14 Tuesday July, 2015
While Angkor’s grand capital rightly draws millions of visitors every year, few of those ever make it beyond the ancient city. Strewn throughout the dense Cambodian jungle are the suburbs and provincial capitals which formed the backbone of the great empire. With improved road access and a new helicopter charter service from Siem Reap, these off the beaten track gems are accessible to the luxury traveller for the first time. Ampersand’s Cambodia expert Brandon Davis details five of his favourite below:
One of the largest of Cambodia's historic provincial capitals, Koh Ker is estimated to have had a population of more than 10,000 and was briefly capital of the entire Khmer Empire in the early 10th century. Situated 75 miles from Angkor Wat, Koh Ker’s remote location has kept its unspoiled temples hidden from all but the most intrepid of visitors. There are over 180 individual Angkorian sites to be found spread throughout the thick jungles of Koh Ker but by far the most impressive is Prasat Thom. Rising in bold steps to a height of 120 feet, this grand pyramid towers above the surrounding jungle canopy and has recently reopened to those wishing to take in the commanding views.
If Indiana Jones had a favourite Angkorian temple, Beng Mealea would have to be it. Built in the later years of the empire, Beng Mealea is an almost perfect scale replica of the famed Angkor Wat in a picturesque state of dilapidation. Sprawling trees splay their roots over semi-toppled stone walls and the rich, green moss covering almost everything glows a brilliantly luminescent colour at sunrise and sunset. Although some of the temple is accessible via recently built wooden walkways, to truly experience Beng Mealea one would need sturdy walking shoes and a keen sense of adventure. With the new road making the temple just over an hour's drive from Siem Reap, mass tourism is slowly starting to discover Beng Mealea, though with a little bit of forward planning one can still have this atmospheric temple pretty much to themselves.
Occupying the highest point in the Dangrek Mountians, Preah Vihear - ‘The King of Mountain Temples’ - offers peerless panoramas of the surrounding plains. Continually inhabited from well before Angkorian times, Preah Vihear comprises a mishmash of building styles and religious iconography. The site achieved Unesco World Heritage status in 2009, sparking a row between Cambodia and Thailand over ownership of the temple grounds. This developed into low level skirmishes between the respective armies and the issue remains unresolved. However, a truce has held for the best part of five years and visitors can once again take in this remote wonder and its expansive views.
A jungle clad massif on the edge of the Tonle Sap plains, Phnom Kulen is the most sacred site in Cambodia and considered the birthplace of the Khmers. The natural defences of the mountain and spring fed waters allowed Kulen to develop as the first Khmer capital and it was here in 802 that Jayavaraman II declared independence from Java (simultaneously declaring himself God-King for good measure) and founded a 600 year Empire. Only reached by a day journey from Siem Reap, a limited amount of sites are accessible by car including the majestic Kulen Waterfall which is great for a picnic and a cooling swim (a popular activity with Khmer pilgrims). For the more intrepid visitor, the remote jungle sites scattered across the mountain can be taken in by travelling on the back of a scooter.
Located in modern day Laos, Wat Phu was the northernmost capital of the Khmer Empire. Set in an impossibly pretty location on the banks of the Mekong River, a journey up the grand stairway is a journey back in time, making your way past 10th and 11th century buildings that give way in turn to the temple's 5th century inner sanctum. Wat Phu offers a rare glimpse in to the religious practices of ancient Angkor and is home to one of the few remaining ‘crocodile stones' that were once used in ritual human sacrifice. The site is most easily reached from nearby Champasak which offers a couple of decent accommodation options and flight connections from Bangkok and Siem Reap.
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