Koh Ker: Archaeological Site of Ancient Lingapura or Chok Gargyar comprises the remains of an early and short-lived capital of the Khmer Empire.
Koh Ker influenced later Khmer architecture with its stone constructions and spatial layout. It also produced the distinct Koh Ker Style in sculpture, which is characterized by the monumental size and dynamics of the sculptures. They had a lasting influence on decorative styles in South East Asia.
Community Perspective: It's a day trip from Siem Reap, and can be combined with Preah Vihear on the same itinerary (although this shortchanges Koh Ker a bit if you leave it til the end). The archeological site, best known for its layered pyramid, is rather spread out and you need a car. Frederik spent a full day here and provided details on its architecture.
Map of Koh KerLoad map
Originally not part of Dvaravati and Pre-Angkorian Arts trip arranged by ICOMOS I participated with. On the free day in Siem Reap, the separate excursion to Koh Ker had been arranged by a small group of experts which I promptly joined after I heard their special tour. We left Siem Reap very early and reached Koh Ker at 9 AM to be the first group of visitors of that day. The local guide and ICOMOS experts explained to me that Koh Ker was the capital of Angkorian Empire for only about 25 years during the reign of King Jayavarman IV and his son. The reason why the king moved the capital to Koh Ker is still unknown, but most historians believe that it was political reason since the King usurped the throne of his nephew, so he moved the capital to Koh Ker where he ruled as local lord before he attacked his rival in Angkor.
The first thing I noted that Koh Ker’s location was quite dry and hot than Siem Reap area, one expert told me that the shortage of water maybe another reason why people moved the capital back to Angkor later. After we secured the ticket, the first temple was Prasat Pram Group, a complex of five buildings dedicated to Shiva, here our experts explained that the Koh Ker’s architectural style was clearly developed from Rolous Complex outside Siem Reap but the ratio of the whole structure had been expanded especially around the gate and lintel. The octagonal gate columns and lintel of Koh Ker style was bigger than other periods which decades later get the perfect form at Pre Rup Temple in Angkor. While I tried to understand the small details of differences of art styles, my focus was on one of Prasat Pram complex that covered by tree’s root that really eyes catching. Prasat Neang Khmau, famous for its black color stone temple was our next quick stop before we went to Prasat Damrei or elephant temple to see beautiful elephant statues and to see one of the best examples of Koh Ker style door lintel art. At Boeng Khnar temple we saw very big, ruined yoni and some rock cravings that once believe to decorate the sacred pond nearby. Then we drove to see unfinished Prasat Linga I, II, III and IV, these temples were built to house a very big stone lingam and yoni, the best one was at Prasat Linga I, possible the biggest yoni and lingam in Cambodia. All the temples were quite similar in style and most of them were unfinished since they had to stop after the king died.
After seeing such monotonous architectural style in many temples, I stated to get bored with Koh Ker, fortunately the highlight of Koh Ker arts was showed to me at Prasat Banteay Pir Chean at its gopura or entrance pavilion. Art historians believed that because the short time limit of Koh Ker construction, it was impossible to build the perfect stone gopura, so they needed a short cut by mixing stone façade and wooden framed roof. Instead of normal horseshoe shaped façade, Kor Ker artisans created the unique triangular shaped façade to match the triangular roof form, and borrowed wood craving styles and techniques and created the new art style which later developed into the famous Banteay Sri style. Another highlight of this trip was the special permission to see the restoration of Prasat Kra Chap. Archaeologists recently discovered that this is the best-preserved temple in Koh Ker. The details of stone craving were incredible, the Banteay Sri Styled façades were in perfect condition that at first, I thought it was a recent replica. It was a great privilege to see such new discovery before public. After lunch we went to Prasat Thom to see the famous pyramid. Actually, it was another unfinished temple. The multi-tiers platform or actually the very big multi-yoni is similar to Phnom Bakeng and Bakong temple in Siem Reap, so I did not find such structure unique. Actually, the next king built a smaller version in Angkor at Baksei Chamkrong Temple, but the so call pyramid was clearly popular among tourists. Our local guide told us that on clear day, we can see Preah Vihear Temple from the top of the pyramid.
We spent our time in Koh Ker until 3PM, it was a really long day. The things I got from Koh Ker was the power of King Jayavarman IV to build the whole city with many stone temples in such a short time. The immense human and other resources of the empire must be incredibly rich to make all his project happened. One of ICOMOS experts told me that it was not surprised that Koh Ker was the place where the idea of God-king developed as Jayavarman IV considered himself a part of Shiva to legitimize his kingship. Another thing was the endless adjustment of ancient artists to match political agenda. They found the way to build a new style of art and standardized temple building form to shorten time and process resulting a better art. If those artisans did not have crisis in Koh Ker, we will never see stately Pre Rup or intricated Banteay Sri, for art development, Koh Ker is really a crucial period of Southeast Asian one.
If Koh Ker gets inscribed later this year, it will be the 8th site related to the Khmer Empire and its predecessors on the World Heritage List. Considering the Maya have 9 now (and Takalik Abaj is upcoming!), it doesn’t seem overrepresented. But we are getting to the Tier 3 sites now I think, with Angkor solely occupying Tier 1 of the Khmer sites and the current WHS Sambor Prei Kuk and Preah Vihear holding Tier 2.
Koh Ker is a step down from these 3, considering both the visitor experience and the level of artistic/historic distinction. It dates from a relatively short period in the 10th century when it was the capital of the Khmer Empire. It was another stepping stone (both in time and location) between Sambor Prei Kuk and Angkor. The Khmer’s water management skills were further developed here.
The ‘best’ things the people from Koh Ker produced were colossal-sized statues. Unfortunately, none are left at the current archaeological site and there are no replicas either to show where they would have fitted. The statues can be seen in the National Museum in Phnom Penh and the Musée Guimet in Paris. In Phnom Penh, a giant Garuda from Koh Ker is welcoming all visitors at the museum entrance. Although the finer nuances in Khmer art elude me, I found the ones from Koh Ker easy to distinguish as they are of a large size, made of sandstone, and less refined.
The archaeological site is rather spread out and a car is needed to get from temple to temple. The Pram Temple, close to the entrance, has a nice set of overgrown shrines (pictured). The landmark stepped pyramid lies in the main area, which also has a large water tank and palace buildings. The temples are mostly in ruins here and not in use for worship – locals pray at the ‘Tomb of the White elephant’ just outside the walls at the back. The circuit furthermore has several linga shrines, with oversized lingam statues still in place.
Since 2020, the site is managed by the Angkor Enterprise and they have raised the foreigner entrance fee to 15 USD. Although Koh Ker can be done on a long day tour including Preah Vihear as well, it will suffer from it as you will be hot and tired when you finally reach Koh Ker. If you have the time, it would be best to allocate a separate day tour with Beng Mealea instead of Preah Vihear – they are all enjoyed best in the early morning, and Koh Ker’s ‘pyramid’ suffers from backlighting in the afternoon.
As it lies closer to Siem Reap than Preah Vihear, Koh Ker seems to attract more visitors. There are two restaurants and several souvenir stalls at the main temple site. The surrounding area is sparsely populated, and the people mainly are cassava farmers (you will see the product left to dry by the roadside).
Read more from Els Slots here.
Koh Ker was our next stop on the day trip to Preah Vihear, after we visited Beng Mealea. Our driver told us this layered pyramid was actually his favourite temple of Cambodia. The multi-day Angkor passes used to cover this site two, however it changed recently and we had to buy separate tickets. Not a problem, it was worth it. On the day of our visit, the site was mostly visited by local tourists - it's obviously a bit off the main fare. There's actually two-in-one ensembles: firstly, you enter through a set of ruins that looks something like three structures of Sambor Prei Kuk thrown together, similarily encircled by tree roots, a bit of a lake and general state of ruin-disrepair. You're already impressed, there are some nice photo ops. And then you walk some more and in the view in front of you a large pyramid appears.
It's square in layout, with layered stories one on top of each other and the best thing is the rickety wooden staircase you can take to the top and enjoy the view. It's couple of hundred steps, wear a hat and have some water, you will need it. But the view were absolutely amazing and the whole detour was definitely worth it! As Nan pointed out, the pyramid provides the most distinctive and unique feature of the whole ensemble.
Normally I try to stipulate the full itinerary of a day trip with a driver before I go. This time I didn’t and my driver notified me in Preah Vihear that Koh Ker wasn’t part of the trip. I was left somewhat annoyed, but couldn’t really complain as all I asked for was Preah Vihear. Koh Ker was just mentioned as an alternative when my driver was pitching me potential day trips back in Siem Reap.
Coming down the mountain after my visit of Preah Vihear I had already prepared myself for major haggling. But this being Cambodia my driver asked for less than 20 USD as a starting bid. It was kind of cute and I just had to smile and said yes. Going to Koh Ker is at least a 1h detour and adds some kilometers to the tab.
And I have to say the money was well invested. Koh Ker managed to surprise me as I suddenly felt beamed to Yucatan: a pyramid in the jungle! Thanks to the limited visitors you are even allowed to climb it and get a great view of the surrounding landscape (mostly jungle). It’s funny how these classical forms transcend cultures. Admittedly, due to the rather late hour and the tiring heat, I skipped on the other components of the site.
I had already seen plenty of Khmer architecture when I came to Koh Ker. The site pales in size and artwork compared to Preah Vihear, let alone Angkor, but the pyramid felt different from those in Angkor and sufficiently unique.
As stated I combined Koh Ker with Preah Vihear into a day trip with driver from Siem Reap. Looking at the remoteness of the site (at least that’s what it felt like) I am not sure how you would get here otherwise. Recommendation is to negotiate the full day trip before you go (Preah Vihear and Koh Ker).
I went on a day trip from Siem Reap to 3 remote temples on one day with private car. One of those temples was Koh Ker. The site has several small and bigger stops. From the ticket booth you drive a few kilometres to the main site (with the piramide). First you enter a complex of temples and other buildings, at the end is the piramide you can climb.
After this main site you make a looping to see some small temples with lingas. On the way out many more smaller items, But also a beautifull location with 5 similar temples, two "eaten" by the trees.
Antoinette von Moos
I was in Koh Ker in February 2010. The main monuments "Prang" (a huge pyramide)and the annex-temple "Prasat Thom" are really impressive. There are much more temples, some of them with two meter high lingas.(More informations: Koh Ker Wiki Voyage)
Renomination of Le site de Koh Ker (1992)
The site has 1 locations
The site has 7 connections
36 Community Members have visited.