Preah Khan: The Little Talked About Wonder of Angkor

Preah Khan doesn’t seem to be as famous as other temples in Angkor (voted by a panel of Lonely Planet’s writers and travel experts as the best travel destination in the world) , which is probably why I skipped it in my first visit many years ago.

In fact, this time round I wasn’t planning to travel to Cambodia at all. Firstly, I thought I’d seen its main highlights. Secondly, I was in a hurry to get to Laos as soon as possible in order to avoid the scorching temperatures of the dry season, before heading back to Thailand to meet with a friend.

I was in Yangon at the time, and however much I studied all possible alternatives, flying into Laos from Siem Reap kept coming up as the cheapest option by far, not to mention the quickest.

Once I’d booked my plane ticket to Siem Reap, I thought I might as well take the opportunity to see more of Angkor. After all, there are several dozen temples and buildings spread over 200 km2, and that’s just the main area, so I was confident I had not seen it all the first time I was there.

Most of this area was built about one thousand years ago, when the powerful Khmer empire (precursor of modern Cambodia) was at the peak of its dominance in Southeast Asia. The mastermind behind the most world-famous projects in this region, such as its new capital Angkor Thom, as well as the magnificent Bayon and Ta Prohm temples, was Jayavarman VII, the last great king of Angkor and the Khmer. In the late 12th century, he led its people in the victory over the invading Cham army, from the neighbouring Champa kingdom in today’s Southern Vietnam.

To commemorate this victory, Javayarman ordered the construction on its site of a new temple-city called Preah Khan (“sacred sword”). The Preah Khan ruins you can visit today belong mainly to the temples situated at its heart. But it was a city inhabited by thousands of monks, workers and officials, and surrounded by a moat.

In the end, I was glad I travelled again to Cambodia for some other reasons, like having the huge privilege of visiting Angkor Wat and Bayon for a second time, but Preah Khan alone would have been almost enough to justify a second visit.

Believe it or not, I almost did not go to Preah-Khan because it was late in the afternoon and I had to be back in Siem Reap soon, so it was a rushed visit and I actually missed some of the temples around the main sanctuary. Even so, this place alone made my day.

Have a look the photos below and see if you agree with me:

(All photos are © 2015 Fernando Cortés-Cabanillas. Please contact me if you wish to use them).

Statue of god holding a naga, on the bridge over the moat

The bridge over the moat, on the West side of the complex, is lined by (mostly decapitated) statues of gods and demons holding a naga, a divine entity in the shape of a snake in Hinduism and Buddhism.

East gate of Preah Khan

Preah Khan has a cruciform structure with four bridges and gates oriented towards the four cardinal points. The main entrance faces east.

Gopura (gate) in Preah Khan, Angkor

A view of the entrance to the second enclosure, with the massive foot of one of the two dvarapalas (“temple guardians”) guarding the entrance on each side.

Wall carvings in Preah Khan, Angkor

A detail of the exquisite bas-relief carvings on the temple walls.

Wall carvings in Preah Khan

Many Buddha images carved on the walls were later converted to Hindu rishis (“hermits”), when the king after Javayarman’s son converted back to Hinduism.

Carvings - Buddha images converted into Hindu rishis

A close-up of some of the “converted” Buddha images.

Close-up of apsaras bas-reliefs

It appears that Khmers were the first to use apsaras (“celestial dancers”) as decoration figures on the walls. In the picture, a detail of the walls of the aptly called “Hall of Dancers”.

Gate with lintel carvings in temple

One of the gates of the Hall of Dancers, with its lintel carvings.

Tree trunk growing on temple wall, Preah Khan

As in the Ta Prohm temple, the trunks of silk-cotton and ficus trees growing on top of the walls of the compound bear testimony to centuries of neglect endured by the Angkor temples. The temples were mostly swallowed by the jungle and remained hidden until their ruins were rediscovered in the early 20th century by French archeologists.

Temple grounds, Preah Khan

The building at the back puzzles archeologists, since both its structure and cylindrical columns are unique in the area. See also the last photo for a frontal view.

And one of the best things of Preah Khan: there were very few tourists in the whole compound, which, coupled with the warm late afternoon light, made for a relaxing and enchanting experience:

Interior of temple grounds, Preah Khan, Angkor

Inner enclosure, Preah Khan

Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t sing the praises of Preah Khan, so that it remains free from the crowds that swarm many of the other temples in Angkor. If you want to get a better idea of what Preah Khan looks (and sounds) like, stay tuned for a video that I’ll be posting in a few days.

What do you guys think? As always, I’d appreciate to hear from you; and don’t forget to share this post around if you enjoyed it.

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