Koh Ker offers a temple experience far removed from the much-visited Angkor complex, as well as the chance to support a grassroots tourism venture
“When I first climbed the pyramid, there were still tigers and elephants in the forest,” says Dieb, our gentle guide. “I used trees and vines to get to the top.”
The elephants and tigers may have long retreated, and the imposing 40-metre-high edifice has been cleared, but after ascending a newly built wooden staircase, one still gets a strong sense of being in the middle of a jungle. Up here, way above the tree line and among a jumble of stones, is a 360-degree view of dense forest that stretches towards distant blue-green mountains.
The scene is Koh Ker and the pyramid in question is a mountainous seven-tiered stone structure that forms the central attraction of this remote 10th-Century archaeological site. Situated 120 kilometres from the tourist bustle of Siem Reap, a trip here requires an easy two-hour drive on a freshly covered, almost deserted road that runs from the rice fields of lowland Cambodia up into a region of banana and rubber plantations. From there the journey goes on into ancient forest where the only sounds are those of leaves falling and birds calling.
This sheltering forest is where Dieb spent the first seven years of his life. Tigers were not the only danger when he was born – the area was home to fierce fighting in the years after the Khmer Rouge regime fell. One hour after his birth, Dieb’s mother took him and his brother away from their village to the relative safety of the trees to escape an imminent battle. And there they stayed, eking out a precarious existence.
When fighting ceased in 1998 after the last Khmer Rouge soldiers surrendered, Dieb and his family returned to the village, which is a stone’s throw from the ruins. Slowly but surely, amid minefields and ravaged infrastructure, the villagers began to reclaim their lives. They made their own decisions, living a mostly self-sufficient existence away from the gaze of government.
The newly restored road to the temples has presented an opportunity for the village. Of their own initiative, but with support from the Ponheary Ly Foundation, two young villagers – Dieb, 23, and Ty, 19 – have started their own tour guide business. The foundation – which promotes and works towards increasing access to formal schooling in northern Cambodia – gave them small salaries for one year. They spent that time learning technical skills such as photography, how to operate an iPad, the use of email, social media and travel websites, as well as basic accounting, English language, marketing and the all-important history of the temples.
This is no small step for Dieb, Ty and the village. Their venture is run as a for-profit business; the money stays with the proprietors. This is the first time anyone in the village has engaged in tourism. Outsiders run the noodle and trinket shops that are clustered around the entrance to the main temple and guides who come up from Siem Reap direct the other tours.
But it is not just profit that is driving Dieb. “I love talking to tourists about the statues that have been taken,” he says. “It is good to spread awareness about what has been lost.” He is referring to the haul of artworks – some of which Dieb remembers being in place during his childhood forays – ripped from the temples during the decades of civil conflict. Although the bulk of the temple structures themselves are intact – albeit swathed in foliage – the intricately carved lintels and statues were magnets for looters during less-peaceful times. A great deal of the Kingdom’s heritage has been lost to a network of shady dealers and traffickers in art.
Dieb’s face lights up when I ask him about three looted statues that were returned to Cambodia in June 2014. After pressure from US authorities, auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and the Norton Simon Museum in California, agreed to return the stone masterpieces. “I am so happy to see them back in my country,” Dieb says. A total of five statues raided from Koh Ker have now been returned to their homeland, and the Kingdom is lobbying hard for museums to return another four.
Dieb makes a turn for a short walk through the forest to his home village. Strolling down a red dirt path, we pass a carpenter sawing planks for use in the construction of traditional stilt houses. A young child tends cows and old women gather in the shade of a small shop. It is a typical rural Cambodian scene. But the country is fast changing, and with the arrival of more tourists to Koh Ker, the fortunes of the village will change and outside influences will come into play.
Dieb, Ty and young people like them are crucial to the future development of the village. While the older generation, denied education during the years of strife, have little idea how to develop their village, the new generation has benefited from a secondary school programme initiated by the Ponheary Ly Foundation. The youngsters hope they can capitalise on the wave of tourism coming their way by providing tuk tuks to ferry visitors around, running cookery classes and offering homestays.
Back in the forest, we gaze at the blackened laterite tower of Prasat Neang Khmau, built nearly 12 centuries ago. A large leaf hits the ground with a soft crump that punctuates the still morning air. Dieb is proud to talk of his recent marriage. “I’ve been married five months,” he says. “I’ve just built a house. I hope more tourists come to visit here – I want to support my family and help the village.”