By Marissa Carruthers
Apr 29, 2021
MENTION CAMBODIA AND MOST PEOPLE immediately think of Angkor Wat. However, that’s just the tip of the archaeological iceberg. As the former heart of the mighty Khmer Empire that ruled over swathes of the region from the 9th to 15th century, the Kingdom of Wonder is speckled with more than 4,000 ancient temples and religious relics that remain unexplored by all but an intrepid few.
Over more than eight years living in the country I’ve nearly exhausted my internal Angkor quota (I know it might seem impossible with so much ancient beauty carved on the millions of stones on the sites around Siem Reap, but, well, I’ve had a lot of visitors). That combined with coronavirus cabin fever had me looking for further adventure, to go all-out Indiana Jones and discover some of Cambodia’s lesser-known temple treasures.
Long overland drives, hefty hikes up steep mountain tracks and journeys deep into the jungle were all rewarded with enchanting discoveries of ancient monuments seemingly lost in time. With rarely another soul in site, it felt like reliving the adventures of French explorer Henri Mouhot when he rediscovered an abandoned Angkor Wat in the 1840s.
Temple of the sacred mountain
A sense of serenity sweeps over me as I stand at the peak of 625-meter Dangrek Mountains in the rural northern province of Preah Vihear. Dominating the summit is Cambodia’s second UNESCO-crowned temple complex, Prasat Preah Vihear (“temple of the sacred mountain”), where Angkorian kings once basked in the heavenly vistas that stretch across neighboring Thailand.
Paying testament to the great architectural achievement and elite engineering of the Khmer Empire, Prasat Preah Vihear comprises a series of impressive structures that race more than 800 meters up the gentle slopes. The archaeological feat was built between the 9th and 12th centuries over the course of several kings’ reigns.
A temple of contention
“This temple is very special for Cambodians and we have spent many years fighting for it,” says my local friend during our two-hour jaunt to the top. We traded in the 2,242 stairs to the temple’s first level for an adrenaline-pumping drive in an open-back jeep along, at times, almost vertical tracks. As we trek the rest of the way on foot, we pass battered stone army barracks and soldiers with weapons pointed to Thailand.
For centuries, the temple has sat at the center of conflict over ownership between the two countries, with military from both sides permanently posted at the border. Besides the army, there’s an almost-eerie lack of presence – we pass only one Cambodian family picnicking in the dappled shade. Alone, we teeter down uneven steps, ramble over giant boulders that block narrow corridors and bathe in the magnificence of revered religious ruins.
An ancient capital engulfed by jungle
The sound of birdsong dancing through the air, call of cicadas and crunch of leaves beneath our feet are the only noises to shatter the silence as we enter Koh Ker. Sitting as the capital of the Khmer Empire from 928 to 944, the once-glorious city is today lost in thick jungle about 120 kilometers into the wilderness from Siem Reap.
The majority of its 180 temples and monuments are off limits due to undiscovered landmines. However, Prasat Pram can be seen safely – and is well-worth the effort. Like stepping into a fairy tale, towering centuries-old strangler fig roots cling to the sanctuary’s crumbling towers in frozen-in-time landscapes where nature has truly triumphed.
Follow in the footsteps of kings
I fight my fear of heights as I climb the wooden stairs that lead to the top of Prasat Thom, Koh Ker’s main monument. At an imposing 36 meters above the forest floor, the unique seven-tiered pyramid structure served as the state temple of King Jayavarman IV until power shifted to Angkor. It also holds the title of the Khmer Empire’s tallest temple. I quickly forget my phobia as I soak up sweeping vistas of a mosaic of dense jungle and sprawling farmland that melts into the horizon.
The Khmer Empire’s largest temple complex
More rugged escapades await at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, a majestic lost temple enveloped in jungle. Only recently accessible to visitors, the five-square-kilometer site sees the ruins of the main temple and several satellite temples scattered among forest. Magical scenes are highlighted by sun rays piercing through the forest canopy, casting an ethereal hue on rusty laterite stone.
Again, the back-of-beyond location about 90 kilometers south of Preah Vihear’s provincial capital means even without Covid keeping tourists away, the site is mostly people-free. In parallel to the mystery that shrouds the crumbling complex today, the temple’s history remains relatively unknown, although some structures date back to the 9th century.
A looters’ paradise
The forgotten relics of the Khmer Empire’s largest temple complex were left to the encroaching jungle until they were rediscovered in the late-1930s. Lured by its undiscovered gems, Preah Khan was the victim of looters who took liberties to ransack the site until the mid-1990s. Diggers and drills were brought in to hunt for treasures, savagely scarring already time-ravished structures. Statues were stolen and other historic relics, severely damaging the central enclosure.
This sad history is brightened only by the fact that in spite of it all, the beauty endures.