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Koh Ker, Cambodia

The ruined city of Lingapura

The now rather remote and rarely visited site of Koh Ker was for a brief period in the early 10th-century the capital of the vast Khmer empire.

Lying in the Cambodian province of Preah Vihear, around 3 hours’ drive from Siem Reap Town, this extensive complex of forest ruins is what remains today of the imperial city of Lingapura constructed by King Jayavarman IV and his son Hashavarman II during the period 928 to 944 CE.

The unique 7-tiered pyramid of Prasart Thom, Koh Ker
The unique 7-tiered pyramid of Prasart Thom

Despite only being the imperial capital for such a short time-span – Rajendravarman moved the court back to Angkor on succeeding to the throne in 944 – an impressive number of temples were raised and indeed later additions by subsequent kings during the 11th and 12th centuries demonstrate that, while no longer the capital, Lingapura (also known as Chok Gargyar) remained an important provincial centre throughout the Angkor period.

Sandstone gopura at Prasart Krachap, Koh Ker
Sandstone gopura at Prasart Krachap

As well as leaving a large number of spectacular sites scattered throughout the densely forested area this brief but very intense period of temple construction was also highly innovative in building style and gave rise to many architectural features widely seen in the later, better-known, sites of Angkor itself.

Pediment at Prasart Krachap, Koh Ker
Pediment at Prasart Krachap

The large, imposing temples of Koh Ker replace the older brick-built towers (still seen at what are perhaps some of the earlier Lingapura sites) with massive laterite constructions and a more extensive use of sandstone. Entrance ways – as represented by the royal temple complex Prasart Krahom and Prasart Thom – are increasingly elaborate and multiple, concentric sanctuary or courtyard walls are a common feature.

Prasart Bram, Koh Ker
Prasart Bram, Koh Ker

Sculpture too was innovative and the Koh Ker style is represented by massive sandstone statuary and the introduction of large, carved stone pediments above the door lintels. Sadly the remoteness of the site and collectability of such images means that much has been looted over time although spectacular examples can still be seen in both the Phnom Penh and Siem Reap national museums.

The extensive sandstone ruins can evoke later temples such as Preah Khan or Ta Prom
The extensive sandstone ruins can evoke later temples such as Preah Khan or Ta Prom

As the ancient name suggest the city was dedicated to the god Shiva and a series of sandstone shrines house giant lingas, some of which are still in place today.

Roots at Prasart Bram, Koh Ker
Roots at Prasart Bram, Koh Ker

The overall site with its picturesque setting, impressive ruins and distinct lack of crowds makes for a fantastic visit while to our minds such an extensive and historically significant 10th-century ruined city is crying out for UNESCO World Heritage status.

Being so remote Koh Ker isn’t easily fitted into our standard Cambodia tour itinerary but is included in our Beyond Angkor – off the beaten track – Cambodia tour while private visits can be easily arranged.