Just off the Grand Circuit between Preah Khan and East Mebon, Neak Pean is an artificial island temple — a hospital built by Jayavarman VII in the middle of the Northern Baray. Its interest lies in its picturesque setting and unconventional design, consisting of a series of complex ponds within the confines of the square laterite wall.
Today only the central pools and sanctuary can be seen. Easily identifiable is the dominant central shrine on a circular island located within a pool — probably representing Mount Meru surrounded by the sacred Lake Anavatapta believed to cure all illnesses — with four small chapels at the corners of the pool. Neak Pean was likely a pilgrimage site with the belief the waters could cure the faithful.
The four chapels each have a large head of a king, lion, horse and elephant respectively, from which water passed from the central pool to the smaller basins. The central sanctuary is encircled by a naga which is where the temple gets its name from – neak is the Khmer for the Sanskrit word naga.
Being surrounded by a pond, Neak Pean looks a lot better during the rainy season, but being small it can also get quite crowded at busy times of the day. There is a barrier for visitors — it is not possible yet to walk around the site — so groups tend to bunch up a bit here.
There are two ways to access the temple. The first is by road, then walking the last 500 metres on a wooden walkway over the water, which makes for a change to climbing up steps at many other temples. The alternative is by boat – the only option that would have been around for the Angkorians. The community-based tourism initiative Baray Reach Dak arranges boat trips, made possible since the re-flooding of the North Baray, which was done partly as a flood preventative measure to protect Siem Reap town.
By Caroline Major
Last updated on 15th November, 2014.