Overview of Koh Ker
The capital of the Khmer Empire from 928 to 944, Koh Ker is one of the most significant archaeological sites in northern Cambodia. Found in an incredibly remote region amid sprawling jungle, Koh Ker has a magical quality.
The ruins here cover an area of 81km2, with around 180 sanctuaries and temples that have been discovered in this spot alone. Around 30 of the ruins are accessible to visitors, with Prasat Thom – a 30 metre high pyramid temple – the most dominant structure. Koh Ker was constructed under the instruction of King Jayavarman IV, who built increasingly large sculptures under his reign, which has since led to him being named a megalomaniac! That said, the sculptures from his reign are also said to be the most impressive from the whole of the Khmer Empire. Many are now displayed in art galleries around the world.
Prasat Thom, a 30m high pyramid.
Given the remoteness of Koh Ker, a visit here provides more of an off-the-beaten-track experience in Cambodia – and one definitely worth having.
See and Do
Found on the edge of the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary – an ecotourism destination, 120km from Siem Reap and just 65km from the Thai border, Koh Ker is in a faraway location that gives a true sense of rural Cambodia. The former 10th century capital of the Khmer Empire – previously a thriving city of 10,000 inhabitants – is an unparalleled place to visit. What is striking about the site is how the jungle and the ruins have melded together, which is no wonder, as Koh Ker was left more or less abandoned from the 10th century until 2004, when road development and de-mining in the local area began.
The amazing waterfall on Kulen Hill.
Koh Ker is dominated by the temple complex and double sanctuary, known as Prasat Thom or Prang, in its seven-tiered, 36-metre high pyramid shape. The eastern court with the moat and temple complex are known as Prasat Thom, while the western, pyramid part is known as Prang. The two names are often used interchangeably in practice. Most temples of Khmer kings follow a concentric pattern, so this temple is unusual for its linear shape. Inside Prasat Thom are various rooms to explore, including libraries and a central sanctuary. Behind the sanctuary, there are a total of 21 towers of various sizes, which would have all contained lingas at some point. At 800 metres in length, Prasat Thom is a decent size to explore too, and is surrounded by a moat which would have looked perfectly regal in its heyday. The remarkable moat is 47 metres wide and is bordered by a pretty row of trees, and is flanked by a dam on each side. The pyramid, Prang, has a steep staircase leading to the top, which cannot be used by visitors due to its poor condition. There is a new staircase, however, that visitors can use to ascend the structure.
Elsewhere on the Koh Ker complex, there’s plenty to explore. An impressive sandstone entrance pavilion is one such structure worth noting. In particular, look out for the impressive halls and the ruins of two laterite towers.
There are two structures known as the palaces, which each have four rectangular buildings surrounding a court, with patios and pillars too. Historians have speculated these may have been used as meditation rooms or prayer rooms for the king or high-powered noblemen.
The red brick tower of Prasat Krahom.
Prasat Krahom is an imposing red brick tower, leading through to enclosed monuments. It’s one of the buildings that is in relatively good condition at Koh Ker.
Behind Prang and Prasat Thom is a perfectly circular, artificially made hill covered in trees. This is known as the Tomb of the White Elephant, which is a well-known legend in South East Asia. The purpose of this hill has been speculated by historians and archaeologists. Some think it could be the foundations of a second pyramid, while others have suggested it could be the grave of King Jayavarman IV.
There are various sanctuaries in different states of repair to be discovered in Koh Ker too. This includes Prasat Pram – a monument with five towers surrounded by an enclosure. The temple of Prasat Bak used to house one of King Jayavarman IV’s huge statues – this one was of the Hindu god, Ganesha. Prasat Chen is a sanctuary with two enclosures and three towers. Five fascinating inscriptions here give some insight into the people who regularly used this temple. Prasat Balang is a sanctuary known for its lingam which is a massive one metre in diameter. Next to this, there is just enough space for religious figures to perform rituals. Water put on the lingam was said to become holy because it touched the symbol of Shiva – the water was collected by running down the Shiva and collected at the bottom. Prasat Thneng also has a still-standing Shiva symbol. Prasat Damrei is Koh Ker’s elephant sanctuary, standing on a tall platform reached by a staircase on each side. There were previously eight stone lions on the staircase, with one remaining today. There are also two impressive elephant sculptures.
An elephant statue at Prasat Damrei.
For those who have time while visiting Koh Ker, it’s also worth stopping off at the neighbouring Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. Wildlife lovers may be able to spot the giant ibis – Cambodia’s critically endangered national bird. The village of Tmatboey in the reserve is also a place to learn more about local cultures.
In such a remote region, there aren’t many options for accommodation in the local area, unless you’re lucky enough to be able to arrange a homestay. Many people visit from Siem Reap – about a three hour car journey away. Siem Reap is a city buzzing with restaurants, shops and nightlife – and is the gateway city to the famous ruins at Angkor.
Culture and Arts
The ancient city of Koh Ker is a haven for art and culture lovers. Some of the most notable pieces to see are a couple of two metre high lingas in the shrines at Prasat Thom. Lingas are representations of the Hindu deity Shiva and are often found in temples and shrines, although not usually on such a large scale. There is also a Sanskrit inscription at Prasat Thom that evidences the consecration of one of the Shiva lingams in 921. The dams by the moat at Prasat Thom have Naga balustrades either side. A Naga is a mythical snake-like creature with five heads, and can commonly be seen depicted in Khmer architecture.
Naga statue at Prasat Thom.
The red tower of Prasat Krahom used to house an extraordinary 3.5 metre high statue of the Dancing Shiva, which had five heads and ten arms. Broken entirely, the only thing that remains of the statue is a fragment of a hand, which is now on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Although many of Koh Ker’s world famous sculptures and pieces of art can no longer be seen at Koh Ker itself, they can be seen in museums around the world, many of which are in the National Museum at Phnom Penh. This includes a lion statue and a four-armed Vishnu from Prasat Pram, and a statue of the two fighting monkey kings Sugriva and Valin from Prasat Chen.
A Vishnu lintel at Prasat Pram.
An excavation project at Koh Ker in 2015 also uncovered an amazing 24,000 artefacts, which range from Chinese stoneware and Persian pottery.
Festivals and Events
In this remote region of Cambodia, there are not any widely-known about events and festivals available for people to visit. For the best insights into local life, try to arrange a homestay with locals or visit the ecotourism destination of Tmatboey.
A local homestay in Thamtboey.
If the Khmer ruins of Koh Ker have really inspired you and you want to get involved in a festival that celebrates them, it’s best to go to Angkor for the Khmer New Year in April. This three-day festival is celebrated both in the city of Siem Reap and at the site of the ruins, in a celebration called Angkor Sankranta. Starting at sunrise every day, Angkor Sankranta involves music, dancing, traditional games and delicious local foods. Monks also give blessings with holy water and red wristbands throughout the festival.
Food and Drink
Mee-chha, a Cambodian fried noodle dish.
There are some food stands near the car park at Koh Ker serving local Cambodian staples include hot noodle soups and various rice dishes. Given the remote region, most food options in the surrounding areas are similarly a mixture of street food stands and cute little Khmer eateries.