07 February 2013

Koh Ker : corker!

The splendid assembly of ruins at Koh Ker are where the capital of the Khmer world was located in the 10th century, when King Jayavrman IV decided, on his ascension to the throne, that the court should come to him, rather than him move to Angkor.

Australian volunteer Donna, Marianne and I visited this magnificent place last Saturday. It’s about a 3-hour drive from Siem Reap, partly on tarmac and partly on dirt roads, currently with many detours around half-built bridges. The price of the air-conditioned car, with driver, was US$90 for the day and the entrance fee – or, rather, the road toll – to Koh Ker was US$10, so it was not a cheap excursion but it was definitely worth the expense.

Once we turned off route 6, the main highway to Phnom Penh, and got out into the countryside, there was burning of the undergrowth beneath the trees throughout the countryside. Whether to clear the land for cultivation or for some other purpose we weren’t sure, but a pall of dense smoke covered the entire area.

The temples were impressive, spread out over quite an extensive area surrounding a large baray (reservoir) that we circuited but couldn’t actually get close to. We started at Prasat Thom, which initially seemed quite ordinary and was much ruined, though we did find a fine statue of a bull’s head. Apparently, Koh Ker is renowned for its massive statuary, but most has now been removed to the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Prasat Thom had an extensive moat, where I photographed some lovely tree reflections, and was relatively quiet, except for the little daughter of the temple warden, who became a cheeky and noisy character once spoken to, echoing our hellos, singing loudly and pinching both Donna and Marianne on the bottom. Luckily, she soon ran off into the bushes, as the peace and quiet of Koh Ker was a major attraction – it is one of those places where you can hear the leaves fall! And we only saw two other groups of two tourists here and no more all day – fantastic!

A big surprise presented itself at the back of the Prasat Thom complex, where there is a huge, quite well-preserved seven-tier pyramid. The guidebook said you could get great views from the top but, in fact, the old wooden staircase was blocked off and was missing several rungs. The guide said we could climb it for $5 – a cheap suicide! The guide also said there were landmines so we made sure to stick to the well-trodden paths but, in fact, I think it was safe enough as there were ‘mine clearance’ signs at all the various sites here.

On the other side of the baray, the first three ruins were towers with linga shrines inside. Linga are large, phallic blocks of stone, fertility symbols that you are supposed to caress for good luck. I stroked my hand around the head of one – though I’m not sure exactly what sort of luck I should expect.

Prasat Krachap had an impressive outer gateway, with large scroll-like decorations above the pediment – the influence looked almost Chinese. There were also several columns with Sanskrit engravings in good condition and a couple of quite well preserved pediment reliefs.

Prasat Banteay Pri Chean was interesting. Large rectangular columns splayed outwards, seemingly in imminent danger of collapse, though they may well have been like that for centuries; there was one tower with nicely engraved red sandstone columns and pediment, and the tall ruined tower at the back seemed almost burnt inside – their stonework was very black.

The three towers at Prasat Chrap were similarly black inside – cremation towers, perhaps? – and hundreds of tiny yellow butterflies fluttered around them – I imagine them being the souls of the dead. The place did have a slightly spooky feel to it and the burning nearby only added to the eerie atmosphere. A few moments of drama followed when the scrub fires flared up right next to the road as we drove to the next temple. Defying the danger, we leapt out and took photos of the tall flames.

Next came Prasat Damrei – we christened it ‘Damn right’! At first we thought it was a single tower but, tucked off to one side through the trees was an enclosure where we found another tower with some lovely, almost intact elephant and lion sculptures. Elephants adorned three corners of the platform and one lion guarded the front entrance. Elephants were also carved in the pediment panel.

Prasat Neang Khmau was a single blackened tower but here the blackened stone was on the outside, so perhaps the discolouration is caused by something other than burning. I’ll need to investigate further.

Last, but by no means least, was Prasat Pram, a glorious place for the huge strangler figs that almost entirely encased two of its five towers. The destructive power of these trees can be impressive and they have caused huge damage to so many temple structures from the Angkor civilisation but here the two trees seemed almost to be holding the towers together. Their roots were amazing to behold. Prasat Pram was a splendid temple to finish off a magnificent, if incredibly hot and dehydrating day exploring the ruins at Koh Ker.

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