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Prasat Bakan

An expedition to Cambodia's largest temple; the rarely visited Prasat Bakan or Preah Khan, Kampong Svay

Despite some 25 years exploring Cambodia and its myriad ancient temples, we’d never actually made it to what is officially the largest of them all – Prasat Bakan or Prasat Preah Khan of Kampong Svay. (Kampong Svay was the old name for this area but today describes a district of Kampong Thom Province to the south while Prasat Bakan now comes under Sangkum Thmei district of Preah Vihear Province.)

Prasat Bakan
The east gate, Prasat Bakan. (Thanks to Bruno for the photo.)

With an outer premier wall stretching almost 5 kms on each side and a plethora of outlying temples Bakan dwarfs even Angkor Thom and is the single largest Angkor-period site in existence. We say site rather than temple as Preah Khan of Kampong Svay is – as with Angkor Thom – an entire ancient city rather than a single sanctuary and consists of the walled urban area, a huge reservoir – the Trapeang Padak Baray – numerous satellite temples and a central sanctuary with concentric enclosures and an elaborate entrance causeway.

Just a fraction of the huge reservoir is today filled with water
Just a fraction of the huge reservoir is today filled with water

The location is remote and, until recent road improvements, very hard to access. Furthermore, the site had formerly come with something of a foreboding reputation among locals as the region’s extensive minefields were known to have been only partially cleared while the surrounding forests were thought to be the lair of bandits and, until relatively recently of course, remnants of the Khmer Rouge. (Our friend and driver, a Cambodian soldier, insisted on travelling armed.)

Well-preserved Garuda image
Well-preserved Garuda image

Although as the crow flies only 110 kilometres from Siem Reap, the trip took us 4 hours by car – half of which was along National Highway 6 and the rest upcountry on dirt tracks. (Which included a 25 kms stretch of private track through a vast Vietnamese rubber plantation.)

The 4 hours included a programmed coffee stop and an unprogrammed tyre blowout. The latter occurred completely in the middle of nowhere with not a village or house in sight and just a single, basic shack at the side of the track. By some absurd stroke of fortune, the shack just happened to belong to a car mechanic!

Prasat Bakan trip
That’s a blow-out!
Kampong Svay, Preah Vihear
Fortuitous to say the least

Regrettably, albeit predictably, such a remote and little-visited site has suffered from severe looting and many of the accessible and transportable reliefs are long gone although enough remains in more inaccessible sections to give a clear impression of the site’s former glory. Again, as with Angkor Thom, the vestiges include numerous sanctuaries scattered throughout what is now forest rather than a single, large temple such as Angkor Wat. Some of these now form Beng Melea-style mountains of collapsed masonry, others have survived the elements, nature and looters’ dynamite surprisingly well.

Head of Rahu at Prasat Preah Thkol
Head of Rahu at Prasat Preah Thkol

The city was modified, added to and renovated over centuries by different Angkor kings and the collection of temples seen today is, to say the least, eclectic. Furthermore, the site has so far undergone little in the way of excavation and archaeological research so much of Prasat Bakan’s history remains unknown. Certain laterite towers seem to us reminiscent of an early, Koh Ker, style while there is evidence of early 11th-century, Suryavarman I, construction and subsequent Suryavarman II additions. (The king of Angkor Wat fame.) Most obvious to a casual observer however, is an apparent large-scale late 12th-century makeover by the famed ruler Jayavarman VII. Yes, the iconic, enigmatic faces are still present along with his characteristic cruciform causeways, naga balustrades and ubiquitous Garuda reliefs.

Garuda Bridge at Prasat Bakan
The 12th century bridge leading to the central temple’s main entrance is covered with well-preserved hamsa (sacred geese) and serpent reliefs
Prasat Preah Stoeng
Prasat Preah Stoeng

The site is vast and would take days to explore so, after an excellent local lunch in the nearby village, afternoon temperatures reaching 43 in the shade, (there was no shade!), and not least the concern of a 4-hour return drive on a spare tyre, we took the decision to return to Siem Reap.

Numerous temple sites remained unvisited and some of the larger ones merited more in-depth examinations so, we will return – perhaps just not in April again!

Preah Khan of Kampong Svay
Some very friendly – and rather insistent – monks

Many thanks to old buddy Chet for his faultless driving along sometimes tricky roads and to Bruno and Valerie for their excellent company and temple discussions. A memorable day trip!