Few travelers venture into Cambodia’s remote northern regions. The country has a poor road network and is not fully cleared of landmines (laid in their millions over three decades of war). Instead, the majority of tourists base themselves in the lively town of Siem Reap, gateway to the 155 sq mile Angkor Archaeological Park and its hundreds of majestic restored temples. Unsurprisingly, Angkor Wat – one of the world’s largest religious monuments – remains the foremost attraction in the country and first-time visitors will not want to miss the pinnacle of the Khmer empire. But there is much more to be seen beyond Angkor’s boundaries.
It is early January and I am in Cambodia, journeying with my family across one of East Asia’s emptiest corners. I consciously leave Siem Reap behind and travel further afield to avoid the crowds of Angkor Wat. I navigate towards northern Cambodia where I find impressive temples and hidden monuments that testify to Cambodia’s rich history.
As I traverse the landscape, lush rice paddies, rustic villages, and the rolling Dângrêk Mountains stretch out before me. Yet it is not the lush green that most astonishes me but the number of medieval man-made structures cutting up the land: long straight roads made of cinnamon-red laterite; sturdy arched bridges spanning gushing rivers; a lattice of pearly canals and irrigation systems. Above all, my eyes are drawn to the glorious tiered temples, nestled beside reflective pools and encircled by moats, many of which remain undiscovered and unmarked on conventional maps.
127 kilometers northeast of Siem Reap is Koh Ker, a remote archaeological site and the ancient capital of the Angkorian empire from 928 to 944 CE where 100 temples are still standing. Nestled within the embrace of a lush, untamed jungle, Koh Ker has long held the reputation of being one of Cambodia’s most challenging and inaccessible Hindu temple complexes. Still, not all Koh Ker’s temples are accessible – they are still clearing landmines – but I safely see more than a dozen temples, and road access has improved markedly.
With 40 inscriptions dating from 932 to 1010, Prasat Thom, its principal monument, has a staircase that leads to spectacular views at the top. The most important monuments are situated close to and near the Prasat Thom complex, where the seven-tiered pyramid, also known as Prasat Prang, the only one in Southeast Asia, forms the apotheosis of an eccentric building style known only in Koh Ker. Prasat Krahom, the second-largest structure in this ancient city, derives its name from the striking red bricks that form its structure. While the once-famous carved lions that adorned this temple have regrettably vanished, there is still much to behold. Stone archways and galleries lean gracefully, creating an enchanting atmosphere.
I continue my journey further north and reach Prasat Preah Vihear – Cambodia’s northernmost region at the Thai border – and one of the country’s least populated areas. Preah Vihear is one of the nine provinces that are part of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to the incredibly unique ecology surrounding Tonle Sap Lake. In Khmer language, it means sacred sanctuary. Preah Vihear is known as a place for honoring the ancient Hindu temple and three of Cambodia’s most impressive legacies from the Angkorian era. There are barely any tourists here. The temple Prasat Preah Vihear, named after its province, sprawls along a clifftop with breathtaking views of lowland Cambodia 550m below. An important place of pilgrimage for millennia, the temple was built by a succession of seven Khmer monarchs. For generations, Prasat Preah Vihear (called Khao Phra Wiharn by the Thais) has been a source of tension between Cambodia and Thailand. This area was ruled by Thailand for several centuries, but returned to Cambodia during the French protectorate, under the treaty of 1907. But sovereignty over the temple has been an issue ever since, with tensions between Cambodia and Thailand flaring up from time to time – most recently from 2008 to 2011, when armed confrontations around the temple claimed the lives of several dozen soldiers and some civilians on both sides.
Choosing to stay on-site, in a modest guesthouse, offers me the unique opportunity to immerse myself in an authentic Cambodian village and explore the awe-inspiring temples throughout the day – from sublime sunrises and sunsets at the top of Prasat Thom temple and afternoon picnics at Prasat Preah Vihear. I take outdoor bucket showers and share meals with a local Cambodian family. I am reminded of the essence of travel – experiencing genuine, unfiltered everyday life, far removed from the bustling tourist hubbub I witness in Siem Reap.
Often in Cambodia, the structures, now mostly in ruin, speak of wealthier, more lavish times for this country, now one of the world’s most impoverished. Overshadowed by the regional powers of Thailand, Vietnam, and China, Cambodia’s economy now relies on its Asian neighbors. But there was a time – between the 9th and 15th centuries – when Khmer kings, the leaders of Cambodia’s major ethnic group, successfully repelled foreign armies, mobilised their millions of subjects, and poured resources into the construction of extravagant Hindu and Buddhist temples. This was no ephemeral empire but a testament to the country’s rich historical legacy.
The abundance of temples in Cambodia is truly remarkable. Few places in the world can boast such a dense concentration of significant archaeological sites. The high status afforded religion to continuously shape Cambodia’s cultural landscape until today. The sacred areas I visit during my journey may eventually draw larger numbers of tourists as Cambodia gradually unveils its lesser-known heritage sites. Or it may continue to remain a hidden gem, like so many of Cambodia’s treasures, awaiting discovery by the few who venture beyond the country’s iconic, must-see monuments.