Little is known about the history of Preah Khan. To distinguish it from the temple of the same name at Angkor, it is sometimes suffixed with the province name “Kompong Thom” or the district name “Kompong Svay”. To add to the confusion, locals call it Prasat Bakan. The earliest buildings are attributed to Suryavarman I, and it’s believed that Jayavarman VII spent time here before moving to Angkor – the famous carved stone head of the king displayed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh was found on the site (see West Gallery). In the 1870s Louis Delaporte carried off the temple’s prize sculptures (they’re now in the Guimet Museum in Paris), while looters have also pillaged the temple in recent years, using pneumatic drills to remove statues – resulting in collapsed towers, crushed apsaras and the broken images which lie scattered on the ground.
Even so, the sprawling site – the largest temple compound of the Angkor period in the country – is rewarding, with four different temple groups and numerous prasats and buildings to be explored. A little confusingly, the three-kilometre-long baray to the east is partly contained within the outermost enclosing wall. East of the baray, a small ninth-century temple, Prasat Preah Damrei, is enclosed by its own laterite wall with its upper levels guarded by stone elephants, often draped in orange robes. The most noteworthy thing about the baray itself is what remains of Prasat Preah Thkol, a cruciform sanctuary on an (inaccessible) island in the centre. At the west end of the baray, 600m inside the enclosing wall, the elaborate eleventh-century Prasat Preah Stung boasts galleries, carvings of apsaras and a central sanctuary topped with four massive faces, the latter the hallmark of Jayavarman VII and found only in a few places outside Angkor.
West of here, at the heart of Preah Khan, the main temple group dates from the twelfth century and was most likely built by Suryavarman II. Its well-preserved causeway, not dissimilar to those at Angkor Thom, is decorated with a frieze of swans (peer over the edge just before the steps up to the gopura). Making your way through the complex, via the elaborate east gopura and two sandstone galleries, you’ll come to the central sanctuary, where the Bayon-style, four-faced tower is, so far, untouched by looters.
There is nowhere to buy food or drink, and the ticket office is seldom manned (but it’s $5 for foreigners if there’s someone there).