DISCOVERING CAMBODIA'S LESSER-KNOWN TEMPLES
While Angkor Wat is the jewel in Cambodia’s crown, the country is littered with hundreds of temple ruins that date back to the Angkorian era and earlier. They offer a fascinating insight into the region’s history and the successive kingdoms that have shaped modern-day Cambodia. So once you’ve ticked Angkor Wat off your list, here are four lesser-known temples to discover on your wanderings.
NB: It’s important when exploring off-the-beaten-path destinations that you stick to designated paths (and go with a guide) as some areas of Cambodia are yet to be de-mined.
“The jungle-draped ruins of Beng Melea near Angkor Wat"
Prasat Preah Vihear
Perched atop an escarpment in the Dangkrek Mountains, Preah Vihear is a 9th-century Hindu temple near Cambodia’s northern border with Thailand. It’s been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is renowned for its elaborate carvings, not to mention the breathtaking views it offers. Prasat Preah Vihear is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva, with staircases connecting to its multi-level stone buildings and courtyards. Its architectural styles reflect the successive Khmer Empire kings that once ruled the land, with the sacred, five-peaked Mount Meru integral to the design.
Sambor Prei Kuk
Built during the Chenla Kingdom (late-6th century to 9th century), Sambor Prei Kuk is a sprawling temple complex on the banks of Tonle Sap lake, just north of Kampong Thom. It served as a royal sanctuary and capital of the Chenla Kingdom, with around 140 temples and monuments scattered around the archaeological site. Wander between the octagonal towers, tranquil ponds and lion sculptures that are slowly being reclaimed by the jungle, making Sambor Prei Kuk an adventure historian’s heaven.
Situated on the ancient royal highway that led to Preah Khan Kompong Svay, Koh Ker served as the final seat of power before the Angkorian kings moved to Angkor Wat. It was constructed by King Jayavarman IV during the 10th century and dedicated to the god of happiness, Treypuvanesvara, with just under 100 temples having been discovered within its ever-encroaching tract of jungle. Koh Ker centers around a seven-tiered pyramid and rectangular water tank, as well as the “red temple” of Prasat Krahom that exhibits detailed sandstone carvings.
Despite exhibiting Buddhist motifs in some of its carvings, Beng Mealea is a Hindu temple built during the Angkor period that lies around 40 kilometers east of Angkor Wat. It’s only recently become accessible to visitors and its history is still largely a mystery, although it’s believed to have been built with sandstone sourced from the nearby quarries of Phnom Kulen. Beng Mealea's architectural style is almost identical to that of Angkor Wat, leaving scholars to believe that it may have been built during the early 12th century under the reign of King Suryavarman II. Take note of the mythological Hindu scenes that are carved into the temple, such as Vishnu’s birth from the bird god Garuda, as well as balustrades that represent the seven-headed Naga serpent.