Preah Khan: The last stand of the Khmer Rouge

As my trusty tuktuk driver escorted me deeper and deeper into the Cambodian jungle, I suddenly realised how isolated from the other temples Preah Khan really is!

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On the way in to Preah Khan
On the way in to Preah Khan

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As usual with all temples of Angkor, there were a couple of officials sitting outside the complex ready to check my Angkor Pass. After a brief smile and a “hello” I was able to walk up to the Preah Khan temple. Here, there is a much shorter approach from the ‘main road’ to the temple entrance proper when compared to Ta Prohm, and as such it feels less imposing. However, the great thing with Preah Khan is the bridge across the moat which literally takes you into the complex. There is something similar on the way in to Angkor Thom, but my Tuktuk driver did not stop there, so I couldn’t get any decent photos. But here, I could stand and take as many photos of the bridge as I could. The statues on the bridge are of devas (warriors) holding and carrying a naga (a form of serpent). I hoped that I wouldn’t see any snakes myself during my exploration of Preah Khan!

Impressive ruins
Impressive ruins

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Preah Khan was actually built in the 12th century for King Jayarvarman VII, and the name ‘Preah Khan’ comes from the Khmer words “Royal Sword”. It spans 140 acres and is completely surrounded by a moat. It is considered to be a slightly more important temple of the Khmer Empire due to the aforementioned symbolism of devas and nagas at the entrance to the temple, yet the design of the temple overall is thought to be of Javanese origin.

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The Jungle has reclaimed much of the temple

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Preah Khan also has one of those famous trees like at Ta Prohm!
Preah Khan also has one of those famous trees like at Ta Prohm!

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but what I really loved about Preah Khan was its quietness. There is something more enchanting and authentic about exploring temples ruins in the jungle when you feel a sense of isolation. The sounds of the tourists yapping at Ta Prohm is replaced here at Preah Khan by the cacophony of cicadas and crickets screeching in the bushes, and that for me is what my trip to Angkor was all about – even though I’m obviously a tourist myself!

For a comparison, you can read about my rumble in the jungle at Ta Prohm!

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During the Khmer Rouge era, Preah Khan was used as an isolated army base, and many of the Khmer Rouge leading men were known to have made this place their last hiding places before death or capture. It is said that if you look closely enough on the walls around the temples here at Preah Khan, you can see scrapings and grazes on the stone which were said to have been caused by armoured vehicles. I did not notice any of this myself. What I did notice, however, were incredible bas reliefs on the walls, similar to what I had witnessed at Angkor Wat. There were many Apsara dancers, and clearly many images of Buddha, most of which had been defaced by the Khmer Empire when they turned to Hinduism under Jayavarman VIII – or vandalised alternately by much more recent visitors. At festivals, the Apsara dancers entertained the Khmer people, and the carvings here at Preah Khan – especially in the aptly-named Hall of the Dancers – are all modelled on real girls, and all of them are completely unique!

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Incidentally, I learned back at my hotel talking to a husband and wife couple who had also just returned from Preah Khan (we were all chilling in the lobby), and they said they had been hunting in vain for two Apsara Queens statues who reside ‘somewhere’ at Preah Khan, and these queens represent the two wives of Jayavarman VIII, who must have taken quite a fancy to a couple of his dancers! With a good guide, you can no doubt find these Apsara Queens on your visit to Preah Khan, and I was also told that originally these stone statues had 2 diamonds encrusted in their nostrils, which must have escaped the attention of the Khmer Rouge as they were hidden in a collapsed chamber of the temple complex and only rediscovered during restoration, long after the Khmer Rouge had been finally obliterated!

Just goes to show that new stories pop up all the time at the Temples of Angkor. Whether you are staying in a cheap hotel like I did, or if you’re in a typical backpacker hostel, to whomever you get talking you can be sure of recounting some amazing tales!

Thanks for reading! Please check out my other posts from the Temples of Angkor!

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9 thoughts on “Preah Khan: The last stand of the Khmer Rouge

  1. I didn’t know that Preah Khan was a hiding place for the Khmer Rouge. And that’s amazing that the carvings of the dancers were actually modeled after real women. The temples of Angkor are seriously my favorite temples. And there is so much more I have to learn about them. Thanks for teaching me something new 🙂

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    1. I don’t think it has the total extravagance of say, Bayon or Angkor Wat, but you’re right – it does rank with most people as an unforgettable temple. Maybe it’s the expectations…the lesser known temples may seem like you are discovering things for yourself, as an “explorer”, whereas at the main temples like Angkor Wat you would probably feel more like a tourist.

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      1. Yup, you’ve said it all with that comment. I actually liked it even more than Ta Prom, the Tomb Raider temple, mostly because it seemed like more of a forgotten place waiting to be explored. There is actually another temple in that area that is still overgrown…I’d like to check that one out when they start letting people in before they get it all restored.

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