Unique Asia Travel & Tours
Visit Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonders
Koh Ker, the lost city in the jungle

Koh Ker is Cambodia's largest ancient temple town outside Angkor. Though visitor numbers are increasing, it is still a top candidate for the competition: Which is the world's largest ensemble of impressive monuments offering perfect chances to explore it without tourist hurly-burly? If you are looking for the overwhelming forgotten city in the jungle, try it out and visit Koh Ker. It will come up to your expactations, very close at least.   
Koh Ker was briefly the Khmer capital during the reign of Jayavarman IV (928-942) and Harshavarman II (943-944), interrupting the Angkor centuries for an historically interesting period of time. Jayavarman IV seems to have been a mighty regional ruler already during the reigns of Harsavarman I and Isanavarman II in Angkor. They were sons of the founder of a first imperial city in Angkor, Yasovarman II. But their cousin in Koh Ker had been an opponent more powerful than those Angkor rulers even before he finally overcame them and succeeded as the Khmer king. Most history books and travel guides will tell you: After becoming the new king - he was not really an usurper, as he was a descendant of Angkor kings, too - Jayavarman IV decided to shift the capital from Angkor to Koh Ker in 928. However, they could even well put it this way: After more than a decade of competition between two power centres in the Khmer empire the rival of Angkor, Koh Ker, finally won. It is a very common pattern in the history of Indian and indianized dynasties in South and Southeast Asia that a centre of an empire is overcome by an increasingly independent and powerful principality once belonging to its own sphere of influence. Mirroring the events of 928, in 944 the elites in Angkor managed to gain the upper hand again, and Angkor finally triumphed over Koh Ker.
Koh Ker's original name was Chok Gargyar ("town of glory") or Lingapura ("city of the Linga"). That Shiva-Phallus, symbol of devine and royal power at the same time, was worshipped under the name of Tribhuvaneshvara, meaning "Lord of the Threefold World". According to a Sanskrit inscription at Prasat Thom in Koh Ker, it was consecrated in 921, already before Koh Ker became capital. The Lingam was placed on top of the highest building, the 35 m high pyramid-shaped temple-mountain of Prasat Thom, built of sandstone. More correctly, it should be called Prasat Prang, Prasat Thom being the flat temple in front of it. Prasat Prang has seven well-proportioned levels, it is the Khmer monument coming closest to the classical form of a step pyramid, resembling Maya and other Mesoamerican temple pyramids. Prasat Thom in Koh Ker is remarkable, too, for being one of the very few Khmer temples with a linear instead of a concentric layout. This means, the courtyards are not arranged one in another, but behind each other, the most sacred court placed at the end instead of being in the centre of a series of enclosures. The most famous example of a linear Khmer temple is Preah Vihear. By the way, half a century later on Prasat Thom's layout was copied by a smaller, but much more famous Khmer temple: Banteay Srei.
The second largest structure in Koh Ker is Prasat Krahom, the Red Temple. It is the first part of the row of structures belonging to linear ensemble of Prasat Thom. Prasat Krahom has a causeway with Naga-railings. Once it was known for its carved lions, none of which remain today in situ.
Altogether, there are remnants of more than 180 temples in an area of more than 80 square kilometres. The full scale of the dimensions of Koh Ker was unknown until 2014, when satellite images were evaluated. 30 sites in Koh Ker are clear-cut structures. More than a dozen can be visited, the others are in areas not safe enough, because not yet completely demined.
Apart from Prasat Thom, there is another major attraction at Koh Ker, just at the opposite end of the circle road for visitors. The first ruin you will see when approaching from Siem Reap is Prasat Pram, meaning "five towers". Prasat Pram has one of the most picturesque jungletemple-trees that make Cambodia the must-see destination No.1 in the world for lovers of lost cities. Actually, there are two of the five Prasats overgrown by imposing trees, their roots strangling the stone monuments. However, the right one at the back marks a class of its own. It is the Khmer fairy-tale temple par excellence. If painted, it would be held for a surreal romantic phantasy.

Koh Ker stone carvings in situ

Most works of sculptural art found in Koh Ker are stolen or for safekeeping in museums - or both: They are fine specimen of the famous Khmer art section of Musée Guimet in Paris. But good examples remained inside Cambodia, in the National Museum in Phnom Penh in particular. Sculptures of the Koh Ker style are celebrated for their figures' striking dynamics and expressiveness. In 2011 Sotheby's tried to auction a statue of a mythical Khmer warrior, soon proven to be stolen from Koh Ker, causing an outcry in media all over the world.

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