The Other Preah Khan

Adventure Temple Safari at Preah Khan

Many visitors have been awed and amazed by the temple of Preah Khan at Angkor. Immense garudas guarding the walls, ornate apsaras decorating the lintels in the Hall of Dancers, a curious Grecian-style two-storey structure, and a number of iconic trees, it is s stunning temple. Preah Khan is spectacular and often considered one of the ‘Big Five’ at Angkor, together with Angkor Wat, the Bayon, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei. However, rather less visited by comparison is the ‘other Preah Khan’ located in Kompong Svay district of Preah Vihear. Inaccessible for many years, adventurous travellers are now making their way there by motorbike or 4WD. Hanuman pioneered our very own Temple Safaris to Cambodia’s most remote jungle locations back in 2004, including the ultimate lost temple of Preah Khan. Access has got easier over the years, as roads slowly improve, but it remains the most adventurous of all Temple Safari destinations and only for the dedicated temple hunter. One of the largest temples during the Angkor period, it includes several satellite temples, Prasat Preah Stung intricately decorated with the signature four faces of Jayavarman VII. It was badly damaged by looters during the 1990s, but remains an atmospheric location thanks to the almost complete lack of visitors. Camp outside the gates for a night to remember under the stars.

Our Company Advisor, Lonely Planet author Nick Ray has visited the temple about half a dozen times in the past decade. He shares his stories of early disasters here in an  excerpt from To Cambodia With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press. Read on safe in the knowledge that the roads really are getting better, although it remains a rollercoaster ride for dirt bike enthusiasts. Nick travelled there as recently as February 2010 with a group of US pilots on a dirt biking tour to some of the most remote parts of Cambodia, including Temple Safaris at Preah Khan, Koh Ker and Banteay Chhmar.

Nick Ray is haunted by the curse of Preah Khan

Not to be confused with that Preah Khan on Angkor’s Grand Circuit—lest you want to spend several days lost in the jungle—this is the sleeping giant that is Preah Khan in Kompong Svay. A satellite city during the golden age of Angkor, it quite literally fell off the map in recent decades. It was lost in the impenetrable forests of northern Cambodia, but we were resolved to discover its secrets by following an ancient Angkorian highway.

The paths split and reformed like the mouths of the Mekong. Sometimes the trail ran cold—into a confused farmer and his buffalo surprised to see barangs in his rural retreat. But east is east, and the ancient Khmers were like the Romans of Europe, distilling culture throughout mainland Southeast Asia via a network of straight highways. Noble sandstone bridges provided historic waymarkers along the route.

Following the devout and destructive before us, we eventually stumbled upon Spean Ta Ong, a seventy-seven-meter bridge guarded by fearsome nagas. Camping out under the stars at Preah Khan, I realized how privileged we were to have chanced upon our very own Angkor without the tourists.

But did we inadvertently offend the gods by sleeping in their sanctuary? They certainly did their damnedest to make a return to this marvelous place all but impossible.

On my next try in 2002, I traveled the old Angkor road, scouting for Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film Two Brothers, a story of tigers in colonial-era Cambodia. The heavens opened, and the trails turned to streams. Before we knew it, we were knee-deep in mud. Annaud took it in his stride, snapping away on his Leica, as we tried to pull the bikes out of the treaclelike mud. “I need to understand the difficulties involved in the locations I am working with,” was JJ’s philosophy.

But failure wasn’t an option on my part, and a dry November convinced me to try again. The gods deigned otherwise. The heavens opened again, and we were soon sliding around like Ski-Doos.

Unrepentant and still oblivious to the curse, I ventured forth once more to conduct a community tourism assessment. This time it was going swimmingly up until the point my colleague, John, took this literally and went up to his neck in a river. I pushed ahead for help.

As dusk was closing in, I came upon a second river, wide and dry. Squirming through the sand, I reached a narrow channel of water. The bank was steep and sandy; the wheels of my bike just churned and spun. Pushing, pulling, raging, cursing, I tried everything, but I couldn’t get the bike to budge. I abandoned it and stumbled on to Ta Seng to raise the rescue committee. We found John dazed and delirious on the outskirts of town, carrying a dirty bowl he’d been using to drink from puddles.

The next morning we set off with ox carts in search of our steeds. As we came upon the first river, it had swollen overnight and was now a raging torrent. All I could see was a handlebar sticking sorrowfully out of the water. Stripping off, we hauled my bike out. John swam the river and trekked in search of his bike. Remarkably, it started, and he came roaring out the forest. Mine, on the other hand, was paraded around Ta Seng in search of a mechanic or magician. After taking it apart with the precision of a surgeon, the local mechanic reassembled it and beeped the horn triumphantly. It wouldn’t start, but face was saved.

We eventually made it out on a combination of ox carts and motorbikes. It was time to return to civilization. Third time unlucky, and I realized the curse of Preah Khan was upon me.

Getting to Preah Khan
There is no public transport to Preah Khan itself, but there are very infrequent trucks to the nearby village Ta Seng. Realistically most visitors are going to get to the temple under their own steam, either by moto, rented motorbike, or chartered 4WD. Getting to Preah Khan is quickest by motorbike from Kompong Thom. Follow National Highway 64 north toward Tbeng Meanchey. After about 80 kilometers, a small track leads west from the village of Phnom Dek through the forest to Ta Seng and Preah Khan. The total distance is about 120 kilometers from Kompong Thom, and it takes about five hours in the dry season.

Coming from Siem Reap, it’s multiple choice. By 4WD, take National Highway 6 to Stoeng, before heading north on a long, long dirt road to Ta Seng and Preah Khan. By motorbike there are two options. Easiest is to follow National Highway 6 southeast to Kompong Kdei before heading north on a good dirt road to the village of Khvau. From Khvau, it is forty kilometers east to Preah Khan on a miserable ox-cart track. Or … get your kicks on Route 66.

More adventurous and romantic is to follow the old Angkor road from Beng Mealea east to Preah Khan, which includes about ten Angkorian bridges dating from the twelfth century. Forget about trying this in the wet season, unless you can handle an ox cart. The best time to visit is from January to April, as the trails are reasonably dry.

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