed young Cambodian discovered and dusted off two laws from 1900 and 1925. Passed by the French while they were in power, the laws declared that everything ‘above and below ground’ was within the national domain and that all temple material is the ‘exclusive property of the state’. This cemented the Cambodian government’s claim, regardless of when the statues were taken.
Since then, three of the other looted statues have been identified and their returns negotiated. Some museums took a while to come around, but the Cleveland Museum of Art repatriated Hanuman in May 2015, bringing the total of returns for this site up to five. A torso of the Hindu god Rama remains in the Denver Museum of Art, while the other three pieces remain at large.
The case highlighted a yawning divide in the arts and antiquities world between those who take the view that the treasures were “saved” as a result of their theft and should remain where they are because countries like Cambodia are not able to protect them, and those who believe that heritage belongs where it came from, especially when it was stolen in the first place.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 12th November, 2016.