Preah Khan Temple
The vast laterite and sandstone temple of Preah Khan is the largest temple enclosure ever constructed during the Angkorian period. Originally dedicated to Hindu deities, it was reconsecrated to Mahayana Buddhist worship during a monumental reconstruction undertaken by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
Its history is shrouded in mystery, but it was long an important religious site and some of the structures here date back to the 9th century. Both Suryavarman II, builder of Angkor Wat, and Jayavarman VII lived here at time during their lives. This suggests Preah Khan was something of a second city in the Angkorian empire, supporting a large rural population as well as the royal court’s urban elite. Jayavarman VII was likely to have been based here during the disastrous occupation of Angkor by the Chams from 1177 and may have already commanded significant regional support among the population in this area, helping him to later consolidate control of Angkor.
Preah Khan was connected to the temples of Angkor by a 100km laterite highway, complete with ornate naga (mythical serpent) bridges, many examples of which remain today, forgotten in the forests of northwestern Cambodia. Some scholars suggest it was also linked by an ancient road to the pre-Angkorian center of Sambor Prei Kuk, which continued as a center of learning throughout the Angkorian-era. This indicates Preah Khan was of significant importance throughout the period of the Khmer empire.
The complex covers a total area of almost 5 sq km, and includes a massive baray (reservoir), which is 3km long. At the eastern end of the baray is a small pyramid temple called Prasat Damrei (Temple of Elephants). Much of the outer structure is no longer standing, but there are several impressive carvings of devedas (goddesses) on the remaining entrance wall. At the summit of the hill were a number of exquisitely carved elephants guarding of shrine, but only two remain today, one partially buried in the mud, the other adorned with local offerings. Two others can be seen on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh and the Musee Guiment in Paris.
In the center of the baray is an island temple called Prasat Preah Thkol (known by locals as Mebon) that’s similar in style to the Western Mebon at Angkor. At the western end of the baray is Prasat Preah Stung (known by locals as Prasat Muk Buon or Temple of Four Faces), perhaps the most memorable temple at Preah Khan. Prasat Preah Stung has all the hallmarks of Jayavarman VII, with the enigmatic faces seen at the Bayon carved into it central tower. The temple is fairly overgrown, but it is possible to clamber around and explore.
It is a further 400m southwest to the walls of Preah Khan itself, which are surrounded by a moat similar to taht around the walled city of Angkor Thom. Much of the moat has vanished under weed and the bridges here no longer have naga. Entering through the eastern gopura (entrance pavilion) there is a dharmasala (rest house). Many of these rest houses were constructed by Jayavarman VII for weary pilgrims across the Angkorian empire. Much of this central area is overgrown by forest, giving it an authentic, abandoned feel, but local authorities are already undertaking a clearing program.
The central structure, which includeed libraries and a pond for ablutions, has been devasted by looting in recent years. As recently as the mid 1990s, it was thought to be in reasonable shape, but some time in the second half of the decade, thieves arrived seeking buried statues under each prang (temple tower). Assaulted with pneumatic drills and mechanical diggers, the ancient temple never stood a chance and many of the towers simply collapsed in on themselves, leaving the depressing mess we see today. Once again, a temple that had survived so much couldn’t stand the onslaught of the 20th century and its all-consuming appetite.
This was not the fiest looting to strike Preah Khan. Louis Delaporte, in charge of the first official expedition to study Cambodia’s temples, carted off tonnes of carving that are now in the Musee Guimet in Paris. Also found at the site was the bust of Jayavarman that’s now housed in Phnom Penh’s National Museum and widely copied as a souvenir for tourists. The body of the statue was discovered a few years ago by locals who realized the strangely shaped stone must have significance and alerted authorities. The head and body were finally rejoined in 1999.
Most locals refer to this temple as Prasat Bakan, scholars offically refer to it as Bakan Svay Rolay, combining the local name for the temple and the district name. Locals say there are no land mines in the vicinity of Preah Khan, but stick to marked paths just to be on the safe side.