Excellent to see the, in our opinion long overdue, recognition of Koh Ker ancient city by the UNESCO powers that be with its inscription onto their World Heritage list as of September 2023. These spectacular jungle ruins, located in Preah Vihear Province, represent the site of the Khmer capital during the early to mid part of the 10th century.
As with the earlier city of Ishanapura, (Sambor Prei Kuk), and, of course, the world-famous Angkor Archaeological Park, World Heritage Koh Ker represents an entire ruined city complex rather than an individual temple site. (Cambodia’s 4th World Heritage site is the dramatic mountain-top sanctuary of Preah Vihear on the Thai-Cambodian border.)
The remote, forest ruins were until relatively recently very hard to access and the area suffered major problems with extensive landmines left over from the war years. (Red skull and crossbones warning signs were ubiquitous at the site.) Happily, the area today has been largely cleared and access roads and facilities greatly improved although its remote location and distance from the main tourist hub of Siem Reap has meant that visitor numbers have remained low.
The site lies some 120 kms from Siem Reap – so approximately 2 and 1/2 hours driving time – although the equally spectacular site of Beng Melea, (also a strong candidate for future UNESCO listing), is situated around the halfway point, conveniently breaking up the journey. However, with the wealth of better-known sites close to the town and the sadly very limited time many visitors consecrate to their visit, few make it out to this picturesque and fascinating site.
The original city, known as Lingapura, (City of Lingas), or Chok Gargyar, was founded by Jayavarman IV as an alternative capital to Angkor during a war of succession which took place in the early part of the 10th century. (The remote site was likely the pretender’s ‘hometown’ and power base during his struggle with rivals at Angkor.) The city is historically unique as, while Angkor represents a series of temples constructed by successive rulers of several centuries, newly World Heritage Koh Ker was largely constructed over a short, very specific, time frame.
The estimated 70 or so separate temple sites of ancient Lingapura also represent significant architectural innovations with a change from brick material to the widespread use of sandstone. (Pre-10th-century sanctuaries were generally built of brick with sandstone ornamentation while the well-known, later sites such as Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and of course Angkor Wat itself, employed laterite foundations clad with sandstone exteriors. The Koh Ker temples correspond to an intermediary period and examples of brick, laterite and sandstone sanctuaries can still be seen.
Additionally, Koh Ker style is one of the most distinctive of early Khmer art styles and features large-sized, imposing statuary, many of which are today on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. (Regrettably, the remoteness of the site meant it suffered greatly from looting.)
The accession of King Jayavarman V to the throne in 968 saw an end to internal struggles and the capital returned to Angkor with Koh Ker relegated to its former, remote provincial status. (Several later period sites were however constructed in the area during later times, indicating continued occupation into at least the early 13th century.)
An overnight stay at a nearby resort and visit to some of the extensive ruins are included in our Beyond Angkor tour which we’re happy to say now includes all 4 of the country’s World Heritage Sites.