The Lost Temple of Preah Khan Kompong Svay. Situated it a remote area east of Angkor; Preah Khan was one of the most spectacular temple cities in the ancient Khmer Empire. Contained within concentric earth dykes 5kms on each side, the complex is of gigantic proportions; covering an area 4 times that of Angkor Wat. It has a 3 km long Baray, or reservoir, as part of the site and a large number of towers or Prasats within the area. Set within an impenetrable jungle with poor road access; the temples of Preah Khan were isolated and hard to reach. They were badly looted, during the dark years of the Khmer rouge and subsequent Civil War.
Largely unknown and very rarely visited; the temple has been neglected and badly looted in recent years. These pictures show this lost temple; its location and examples of how much devastation was wreaked on this monument. Whole towers were destroyed by looters and statues dynamited in attempts to find buried treasure. Many of the delicately carved sculptures and Apsara figures were hacked off leaving ugly scars. Thankfully the temple is now guarded and increasing numbers of visitors will ensure the preservation of what still is one of the most impressive sights in Remote Cambodia.
May 2005, with time on our hands, at the end of the tourist season; led to a plan between myself and our guide Ta Elit to go to one of the largest Khmer temple complexes ever constructed. Ta had asked our driver Chher to take us to this remote Region. Chher had been there before; which was something of an advantage as the journey to Prasat Bakan had a reputation of being a hard one and not for the inexperienced We planned two days for the journey with an overnight stopover in a village near Prasat Bakan. We decided to offer the opportunity for one or two friends or guests to join us. There were no takers for the trip until the night before we left when I had a chat over dinner with an English guy Bob Mellor. Game for a bit of adventure, Bob ; who had only just arrived here; was keen to join us and forgo his first day introduction to Angkor Wat. We were joined by Sorn; one of our regular guides; he had a couple of free days; so now we were five. A final phone call to Chher confirmed our arrangements; Chher and Ta had now suggested a slightly different route going to Stoung Near Kompong Thom and taking a route north to the Temple and returning to Kompong Thom. We would stay overnight at a hotel and visit the 10th century temples of Sambor Pre Kuk the following day. it seemed less adventurous; but would give the chance to see Sambor Prey Kuk for the first time and a night in comfortable hotel. This was originally written in 2005 with updated pictures from later trips.
Well that was the Plan!
Clearing the Road
We drove to Stoung where we turned off the tarmac to the dirt roads into the jungle. The route wasn’t too bad at the start; but after passing through a few villages we had to negotiate a confusing network of tracks which led across rice fields in the clearings. One would normally take the most heavily used tracks. By doing so, led us into floods and trees that has fallen across the route; many times we had to retrace our route to to the junction and start again. We came to a point where we passed a wide track crossing our path at right angles. We had not a clue where to go. A group of farmers nearby provided the answer “you can go either way?” this didn’t make any sense at all so Ta managed to persuade a farmer to direct us. He got into the vehicle and showed us through a convoluted route meeting his wife and family on the way. They helped clear the route for us. We passed a few small villages where we asked directions. A man told us that the temple was half a days walk form that point. We reckoned 20 kms at the most if the man was correct, so we were now thinking more optimistically. We left the farmer and continued at little more than walking pace; as chest height bushes were growing in the centre of the track. Many times we had to get out to hack down vegetation or clear part removed logs from the tracks. Most tracks split and rejoined a few tens of metres to avoid obstacles. Usually the best looking one ended up at a downed tree or flood; so we would have to go back. At one point we had no choice but to drive through a deep flood. I was expecting water to pour through the doors but we made it OK, though the consequences of a flooded engine wouldn’t bear thinking about. Chher was not too happy about the navigation or the possible damage to his Mitsubishi 4Wd which was tested hard on the steep river banks; these steep muddy trenches 3 to 5 metres deep approached rivers up to 20metres wide. Some of the rivers were dry but in the event of a flash flood. Walls of water up to 3 metres high can crash suddenly down washing away everything in its path. There had not been any rain for a few days; so many of the rivers were completely dry.
The overgrown West Gopura of Preah Khan
Prasat Preah Stung was a fabulous point to start our temple exploration. It was something of a surprise to see it so close to the road. Overgrown yet in good structural order this relatively small temple was a delight; with 4 main courtyards surrounding the central Prasat or tower there we symmetrical chambers. Some were full of rubble from partial collapse and others easily seen with most of the corbelled roofs complete The inner temple complex certainly lived up to expectations; being in a rather better state than I expected given what I have read. Sadly there was a lot of looting in the post Khmer Rouge era; with a lot of sculpture brutally hacked off. There are some very beautiful parts of the ruins still standing and the overgrown nature resembles the Jungle Temple of Beng Mealea in parts. A coupe of guardians showed me to a tower to the south with well preserved Naga (serpent) carvings on the upper corners of the building. The centre area is strewn with rubble from the central tower which had collapsed after a disastrous attempt at temple robbery in 2003. The remaining towers stand defiantly over the damaged areas. Many of the corner Apsara dancers have been brutally hacked off as were many of the Buddha images in the lintels. In spite of the devastation; there are some complete doorways with some spectacular carvings. The remaining Bayon style towers were largely untouched as they had few sculptured carvings. There is still a lot of atmosphere here and the place is so vast that we could only see a very small part outside of the central area We had a few hours to explore this vast ruin and have a picnic lunch with hot noodles from Chher's gas stove. We discussed options for the return journey. The chances of finding our way back through the jungle trails to Kompong Thom looked very slim. We had no choice but to continue the 70 or so kms to Tbang Meanchey, where there were guest houses, a hotel and a good road linking it to Koh Ker and back to Kompong Thom. We had to move on so we left after a couple of hours stopping at the temple of Prasat Damrei (Elephant temple) the central tower was very impressive and the area now overgrown with an amazing tree growing out of the wall shaped like an elephants trunk
Getting there was one thing!
A rough bit of road heading out of Preah khan
The journey heading north and west to Tbeang Meanchey proved to be not an easy task. route finding was even more difficult; with locals who either were uncooperative or had no sense of direction sending us be a very roundabout route as fallen trees had made our intended route impossible. Time and time again we asked for directions; sometimes floods caused us to make long detours round villages and each time we asked how far we were from the main road, the numbers got higher.
A street in a large village Sankum Thmei (or New settlement) was impassable due to monster ruts; we waited in the street by a sweet stall with a sweet girl serving with the village kids. They looked on in awe at the 2 white men; Bob and I; the first they had seen apparently! 20 mins later we caught up with Chher and Sorn who had done a long circuit through rice fields at the edge of the village. We followed the road which ended in yet more dry rice fields with a now frustrated crew trying to navigate round the edge of yet another village. We did eventually find a road but the going became worse rather than better; with more deep ruts and vegetation closing in around us. Late afternoon drifted into dusk with no realistic prospect of reaching the road which had gone from a claimed 5 kms to 20 kms away within the previous hour. The light dropped rapidly in the dark jungle. We continued until around 7:00 when we came to a halt. One track led into impenetrable bush and the other led down into a steep morass which looked impassable in the dark, Ta and Sorn went off to investigate the route. Ta and Sorn were mindful of landmines as they picked their way carefully along the path. Flaming torches appeared as a small group of villagers came to investigate. Bob and I remained in or near the vehicle. We speculated on the prospect of an ice cold beer and a good meal; probably not wise in the tropical heat in this jungle. As time wore on we were beginning to resign our self to a night in the jungle; thankfully there were not as many bugs and mozzies that we might have have expected. There were many fireflies and the constant flashing of distant lightning filtered through the foliage. The storm must have been a bad one as thunder rumbled on more or less continuously in the background. Both Ta and Sorn returned to speak to the villagers. While doing so vehicle lights appeared from down the dark void in front of us. a heavily laden pickup truck the first 4 wheeled vehicle we had seen in 5 hours struggled up the muddy slope. Well the 4 wheeled pick up actually only had 3 working as they had 2 flat tyres but only 1 spare. Ta asked them about the route and whether they could assist . There was no chance of this as the pick up was barely drivable and was near the end of its journey. We did at least know that the route was passable; so after a lengthy discussion of which Rob and I played no part in, we dropped down to the river valley. In the headlights; even minor irregularities seem like major pot holes and pot holes! well they looked like bottomless pits that would swallow us whole!
Towers hidden in the forest
An hour later we struggled onto a road, a real road! wide, gravel and reasonably smooth. It was only 60Kms on good highway from here to Tbeang Meanchey. Tbeang Meanchey was a decent sized town by all accounts and Lonely Planet mentioned a hotel. We drove on to a village stopping off at a roadside shop where we could buy snacks and beer! Ta and the lads continued negotiating with the shop owner while we supped canned Crown beer. Crown beer is pretty indifferent at best but served at 35oC it was bloody foul. Bobs mouth erupted with a spray of warm beer as he spat it out disgustedly I had already scoffed down a packet of sweet and salted peanuts quaffing down two cans in as many minutes. By 9:50 we were in the town of Tbeang Meanchey; wide boulevards and villas and cafes with lights. We pulled into the Prum Tep Guest house. With 3 floors; and 30 aircon rooms it was a surprisingly good hotel; with a bright clean lobby and a fridge full of cool beer and drinks. We drove off the a nearby local cafe where food was limited to a baguette with pork pate. Rob looked excitedly at the pot of boiled eggs until Ta warned him that the eggs were special Cambodian snacks with chicken embryos inside (a real chicken on a raft Yuk.) Rob settled for a sardine sandwich!
Footnote: Road links to Preah Khan are improving; but Ta Seng Village and the temple is cut off for many weeks during the rainy season. Its a journey that can only be done using trail bikes or 4WD and only in the Dry season. within the next year or two all weather roads will link to Ta Seng. so it will not be the adventure it once was. Go to Preah Khan for the adventure now!
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