Today, tourists flock to Angkor Wat, the iconic temples made famous in the Tomb Raider films. Snap-hungry backpackers file through the ruins, cameras and flip-flops clicking in unison.
Angkor Wat looks like a lost jungle temple, but the expansive complex of temples has quickly become Cambodia’s main tourist attraction, ensuring the lost temples have been well and truly “found” by Instagram feeds around the world.
However, Cambodia’s second-largest temple town gets no such publicity. In the remote north of the country, visitors to Koh Ker can explore the compound in relative tranquillity. Some adventurous day-trippers make the trip from Siam Reap, but the 180 temples that make up Koh Ker have largely flown under the tourists’ radar.
Those that make the journey to the secluded outcrop can climb the seven-tiered pyramid in the centre of the compound. The imposing relic offers staggering views of the local jungle, broken only by the appearance of other stone temples reaching out of the all-consuming pit of vegetation.
Currently, there are 20 monuments open to visitors in the Koh Ker compound. The other 160 or so remain inaccessible due to landmines left over from the Khmer Rouge.
Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer kingdom in the 10th century when Jayavarman IV seized the throne from Yasovarman II’s sons. In just a few short years, the population of Koh Ker doubled, and artists, scholars, sculptors and dancers flocked to the new capital from across the Khmer empire.
However, it was to be short-lived. Just 17 years after Koh Ker became the capital of the Khmer Empire, it was stripped of its title. Architectural excavation of the area has been limited in recent years due to the presence of landmines, but new techniques have indicated that it may have been the town’s poor water management system that made it unfit for use as the Empire’s capital.
Damian Evan’s of the French Institute of Asian Studies in Paris published a paper which revealed that an embankment built to trap water in a 30-foot reservoir may have breached, causing devastation and destruction.
The embankment had just two water outlets. According to Terry Lustig, a water system engineer at the University of Sydney, these would have been overwhelmed during the Cambodian monsoon season. He estimates that a particularly heavy rainfall could have caused the embankment to fail, flooding the population downstream and dragging stone temples from their foundations.
Documents recovered from the 12th and 13th centuries suggest that the damage to the surrounding roads was so widespread that even 200-300 years later access to Koh Ker was difficult.
Following the flooding, the capital was moved back to Angkor Wat just 17 years after it had been established at Koh Ker, prematurely concluding the chapter of Koh Ker’s rise as the Khmer capital.
Without this spectacular ancient engineering failure, the throngs of tourists that descend on Angkor Wat could now be filing through Koh Ker, marvelling at the Khmer Empire’s architectural feats. Instead, Koh Ker remains claimed by landmines and vegetation, a true meeting of Cambodia’s ancient and modern historical troubles.