Nestled within the sprawling jungles of Cambodia’s Angkor Archaeological Park, just a short drive from the vibrant town of Siem Reap, lies the enchanting ruins of Preah Khan Temple. Translating to “Holy Sword,” this 12th century temple complex was built by King Jayavarman VII to honor his victory over invading Cham forces in 1191.
Surrounded by a moat and covering nearly 140 acres, Preah Khan strikes an impressive silhouette against the Cambodian sky. Its crumbling towers are slowly being reclaimed by the jungle, much like its more famous cousin, Ta Prohm Temple. Indeed, wandering Preah Khan feels like stepping into an Indiana Jones movie, with tree roots and vines snaking through weathered sandstone structures.
Preah Khan is located north of Angkor Thom, the walled royal city at Angkor’s heart. It’s part of the Grand Circuit, a 26 kilometer loop that takes in Angkor’s most significant ruins. Hiring a tuk-tuk is the easiest way to reach Preah Khan and complete the Grand Circuit. Bicycles suffice for the shorter Small Circuit, but attempting the entire Grand Circuit by bike makes for an exhausting day.
The east bank of Jayatataka Baray reservoir lies just east of Preah Khan. Its tranquil waters perfectly reflect nearby temples emerging from the jungle canopy. Don’t confuse this Preah Khan with the identically named temple 100km east near Kampong Svay.
In its heyday, Preah Khan served multiple purposes. It was a temple, a monastery and university, and a city in itself. At its peak, it housed over 100,000 people including monks, dancers, servants, and rice farmers. This thriving community was encapsulated within Preah Khan’s enclosures and intricate carvings.
Much of what we know about Preah Khan comes from a sandstone stele discovered in 1939. Its inscriptions praise Lokeshvara and Buddha while providing a detailed history of Preah Khan. King Jayavarman VII and his revered father are both honored. The stele also reveals Preah Khan’s full name, Nagara Jayasri, meaning Holy City of Victory.
From 1967 to 1975, civil war engulfed Cambodia. The conflict left monuments like Preah Khan in disrepair. Since 1991, however, Preah Khan has undergone extensive restoration work by the World Monuments Fund. It was one of the first major post-war restoration projects in Cambodia.
Preah Khan impresses with its size and intricate details. The outer wall alone bears towering statues of Garudas battling mystical Naga serpents. This wall is surrounded by a wide moat and has entry gates on each side.
The main eastern entrance features two stone lions guarding the causeway over the moat. Just beyond, there was once a small dock for boats departing to Neak Pean temple. The King himself would use this pier to reach the island temple on Jayatataka Baray.
On the north side stands the House of Fire. Historians believe these were rest houses with fireplaces for weary travelers. Similar houses appear at Ta Prohm and Banteay Chhmar.
Within the outer wall are four enclosures containing temples, shrines, and residences. Villager’s wooden houses once occupied the fourth outer enclosure. The third contains the graceful Hall of Dancers, with exquisite carvings above its entry archways.
The second enclosure holds six eastern sanctuaries, while the first or inner enclosure is the most sacred. Buddha images and small chapels fill this space, along with ancient tombs. The many stone Buddha carvings make the inner enclosure feel undeniably spiritual.
To Sum Up
Even after centuries of neglect, Preah Khan retains its magic. The temple strikes a perfect balance between mystery and splendor. The crumbling monuments have an otherworldly feel, yet are adorned with intricate details. Lose yourself for a few hours wandering the halls and grasping the history. With restoration work ongoing, the future is bright for this Cambodian jewel.