When it comes to ancient temples in Cambodia, you’ve almost certainly heard of the famous Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap. While Angkor is definitely the must-see site in Cambodia, the large-scale mass tourism there can be a bit of a bummer for independent travelers.
If you’re in Cambodia as a backpacker, overlander, bicycle traveler, or just an independent traveler who likes to do your own thing, I highly recommend visiting the atmospheric and peaceful temple complex of Koh Ker. The vibe is a nice contrast to the cities and beaches of the typical Cambodia itinerary, while still being easy to reach from Siem Reap.
The temples at Koh Ker are much smaller than Ankgor Wat, but the experience of visiting them is far more enjoyable, in my opinion. A variety of smaller temples, and a couple larger ones, are nestled in a forested complex small enough to walk around in an afternoon. The jungle is slowly reclaiming them, but that’s part of their charm.
Koh Ker was briefly the capital of the Khmer Empire from 928–944 AD, when king Jayavarman decided he didn’t wish to relocate to Angkor. The 80-square-kilometer area actually contains over 180 separate structures, though only a few dozen are open to visitors (the surrounding area has not been cleared of landmines).
The main attraction of Koh Ker, the temple complex of Prasat Thom with its distinctive tiered pyramid, attracts a small flow of visitors from Siem Reap. But you’ll have most of the other temples at Koh Ker nearly to yourself, aside from perhaps a local site guardian sitting quietly nearby.
I visited Koh Ker on my way to Siem Reap and felt it was the perfect introduction to Cambodian temples. As I followed the peaceful loop road through the wooded temple complex, I felt like I was on an ancient treasure hunt! Read on for everything you need to know about visiting these off-the-beaten path temples in Cambodia.
Getting to Koh Ker Temples
The temples of Koh Ker are located about 7km from a village on the main road from Preah Vihear to Siem Reap. The village is labeled as Phumi Môréal on Google Maps, but I have also seen it called Seyiong.
Most travelers visit Koh Ker from Siem Reap, about 125km on a relatively new and smooth paved road. You’ll need to have or hire your own transport, or arrange the trip through a tour operator. The temple of Beng Mealea is on the way, and is larger and more impressive, but also more touristy.
If you’re heading from the northwest of Cambodia, the nearest town is Preah Vihear about 70km away, also on nice paved road.
If you’re savvy with public transport and don’t mind a lot of walking, you can probably catch a local minibus from either Siem Reap or Preah Vihear to the village on the highway closest to Koh Ker. From there you would need to walk the 20+ km round trip to the temples and back, or find someone willing to take you on a motorbike.
If you happen to be traveling Cambodia by bicycle, the road between Stung Treng to the outskirts of Siem Reap, including the stretch from Preah Vihear to Koh Ker, was my favorite bicycle route in Cambodia. A bicycle is the perfect way to explore the Koh Ker complex at your own pace.
There is a ticket booth near where the road to Koh Ker leaves the village on the highway. Tickets cost $10 as of late 2018, with kids under 12 entering free.
Is Koh Ker worth the price? Personally I say yes. It’s true that I visited Koh Ker before seeing Angkor Wat, so perhaps my expectations were lower. But I think what the Koh Ker temples lack in size they make up for in atmosphere.
Exploring the Koh Ker Temples
From the village on the highway to the beginning of the loop is about 7km. The loop is another 6km, with a few short out-and-backs to a few of the smaller temples that aren’t right on the road.
The temples and routes in the complex are signed, and pretty well labeled in both Google Maps and the Maps.me app, which I highly recommend for travelers if you don’t already use it. The basic layout is a loop which is easy to follow in either direction.
I traveled the loop counterclockwise, starting with the smaller sites and finishing with the largest site at Prasat Thom/Prang, which I recommend.
You might also appreciate this nice map (in German language) from wikiVoyage:
Supposedly the surrounding area has not been fully cleared of mines, so as with many places in Cambodia, stay on the marked paths!
The Rough Guide to Cambodia, which I appreciated in general, doesn’t have much to say about Koh Ker. For more detail on the history of the region and the various temples, check out this excellent Koh Ker overview written by a local tour guide (I haven’t worked with him, but from the depth of his website I bet he would be an excellent guide!).
Most visitors to Koh Ker head straight for the Prasat Thom temple complex and its most distinctive landmark, the seven-tier pyramid Prasat Prang. It’s definitely worth seeing, and climbing to the top for the view.
I actually spent most of my time at Koh Ker exploring the smaller outlying temples around the loop, which were more peaceful, and beautiful in their own way. They are divided into two groups, the northern and the southern groups.
The entire complex is small enough that you should have time to see them all, but some of my favorites were:
- Prasat Krachap (northern group)
- Prasat Chrap (northern group)
- Prasat Damrei – for the elephant statues! (northern group)
- Prasat Pram (southern group)
Food and Water
Near Prasat Thom you’ll find some small places to buy food and drinks. There’s also a public toilet. I don’t remember seeing much outside of this area though, so you’ll probably want to bring some water and a snack with you while exploring the smaller temples.
Places to Stay Near Koh Ker Temples
Many people visit Koh Ker as a day trip on the way to or from Siem Reap, so the area nearby isn’t well developed in terms of lodging, but there are still some options. If you have the time, I recommend staying nearby for a taste of a very different Cambodia than what you’ll find in Siem Reap.
The closest village to Koh Ker, where the main road turns south and the road to the temples heads north, is marked as Phumi Môréal on Google Maps, or sometimes referred to as Seyiong.
In this small village you’ll find a few small shops and restaurants, plus some budget guesthouses (some marked on Maps.me and Google Maps). I stayed at one called Sroyorng Koh Ker on Google Maps and found it friendly, cheap, and clean.
For those with larger budgets it’s also possible to stay inside the temple complex at the Koh Ker Jungle Lodge.
Cyclists and overland travelers are sometimes allowed to camp for free next to the ticket office, where there are guards and toilets.
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