Having visited the temples of Angkor several times, I was curious as to what else was in the region. Koh Ker immediately jumped out, with it's unique pyramid design. Tours were possible from Siem Reap but as lies 120km to the northwest, I feared it would be plenty of driving and not much exploration, especially if I was to also see Beng Mealea. Hiring a car with driver would have been prohibitively expensive (as well as not dealing with the driving>exploration quandary) so the decision was easy – it was time for some old-school independent travel.
A little internet research turned up Asia Van Transfer, who offer a daily journey to the Laos border and just so happen to travel past Koh Ker and Beng Mealea en route. A visit to their office in Siem Reap and it was settled – they could drop me at the junction to Koh Ker, and collect me on their return to Siem Reap six hours later and deposit me in Beng Mealea township.
Fuelled by a breakfast of eggs and coffee at my hostel, their moto driver collected me at 7.30am and took me to their office. I quickly picked up on a Kiwi accent from one of my four fellow passengers – a girl from Raglan, of all places, where I spent most of my childhood summers in my grandparent's caravan.
Two hours later, they dropped me at the junction to Koh Ker. As the temples are located a further 10km up a side road, I needed transport. The friendly owner of the gas station called a local moto driver. He offered a rate of US$5 to the temple – I tried to negotiate but since my options were severely limited, he was in the position of power and wasn't budging. OK, 5 bucks it was and we departed.
Koh Ker dates back to the 10th century AD, making it several hundred years older than Angkor Wat. While the magnificent main structure (Prasat Thom, to give it it's correct name) quite rightly dominates, there are hundreds of temples scattered throughout the surrounding area, although only a few dozen can be visited as much of the area has not been completely de-mined.
First lay Prasat Kraham. Located adjacent to the car-park/restaurant area, it provides a suitable entrée to the main course of Prasat Thom, which was still obscured by trees. It's the second-largest temple of the area, and was definitely worth exploring. Ornate doorways, the remains of wall carvings and the partial remnants of a bull statue meant it was worthy precursor to what lay ahead.
A short walk down a causeway and I could now see the main purpose of my visit. Prasat Thom is a stepped pyramid consisting of seven tiers, each covered in bushy grass. First impressions were that was reminiscent of the Mayan temples of the Yucatan Peninsula. The jungle has been cleared around Prasat Thom, making it stand out even more prominently than the other structures of the area.
A wooden staircase led to the top, where stunning views over the local landscape awaited me. The summit is only 30 metres high but the perspective of towering over the surrounding jungle made it seem much higher. Aside from a few other visitors, the peaceful solitude at the summit of this amazing monument was a stark contrast to the street sounds I'd left behind in Siem Reap just a few hours earlier. After 30 minutes I reluctantly descended – I could have easily stayed longer but other temples awaited.
I set off on foot for the 3km walk to Damrei Kandoeng but it wasn't long before I heard the chug of a motor. It was a tractor of the type familiar to anyone who's ever travelled in this part of the world – a rudimentary diesel engine and extremely long handlebars pulling a wooden cart. A dozen people were spread out on the deck of the cart; I recognised them as a picnicking group from outside Prasat Thom. No English was spoken but it didn't matter – gestures and wide grins made it clear I had a ride so I clambered onto the back and off we headed.
I jumped off 10 minutes later, grateful for the ride in 32 degree heat. I located Damrei Kandoeng and, unsurprisingly, it was deserted. The long distance from Siem Reap means tour groups often only see the main temple of Prasat Thom; another justification for me travelling here independently.
The temple itself was small, notable for it's elephant statues in each corner. It was surrounded by trees but these were sparser than the jungle view from Prasat Thom had suggested.
While Prasat Thom was a hard act to follow, Prasat Pram proved to be a highlight of the day. Again, I found the temple deserted. It consists of five square towers, two of which were choked by trees and vines. Doorways were framed by trees a la Angkor's Ta Prohm but unlike the 'Tomb Raider Temple', selfie-sticks were thankfully conspicuous by their absence - forget queues for a photo, I had this gem all to myself. Unfortunately, as with all temples in this area, the interior is bare – all contents have either been looted or are in museums.
As I was leaving, a group of monks arrived for a short visit, their orange robes contrasting vividly with the grey and brown shades of the temples.
I left Prasat Pram and quickly found a ride, two young locals driving a tractor. I arrived back at the junction in plenty of time to relax and rest my weary feet before the bus to Beng Mealea.