A local boy blocks the entrance to Prasat Thom with a crude wooden barrier in hopes of receiving a 1,000 riel entrance fee from a rare foriegn visitor in April 2003.
On a dusty deserted road edged with landmine warning signs, 100 km from the tourist
hub of Siem Reap, the ruins of the Koh Ker temples are getting ready for visitors.
The temples have been hidden in the jungle, too far off the beaten track for most
tourists, for years.
Archaeological preservation group Heritage Watch estimates that only about 2,200
visitors a year, mostly locals, come to see the secluded ruins.
But since the Apsara Authority took over control of the Koh Ker temple area this
year, the dirt road to the temples has been undergoing an upgrade and preservation
work on the 42 temples has begun.
The first phase of the restoration is expected to be finished by the end of this
The land mines are being removed by the Cambodian Mine Action Centre (CMAC).
According to Seung Kong, deputy director of Apsara Authority, workers have cleared
away the vegetation and stagnant water surrounding the temple walls.
"I cannot estimate the tourist increase," Kong said, "but I am sure
it will be dramatic once the area is properly renovated."
Koh Ker is located about midway between the temples of Angkor Wat and the Preah Vihear
temple located near the Thai border to the north east.
Apsara's conservation boundary for the Koh Ker temple preservation area is 9km by
4km. A nearby village is also being upgraded with hotel construction, new restaurants
and a large market area.
Koh Ker became the capital of the Khmer empire under Jayavarman IV from 928 to 944
The area's largest structure is Prasat Thom, a 7-tier pyramid, 40 meters high. From
the top there is a striking view of surrounding jungle and the nearby mountain range
of Kulen. Many smaller towers are scattered throughout the area.
The temples were first reported to the modern world by Lunet de Lajonquiere in his
1902 book Inventaire Descriptif des Monuments du Cambodge. De Lajonquiere gave vivid
descriptions of the hidden temples with their imposing sculptures.
Today few sculptures remain intact, but evidence of their former glory still lies
in broken pieces among the ruins.
Today many of the temples of Koh Ker have been cleared of vegetation and landmines in anticipation of an incoming tourism boom.
Dougald O'Reilly, director of Heritage Watch, said almost every temple in the area
has been looted.
"Up until the 1960's a fabulous Ganesha statue sat in situ at one of the temples,"
he said. "This has now disappeared into a private collection."
The temple area is still surrounded by scattered landmines. CMAC has been demining
in the area since 2002, but the scale of the work carried out is subject to funding.
The area designated for clearance is 81 hectares. CMAC manager for the area, Pring
Pha Narith, said the deminers concentrate on local roads and the temple sights and
expect to have those areas cleared by the end of the year.
So far 56 mine fields have been located with 1,382 mines cleared. Most were within
the temple grounds. In addition 1,447,212 pieces of exploded and unexploded ordnances
(UXO's) have been removed.
Landmine risk has kept most travelers away from Koh Ker for years.
Lee Baer, ultralight pilot for Wings Over Cambodia, visited the temples in 2003 by
motorcycle. He said at the time there was no road to the temples, so he and his riding
companion used a GPS to guide them through dense bush.
"Somewhere under the vegetation there was a pile of rocks someone built over
1,000 years ago," Baer said. "It was wild. You know you're out there. You
hear a rumor about this temple - after a day of riding you stumble upon it and there's
nobody there. It feels like you're the first person out there. Only a handful of
Westerners knew about it."
Baer revisited the site in February 2006 when he flew over the area in his ultralight
plane. He said the area was still isolated and the temples barely visible amidst
O'Reilly said Heritage Watch is working to ensure that the anticipated influx of
tourists to the temples will be good for the local community. People from surrounding
villages are being trained in small business management, craft production, tourism
and foreign languages. They expect to set up ox cart rides and traditional craft
sales for the tourists.
Confident that a tourism increase will not spoil the appeal of the Koh Ker temples,
O'Reilly said, "Undoubtedly people like to fantasize that they are discovering
a spot first, but the monuments themselves are such powerful architectural statements
that they will continue to draw attention as Angkor does."
Although increased tourism will pose some risks to the site, there will be increased
security at the temples, he said.