Sacred Sites in Southeast Asia | Koh Ker

Koh Ker
Cambodia, Main monuments 10th century (ca. 928-941 CE)

Like so many other places in Southeast Asia, Koh Ker’s present-day appearance is deceptive. Today, it is a forested wilderness interspersed with ruined temples. In the tenth century, however, it was a major city.

View over forest from high vantage point, with dirt path leading away

Historical Koh Ker has achieved a level of prominence and mystique because it was a temporary capital for the Khmer kings under the rulership of Jayavarman IV (928–941). However, recent scholarship has shown that Koh Ker was an active city connected with the Angkor heartland for far longer than the reign of just one king. This new line of inquiry has prompted archaeologists and historians to delve into Koh Ker’s rich legacy.

Two stone pedestals, one with a half figure statue, the other empty

Unfortunately, Koh Ker’s long period of neglect by researchers and local populations alike left it particularly vulnerable to looting. Today, it is possible to see that the sculptures that previously populated the temples have been brutally cut from their pedestals, oftentimes leaving the deity’s feet or lower body behind. Beginning in 2012, the Cambodian government appealed to the international art world to return the widely dispersed Koh Ker sculptures. In the decade since, a growing number of statues have been repatriated to Cambodia from museums and private collections worldwide. Thanks to generous international and local support, the National Museum of Cambodia, located in Phnom Penh, has built a special gallery to display these important artworks.

Koh Ker sculpture is characterized by especially massive, robust forms. Carved from single blocks of stone, a statue can weigh upwards of a ton, not including its pedestal. This makes it all the more striking that the site was so thoroughly looted. Similar to installing the temple sculpture in the tenth century, removing them in the twentieth required a tremendous level of organized labor.

The site of Koh Ker includes more than fifteen surviving temples and a royal palace on the periphery of a once-massive reservoir, as well as the workstation and quarry at Prasat Boeung Khna.