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Prasat Bakan (Preah Khan Kampong Svay)

The temple complex of Prasat Bakan (Great Preah Khan) is both huge and tranquil. Actually, concerning length of its outer enclosure wall, 20 kilometres, as well as base areas of the temple city, 25 square kilometres, Prasat Bakan is the largest Khmer sanctuary at all. In comparison, Angkor Wat covers "only" 2 square kilometres, Angkor Thom 9 square kilometres, and Yashodharapura, the original Angkor capital, 16 square kilometres. Admittedly, the amount of stones moved to erect the Prasat Bakan temples is not as impressive as at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. However, there can be no doubt that Prasat Bakan is on the top 5 hitlist of classical Khmer monuments for Angkorian civilization enthusiasts - besides Angkor, Koh Ker, Preah Vihear and Banteay Chhmar. Nevertheless, Prasat Bakan is rarely visited by tourists because of its location far away from the main roads. You will hardly find any souvenir sellers here, but no restaurant facility, either. Sooner or later this will change. A sealed road from Angkor is already in the making. So, hurry up! Experience off the beaten track dreams of exploring the Khmer civilization coming true, as soon as possible!
Prasat Bakan is situated 100 km east of Angkor, on the other side of Beng Mealea. The direct road is not passable during and shortly after the rainy season (but shall be improved soon). Usually visitors arrive from Kampong Thom, taking the main road to the north (to Preah Vihear), and after about 70 kilometres turn left taking the treck across the fields for another 30 kilometres.
Prasat Bakan is the temple name commonly used by locals from Preah Vihear province. Scholars officially refer to it as Bakan Svay Rolay, combining the local name for the temple and the district name. But pocket guides, foreign tourists, and Khmers in Siem Reap, too, usually call it "Preah Khan". In order to avoid confusion with Angkor's own temple complex called Preah Khan, the district or provincial names are added. So you can find Prasat Bakan listed as "Preah Khan of Kampong Svay" or "Preah Khan, Preah Vihear". In contrast, "Prasat Bakan" or simply "Bakan" should be an easier way to identify it. By the way, both grand Preah Khan temples in Cambodia, Prasat Bakan in Preah Vihear province and Angkor's Preah Khan in Siem Reap province, are from the same period, end of 12th century.
Most probably, the fortified settlement at Prasat Bakan was established in order to facilitate defending the iron ore mines of Phnom Deik, largest deposits of its kind in Southeast-Asia. A historical royal road with several bridge constructions connected Angkor with Prasat Bakan via Beng Mealea.
There are only few historical records about Prasat Bakan. Three inscriptions were found in the complex, one of the 9th, one of the 11th and the last one of the 14th century, the most informative one being the text of the 11th century giving details about the advancement of Suryavarman I and mentioning a previous temple at the same place. Some building activities are believed to have already started in the 9th century, when Phnom Kulen and Roluos were the Khmer capitals.
The first major temple complex was built under Suryavarman I in the early eleventh century. It is probable that the buildings inside the inner enclosure are from this period. Prasat Bakan (Preah Khan) could have served as a second royal residence outside Angkor during the reign of Angkor Wat founder Suryavarman II. And it is believed to have been the hideout of a local resistance commander called Jey Srei during the years of Cham occupation of Angkor (1177-81).  "Jey" means victory and successor; "Srei" means harmony, happiness or good luck. Jey Srei managed to recapture Angkor and to repulse the invadors and was crowned king in 1181. His royal name became Jayavarman VII, famous as the king who introduced Mahayana Buddhism and founded Angkor Thom and half of the huge temple complexes of today's Angkor. But the first of his iconic "face-tower" temples is probably that at Prasat Bakan. Jayavarman VII converted the former Hindu sanctuary to a Buddhist shrine and constructed most of the structures visible today.

Prasat Bakan reliefs

The rectangle compound of Prasat Bakan (Preah Khan Kampong Svay) is not oriented to the east or west, as usual, but to the north-east. Like Angkor's Preah Khan it has four instead of the common three concentric enclosures, indicating that the outer temple enclosure was a secular city fortification, too. This exterior enclosure had three ramparts, and two moats of 70 m and 30 m width, now dry. A section in the southeast remained without moat, the reason for it is unknown.
The first (inner) laterite enclosure contained the central Prasat tower, standing on a two-tier platform. But this main sanctuary collapsed as late as 2003, when looters used explosives for digging a whole hunting for buried treasures. The former central Prasat is surrounded by four more Prasat towers, still standing upright, only partly broken. The central complex had entrances in all cardinal directions and was surrounded by a windowed gallery, similar to those of the slightly earlier Ta Keo templemountain in Angkor. For a millennium celebration at Prasat Bakan some vegetation was cleared from the site by hundreds of locals helpers.
Many exquisite sculptures and carvings originate from Prasat Bakan, some of them are among the best of Khmer art. This is why in 1870 Louis Delaporte carried off a number of substantial carvings, they are now in the Guimet Museum in Paris. However, the most famous masterpiece remains in Cambodia. A finely sculpted head found inside the central tower is believed to depict King Jayavarman VII himself. It is now a major attraction of Phnom Penh’s National Museum. The classic Khmer-head is frequently copied as a souvenir for tourists. After the body of the statue was discovered by locals, head and body could be reunited in Phnom Penh in 2000.
At the Prasat Bakan site, there is completely different kind of attraction for photographers. The northeastern Gopuram of the second enclosure wall is surmounted by a strangler fig of enourmous size, making Prasat Bakan one of the "jungle temples" Cambodia is world-famous for. One wall is almost completely covered by the roots, only small gaps remain, where balustered stone windows are picturesquely framed by the immense living and growing wood.
Inside the third enclosure, at the southern side of the main access connecting the main gates of the second and third enclosure, there is a structure nowadays called Dharmasala, teaching hall. In an ancient inscription from Jayavarman VII at Preah Khan in Angkor (not to be confused with Preah Khan Kampong Svay), this kind of simple temple structure is called Vahnigriha meaning "firehouse". The function is not clear, but those "Firehouses" were erected along the major routes leading from Angkor to other important cities, marking the route, and perhaps serving as a chapel of wooden resthouses. They are also found at the beginnings and ends of "royal roads" of the Khmer empire. the road from Angkor to the east led from the Vahnigriha of Preah Khan at Angkor to that of Preah Khan at Kamponmg Svay (Prasat Bakan), but this is not the reason why both huge temples today bear the same name, that by the way means "sacred sword".
The third temple enclosure wall measures 1100 m by 700 m. It is surrounded by a moat of 45 m width and endowed with four Gopurams, each of them with three towers. They are in a fair condition, but many Apsara sculptures are beheaded. A laterite causeway crosses the moat at the northeastern main gate. Similar to the gates of Angkor Thom, it once had Naga balustrades, displaying gods and demons churning the sea of milk. At each side of the causeway its outer wall is decorated with an impressive frieze of big Garuda sculptures.
Starting at that norteastern causeway, still inside the outer (fourth) enclosure mentioned above, there is a straight ancient stone-paved avenue leading to the temple Prasat Preah Stung, with has its own enclosure walls and four Gopuram gates. Inside the temple compound, which is full of rubble and vegetation making it difficult to walk around, there are terraces with friezes of holy geese callled Hamsas (pronounced "Hanssa"). Prasat Preah Stung is also known to locals as Prasat Muk Buon, meaning "Temple of four faces", as this is the structure at Prasat Bakan well-known for its enigmatic four-faced central towers in the Bayon style. As in the case of Angkor Thom the colossal faces at the top are believed to depict the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara or a Buddha or King Jayavarman VII or a combination of them. There is only one more place outside Angkor with face-tower temples, Banteay Chhmar in the northwest of Cambodia. Prasat Bakan's face-tower temple Prasat Preah Stung was situated at the western edge of a former reservoir. Its landing-stage has Naga balustrades.

Prasat Damrei Devatas and Baray of Preah Khan Kampong Svay

The reservoir covered an area situated partly outside the town's enclosure ramparts. It is to the northeast of Prasat Bakan, mostly dried up at present. The remaining lake is believed to be a habitat of crocodiles. The former Baray of 3 km length and 500 m width contained an artificial island in the centre, the usual Mebon structure, with a central sandstone Prasat tower on a cruciform ground plan. The angles of the Prasat are decorated with excellent sculptures of Garuda birds and three-headed Airavata elephants and masks depicting goddess Kali. The tower was surrounded by an enclosure and two buildings called libraries inside the compound. This Mebon structure is called Preah Thkol.
Outside the fortified town, at the southeastern end of the Baray, are the remains of a 15 metres high pyramid temple. It is said to be from the ninth century, more probably there was only a predecessor structure at that early period. The pyramid is called Preah Damrei, meaning "holy elephant" and also called "elephant temple". Two of its original stone elephants are in situ at the upper corners of the pyramid. They are venerated by locals, the exquisite historical sculptures are adorned with coloured ribbons. The other two elephants are now exhibited at the National Museum of Phnom Penh and at the Musée Guimet in Paris. There is a wooden construction on the top now, indicating that this sanctuary is still a place of worship for locals. The base of the small pyramid is surrounded by a laterite enclosure on ground level with carvings, some Devatas (Apsaras) are still in a sound condition.


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