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Angkor Secret Places, the tranquil forgotten heritage sites

Though clichès of hidden temples in the jungle are still associated with Angkor, you should not expect to be the only visitor at any of the most imposing monuments. Angkor is attracting far more than 2 million visitors every year, and the numbers are increasing. Most tourists visit only those sites with car parks and restaurant facilities along the Small and Grand Circuit roads, usually all tour operators offer the same kind of packages. Places not considered to be big enough or not easy enough to reach them, are left out. But we know where they are and can show you some forgotton temples, too. The advantage is: You can visit those smaller structures in a tranquil surrounding. But you need something for this kind of hidden heritage experience, something, that will not be available in case you only spend three full days in Angkor and want to see, first of all, all the major attractions: simply time is required to see the "lost temple" specials. In some cases you do not even need an Angkor ticket. What you will will need for discovering Angkor's secret places, is patience.

Here is a shirt list of the most important sites remaining without bus parking lots, and this means: being silent places till the present day.

Ta Nei north of jungletemple Ta Prohm in Angkor

Ta Nei

This is one more of the many temples built by the Buddhist ruler King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. It is situated near the north-west corner of the Angkor reservoir East Baray, which is now dry. Ta Nei has no car park, it is located in the forest and can only be reached with smaller vehicle by using a track across the forest. It starts at the corner of the Small Circuit Road a few hundred metres east of Ta Keo and north of Ta Prohm. Better you ask and take a driver or guide who already visited Ta Nei.

The advantage of its secluded location is: This romantic temple is not crowded with tourists as the nearby (and admittedly much more exciting) Ta Prohm jungle temple. Ta Nei has only one imposing tree, growing on the north edge of the temple platform. But Ta Nei offers one of the few chances to experience an Angkor exploration feeling or to fullfill one's dreams of visiting the ancient temple ruins hidden in the jungle, not only called "jungle temple". In Ta Nei you can listen to the sounds of animals instead of clicking cameras or noisy groups of amused travellers. So Ta Nei can be counted as one of the insider tips for Angkor enthusiasts, who can discover lots of excellent stone reliefs in the ruins.

During the era of Jayavarman VII the Ta Nei temple was planned to be 35 metres long and by 26 metres wide, but later on it was extended eastwards to 46 metres. Finally it reached 55 metres length and 47 metres width during the reign of Indravarman II (ca. 1220-43). So it is one of the last flat temples constructed in the Angkor period. In Angkor there are only small isolated towers such as Mangalartha dating from a later period than the completed Ta Nei.

Banteay Prei north of Preah Khan in Angkor
Banteay Prei  

Banteay Prei means "citadel of the jungle", though the location is not really a jungle any more, but surrounded by pastureland for cattle. Banteay Prei is a medium-sized compound, from the same Bayon period and similar in layout to Ta Som and Ta Nei. Galleries and towers are less high here at Banteay Prei, this is why it almost appears to be a temple en miniature. Inside the outer (counted "third") enclosure there is a moat surrounding the core compound. It measures 80 m by 60 m. The galleries forming the inner ("first") enclosure are 30 m from east to west and 25 m from north to south. The walls of all buildings are decorated with floral ornaments and Devatas (Apsaras) in the typical Bayon-style. As in the case of other Buddhist monuments in Angkor many sculptures are defaced, some by Hindu iconoclasts in the 13th century, but others maybe during the civil war period when Khmer rouge art thefts plagued this part of Angkor frequently. There is a pillar with a peg motif of unknown function in the southwestern part of the courtyard. Similar stelae were found in other Bayon style temples, e.g. two in Preah Khan and one in Ta Som.

Close to Banteay Prei, the smaller contemporary temple compound of Prasat Prei is situated on a natural hillock.

Prasat Chrung corner temples of Angkor Thom

Prasat Chrung

The Khmer term "Chrung" means "corner" or "angle", and that is the name of the location, the four corners of the city walls of Angkor Thom. Thus Prasat Chrung is not one temple, but four, and they are in more than three kilometers distance from each other. The south-eastern Prasat Chrung is the best preserved of the four strcuctures. The walls are decorated in the Bayon style of Angkor Thom, for example with female divine beings called Devatas in niches. Pediments show standing Avalokiteshvaras, but many of them defaced or scratched out during the reign of the Hindu iconoclast Jayavarman VIII. A square pavilion sheltered an inscription stele. There are no roads to the Prasat Chrungs. So a visit starting at a city gate of Angkor Thom requires 1.5 km walking or biking, 3 km up and down. This is why Angkor Thom's corner temples are very tranquil sites.

Angkor Thom East Gate also called Death Gate
Angkor Thom East Gate

Angkor Thom has two eastern gates, the East Gate in the narrow sense at the cardinal point and one more 500 m further north, the latter is the Victory Gate. It is crossed by the Small Circuit road. For those with enough time it is highly recommendable to climb the city walls at the south side of the Victory gate. You can take a photo of one of the colossal Buddha faces framed by trees. The West Gate of Angkor Thom is th only other place offering this sight. You can walk on the city walls 500 m to the south to the East Gate of Angkor Thom, also called "Death Gate". Unlike South, North and Victory Gates, the East Gate has no restored giant balustrades. However, it is a perfectly tranquil site, a monument of exactly the same size and design as the famous South Gate, but without traffic and without noisy visitors, as there is no paved road to the East Gate.

Prasat Banteay Thom hidden temple in Angkor
Banteay Thom

The modern Khmer name "Banteay Thom" means "Citadel big". The "o" in "Thom" is open and short.

Due to its secluded location to the northwest of Angkor Thom, the very cute medium-sized temple Banteay Thom is still a site free of tourists. You will hardly find any other temple in the Angkor area that is as tranquil and breathtaking at the same time. Banteay Thom and Phnom Bok are the real big stuff for those seeking to experience the "forgotten civilization in the jungle" or simply the perfect setting for contemplation.

Banteay Thom can only be reached by motorbikes or mountainbikes. It’s not easy to find it.

The temple is overgrown by thicket and grass. One impressive wall-strangling tree, when already rotten, finally fell down from the gallery's roof into the main temple courtyard in March or April 2013. Only its roots are still covering the inner (so-called first) enclosure wall at the south-eastern corner.

Banteay Thom was erected under the famous first Buddhist ruler of Angkor, Jayavarman VII (1181 - ca.1218).

Not surprisingly, it has an outer enclosure wall of quite stately appearance. The walls are made of laterite, the gate of sandstone. The main entrance is from the east, as usual. There is no second gate at any other side of the outer enclosure. The eastern gate is preceded by a typical cruciform terrace. The outer East Gopuram is of impressive size and crowded with Bayon style ornamental and figurative decoration, male guardians (Dvarapalas) and female Devatas (Apsaras) in particular. Regrettably, many Devata carvings of Banteay Thom were rudely damaged recently. Due to its secluded location, Banteay Thom became a victim of looting.

The outer Gopuram's pediment facing south showed a Bodhisattva being tortured by two demons (Ashuras), identifiable by their grim faces with fangs. The Bodhisattva sculpture is now missing. A third male figure still in situ, small in size, is rendered holding a long stick in both hands. Four flying female figures are at the top of the carving.

Similar carvings depicting a Bodhisattva being tortured can be seen on several lintels of Preah Khan in Angkor as well as at Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei and Preah Palilay in Angkor and at Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham and at Ta Prohm at Tonle Bati. Usually the tortured Bodhisattva is seated in the gesture of meditation, which is called Samadhi Mudra.

Though an episode where the Buddha is beaten or tortured is unknown, the theme of a maltreated Bodhisattva can already be found in the Buddhist canon of Holy Scriptures, the Tipitaka (Tripitaka), namely in the Temiya Jataka (also known as Mugapakkha Jataka). In one of his previous lives, the Buddha was born as Temiya, son of the King of Benares. But seeing the pain caused by punishments of criminals, which are part of the royal duties, Temiya decided never to ascend the throne. Therefore, he pretended to be unable to use his limbs and to be mute, too. When his parents tried to delight him with delicious food and with nice toys, he remained unmoved. Then they tried to terrify him, Temiya underwent hard tests including a sharp sword swivelled over his head, resembling the weapons displayed on the Khmer carvings. Definitely the theme of the "tortured Bodhisattva" is intended to emphasize the imperturbability of an enlightened being.

A moat or, more precisely, a series of water basins, is inside the second (outer) enclosure. The pools are embanked by laterite steps.

The first (inner) enclosure is entirely surrounded by galleries. Their roofs are overgrown with grass, but nevertheless in a good condition. Visitors can walk through long dark tunnels full of spiderwebs.

The ring of laterite galleries is interrupted by the inner Gopuram at the east, which is of sandstone. Facing the three main towers, the western pediment of this Gopuram of the inner enclosure depicts a Buddha, he himself now defaced, flanked by two flying figures and accompanied by female worshippers. Two of them are kneeling in the upper register and thirteen are standing in a row in the lower register, each of them holding a lotos. A similar scene can be seen at the northern Gopuram of Preah Khan. Women depicted with lotos flowers, similar in style to enlightened disciples, are rare in Khmer Buddhist art. In the case of Preah Khan, they are probably worshippers of the female representation of highest wisdom, Prajamaparamita. But at Banteay Tom, it is not entirely clear whether they are adorants of the Buddha or a Bodhisattva or of Prajnaparamita.

The main structures are three Prasat towers, lined north-south. They are built of sandstone. Facing them, there are two library buildings. Inside the northern tower, robbers have dug a hole in search for treasures.

The Prasat walls are neatly covered with reliefs. There are numerous figurative carvings in the inner enclosure, though not in the best state of preservation. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were scratched out presumably during the late 13th century when under the rule of King Jayavarman VIII  the reemerging Hinduism turned out to be intolerant. The Hindu carvings depict Vishnu on Garuda and Aniruddha imprisoned by ropes. Some more carved stones lie on the ground.

The southern pediment of the southern tower depicts the so-called "Great Departure", the royal Prince Gautama Siddhartha leaving his family and the palace on his horse Kantaka. In order to facilitate a silent departure of the future Buddha, the gods (or Lokapalas, guardians of the directions) plunged the inhabitants of the palace into a deep sleep, opened the city gates and supported Kantaka's hoofs with their hands, the latter being represented on the carving. The depiction at Banteay Thom shows the "Great Departure" particularly speedy, with the horse galloping and the carrying gods running.
The northern pediment of the central tower illustrates the "Assault of Mara" (also known as "Defeat of Mara"). In the central register, a female representing the deity of Earth is flanked by two horsemen. The destructive Mara may be represented by the Kala mask in the lower register. The Buddha at the top is defaced.

In Khmer depictions of this famous event, the Goddess of Earth, Bhumi or Dharani, called Preah Thorani in Khmer, is often depicted as a person, in contrast to Indian representations of Mara’s defeat. Dharani responded to the Buddha-to-be's call to witness his attainment of enlightenment. By twisting her hair, Dharani produced a flood that drowned the advancing cavalry of Mara. Mara, the Lord of Death, was attacking the meditating Buddha-to-be to prevent him from overcoming death (Mara) by attaining enlightenment.     

Definitely the best time to see Banteay Thom is the morning. Banteay Thom can be visited without ticket.

Prasat Sampeau former Vahnigriha (fire house) in the vicinity of Angkor
Prasat Sampeau

This place is really a little bit remote (10 km north-east of Angkor Thom) and worth an extra journey only for Angkor enthusiasts. Prasat Sampeau consists of a single Prasat tower with an adjoining elongated hall. The shape of it resembles that of a ship, this is why Khmer call the building "Prasat Sampeau", meaning "Sanctuary Ship". The simple laterite construction is not overwhelming. Nevertheless, covered with vegetation it is a small jungle temple, without tourists.

Historically Prasat Sampeau is a quite interesting structure. It was built in the era of king Jayavarman VII (1181 - ca. 1218). That's nothing special, almost half of the Angkorian monuments are from the very same king. However, Prasat Sampeau was one of 121 so-called "Vahnigrihas" this king claims to have built, according to a famous inscription at Preah Khan. These "fire-houses" were erected along the major routes from Angkor to other cities. Prasat Sampeau is the Vahnigriha closest to his capital Angkor Thom, the only one in Angkor's present-day archaelogical zone (or at least the only structure that was a Vahnigriha without any doubt). Confusingly, Vahnigrihas are sometimes called Dharmasalas (teachinghalls).


Phnom Bok forgotten Khmer temple near Angkor
Phnom Bok

Phnom Bok is the most exciting untouristed place in the Angkor area. A visit of Phnom Bok is a dream coming true for all those travelers who hope to explore a hidden Khmer heritage site and enjoy it without any disturbance. But visiting Phnom Bok requires climbing 600 steps to the top of the 235 m high hill, the highest mound in the plains of Angkor. Indeed, most drivers and tour operators do not even know Phnom Bok, or assume a visit of Phnom Bok would be too arduous for their customers. But for having the experience of the full magic of Angkor there is no way avoiding the climb to Phnom Bok! You will not regret it.

Phnom Bok is one of the oldest temples in Angkor. It was erected by King Yashovarman I (889-910), who is the founder of Angkor as Khmer capital. Phnom Bok has three Prasat towers decorated with carvings, one for Brahma, one for Shiva, one for Vishnu. Four more buildings once stood in front of the sanctuaries, the two inner ones of sandstone remain, only foundations remain of the exterior brick buildings. The roofs of the sandstone buildings are picturesquely surmounted by trees.


Chau Srei Vibol remote Khmer temple near Angkor
Chau Srei Vibol

Chau Srei Vibol is the vastest temple complex in the Angkor plains that is situated outside the Angkor Archaeological Park. It lies to the east of Angkor and to the northeast of Roluos. Definitely, it's an "off the beaten track" monument. A visitor should neither expect intact buildings nor delicious works of art, as Chau Srei Vibol is unrestored and even the original structure was not at all luxurously decorated, though it was constructed in Angkor's heidays in the 12th century, most probably from the Angkor Wat period in the first half of the century.

Inside this vast compound there are two completely different structures worth a visit, one is on the top of the natural hillock in the very centre, the other one is at its southern base. Both are in ruins, but well recognizable. The north gallery of the ensemble on top of the hill is overgrown by a tree with its rootes strangling the stone.


Trapeang Phong

A Trapeang (pronounced "troperng") is a pond or small lake. However, Trapeang Phong is a Khmer temple tower. It is situated on a low natural mound, which becomes an island in the marshlands of the Tonle Sap during the rainy season. Trapeang Phong is situated 3 km south to the Bakong temple pyramid in Roluos. There are not many tourists or even tour guides who have ever seen Trapeang Phong. But this remote Prasat is a little bit more than "a lesser ruin of Angkor". It is surprisingly tall. Trapeang Phong is the structure where Devata sculptures, better known as Apsaras, occured for the first time in the Khmer art of wall decoration. When gliding in a boat through the silent marches and viewing the ancient monument surrounded by palm trees, coming closer and closer, you will feel like the first man landing on a forgotten Khmer moon. A boat trip to Trapeang Phong is a dream coming true for those who want to discover the unknown, not a mere tick at the list of Khmer heritage places of minor interest.

Images of Trapeang Phong can be found on our comprehensive page on Roluos.

Wat Athvea

Prasat Wat Athvea is situated in the southern outskirts of Siem Reap, only 200 metres to the right at the road to Chong Kneas and the Tonle Sap. Now it is part of a modern monastery of the same name. Khmers use the English term "temple" only for ancient stuctures, temple buildings of today's monasteries are called "pagodas". So in the case of Wat Athvea you can see both a temple and a pagoda.

Prasat Wat Athvea is a flat temple from the same time as the Angkor Wat. Contrasting to other temples from the same Angkor Wat style period Wat Athvea almost completely lacks sculptural decoration and ornamentation, maybe it was never completed. Wat Athvea's only Apsara sculptures are found on decorated pilasters at the door leading from the Mandapa hall to the sanctuary surmounted by the main Prasat. The Apsaras are in the classical style of Angkor Wat. The inscriptions at the pillars are Buddhist additions from the 16th century. The huge pedestal of a Lingam in the cella marks the temple as a former Shiva sanctuary.

Wat Athvea is rarely visited by tourists, though it is not a small monument and in a remarkable good condition. For photos of Wat Athvea please click to our page Siem Reap Temples.


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