Khmer treasures beyond Angkor Wat

RONAN O'CONNELL discovers five overlooked ancient temples

Once there were a million people living in this city. Now, I’m all alone as I wander through the remains of some of its finest temples. The city of Angkor was one of the biggest and most sophisticated ancient civilisations the world ever witnessed.

From the 9th to the 15th century, it was the grand capital of the powerful Khmer Empire.

As this empire grew and grew, enveloping areas which are now parts of Cambodia, Thailand, China, Myanmar and Laos, so too did the city of Angkor.

The enormous empire was ruled from Angkor, where a dynasty of kings gradually turned what was a small city into one of the most advanced metropolises in the world.

These kings used the vast wealth of the empire to build a cluster of extraordinary temples within Angkor.

This included Angkor Wat, a monumental 12th century temple complex, which has become the icon of Cambodia.

It is also one of Asia’s most-visited tourist attractions.

Each time I have gone to Angkor Wat, I have found it cloaked in tourists, such that it is nigh-on impossible to find a quiet corner of the complex.

Fortunately, the remains of the city of Angkor, now known as the Angkor Archaeological Park, also include a number of comparatively ignored temples.

They are extraordinary ancient structures, which would be the biggest tourist draw in many other cities in Asia.

Yet they exist in relative obscurity due to being overshadowed by Angkor Wat.

Here are five of the most overlooked temples of Angkor.

Prasat Kravan

Surrounded by a moat, this small 10th-century Hindu temple is unique in that, unlike many of the other religious structures in Angkor, it was not built by a king but instead by a wealthy citizen. Its five red-brick towers face east and are decorated by attractive carved bas-reliefs which depict Hindu deities Lakshmi and Vishnu. Angkor was abandoned in the 1400s and many temples, like Prasat Kravan, were left to crumble over the following centuries. This particular temple was reconstructed in the early-to-mid-1900s by archaeologists.

Banteay Kdei

Built in the late 1100s, this was among the first temples constructed by King Jayavarman VII, who is widely regarded as Cambodia’s greatest king, having green-lit many of the most incredible structures of Angkor. This large Buddhist complex has a dramatic eastern entrance, with a gate topped by a huge stone-carved human face. Designed as a monastery, it is being slowly restored, like many of the temples of Angkor.

Pre Rup

One of the oldest structures in the Angkor Archaeological Park, this Hindu temple is in quite good condition given it was built more than 1000 years ago. It is also among the tallest of these temples, with its five central towers looming over this complex. Sweeping views are offered from its highest terrace, accessed via a stone staircase. Dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, Pre Rup is among the best preserved temples in the park.

East Mebon

When this temple dedicated to Hindu Lord Shiva was built in the 10th century, it was positioned on a small man-made island within what was then a large lake called East Baray. This lake is now dry yet the temple remains spectacular. The highlight is eight 2m-tall stone elephant sculptures, which stand guard at each corner of the temple’s top and bottom levels. Also visible are the remains of several boat landing platforms; this temple was once marooned in a body of water.

Ta Som

Smothered by jungle until the 1930s, this Hindu temple built in the late 1100s is reminiscent of the Bayon temple inside the nearby walled city of Angkor Thom. One of the key features, which underlines the influence of Bayon, is the presence of giant faces carved into its stone entrances. Its single tower was originally surrounded by a moat and the complex is decorated by complex stonework. Ta Som is in reasonable condition thanks in part to a restoration project by the World Monuments Fund.


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