Photo: Angkor inverted.

Avoid the crowds at Ta Prohm: go to Preah Khan

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Preah Khan has lived long in the shadow of its older sister, Ta Prohm. But as the hordes pore over the broken paths and scaffolding of the older temple, the very fact that Preah Khan is so often overlooked has become an integral part of its attraction. You are freer to explore here, without rubbing elbows with busloads of clicking, chattering tourists. But Preah Khan is more than a quieter, more peaceful place than the reportedly sexier Ta Prohm; it has a beauty and charm that are utterly unique to itself.
The famous Hall of Dancers

The famous Hall of Dancers.

Built by Jayavarman VII, the Khmer Empire’s great warrior king and a prolific builder of temples, hospitals and rest houses throughout the kingdom, Preah Khan, which means “Sacred Sword”, was constructed on the site of his final victorious battle in 1181 against the Chams from the east who, four years previously, had defeated and taken the Empire and Angkor.

He was 56 years old when he ascended to the throne, a relatively elderly king who was nonetheless responsible for the richest architectural legacy to Cambodia of them all. Among his many constructions can be counted the Bayon, Angkor Thom, Banteay Chhmar, the Elephant Terrace, the Royal Palace, many, many smaller temples, and the three monastic establishments of Ta Prohm (dedicated to his mother), Banteay Kdei, and Preah Khan (dedicated to his father). All of the monastic complexes were built according to similar plans, and the principal difference between them today lies in the extent to which vegetation has been allowed to reign, and the extent of ruin of the built structures.

Silk Cotton Tree

Silk cotton tree.

Unlike his Hindu predecessors, Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist king, a follower of Mahayana Buddhism, and Preah Khan was dedicated to Lokeshvara (the Bodhisattva of compassion) as well as to Jayavarman VII’s father. Yet, following the same spirit of religious tolerance and openness that characterised the Khmer Empire, Preah Khan displayed both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, and the temple was also dedicted to Vishnu, the Hindu god of Creation.

Central Sanctuary Stupa

Central sanctuary stupa.

Sadly, most of the Buddhist iconography did not survive the so-called “Hindu Reaction” which took place some time after Jayavarman VII’s death. Many of the guidebooks ascribe the ‘reaction’ to a Shivaist king who succeeded Jayavarman VII, but the truth is that we don’t know who was responsible for the destruction that took place or why they did it.

Some 800 metres long and 700 metres wide, Preah Khan is a long, rectangular complex built according to a linear plan, in contrast with many Angkorian temples built as pyramids, earthly representations of Mount Meru, the centre of the universe and home of the Hindu Gods. The complex incorporates an outer moat within which are four walled enclosures which shield a huge array of temples, shrines, courtyards and corridors at the centre of which is the temple’s inner sanctum, the sacred place that would have been the preserve of the elites and most highly ranked priests.

Entering through the east gate (you can enter from each of the four cardinal points, but from the east is best), you first encounter an alley flanked by marker stones before crossing the moat over a causeway lined with stout, muscular gods and demons pulling on a snake in a representation from the Hindu myth, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, and similar to the ones lining the causeway entering Angkor Thom.

One of the Gods and Demons from the causeway

One of the Gods and Demons from the causeway.

The processional path leading from there to the temple structure is today flanked by thickly interwoven forest; but where now there are trees there would once have been densely packed wooden housing and small ponds belonging to some of the monks and civil servants who attended the temple. The foundation stele for Preah Khan is famous for its details; for example, it enumerates that 306,372 people living in 15,000 villages worked to grow the annual equivalent of 24,000 tonnes of white rice required to support Preah Khan and its associated sanctuaries.

The temple was constructed in numerous phases and this is one of the reasons it can seem so disorienting when passing through it. The central passageway through the temple, which is clear, is flanked on both sides by a series of courtyards, chapels and galleries, many of which are chock-a-block with enormous fallen stones that bear the patina of age over the finely carved Hindu and Buddhist images, dancing Apsaras and guardian Devatas.

The Hall of Dancers at Preah Khan is in a much better state of preservation than its correspondents at Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei, and the walls are simply festooned with exquisitely carved images of dancers and yoginis. According to the stele, which has been removed for safekeeping, 1,000 dancers once counted among the temple’s possessions.

It is thanks to the later additions, and the disorder, that Preah Khan is now home to some of the best preserved Devatas at Angkor. Protected from the elements, the carvings have retained their rich detail and majesty. You can find one within a small chapel at the end of the northeast gallery of the first enclosure wall: a beautifully carved Devata. If you turn to the right from there, and tuck yourself into the little passage (that is blocked), you will find a second stunning devata lost in the darkness and perfectly preserved.

In a dark, dark corner, an exquisite Devata

In a dark, dark corner, an exquisite Devata.

Ta Prohm does not have a monopoly on the magnificent silk cotton trees that soar over and wind in and under the temples, reminding us that whatever man can do, nature can always do better. While they’ll probably have to be destroyed before they do too much damage to the structure of the temple, there are several at Preah Khan too. There is a stunning one on the eastern section of the third enclosure wall (as you move from the processional causeway, to a stone platform and into the temple proper).

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