120 km northeast of Siem Reap is a lost archeological site where overgrown trees tangle untrampled across thousand-year-old ruins. There is a Mayan-style pyramid stacked seven-tiers high and when you climb to the top of it, you can gaze out across an arid landscape. Footsteps across wooden planks are the only sound so you can speak at just a whisper rather than a shout. This is Koh Ker. And as far as Angkor Wat alternatives go, it doesn’t really get much better than this.
Angkor Wat remains as one of the most overrun tourist attractions I’ve ever visited. The site went from getting 7,650 visitors in 1992 to more than 3,000,000 in 2019. Siem Reap has gotten absolutely slammed by the influx of Angkor tourists. What was once a small Cambodian village has become a hectic city with too many mid-range hotels and way too many tuk-tuk drivers. Only a shadow of what Siem Reap once was remains. Everyone who goes to Cambodia also seems to make the trip to Angkor Wat, and this kind of pass-through tourism can have serious impacts on a place.
I kind of expected to feel this way about Angkor Wat, so I made sure that our trip to Siem Reap was buffered with trips to alternative sites like Beng Mealea and Koh Ker. I did it to diversify my impact, and experience a less-traveled place worth visiting. And to be honest, I also did it so I could look at my friends at Angkor Wat and say “I TOLD YOU SO” while people in polyester florals and sunhats stomped on our toes.
Want to experience Koh Ker and Beng Mealea? Here’s a look at why you should visit along with information on entrance fees, how to get to Koh Ker & Beng Mealea, and where to stay in Srayong.
ANGKOR WAT VS KOH KER
WHY TRAVEL TO ANGKOR WAT?
The Angkor Archeological Complex is really the only archeological site in Cambodia with such size and scale. It sprawls over 100km2 and was once the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The walls of Angkor Wat are nearly half a mile long and the sites are still in incredible condition (despite more than 800 years of neglect and pillaging). If you go in with realistic expectations (you’re not having sunrise on your own, sugar) it’s insanely photogenic and worth exploring at some point in your lifetime.
WHY TRAVEL TO KOH KER?
Enough smack talk about Angkor. Let me tell you more about Koh Ker and why it’s worth visiting in its own right.
Koh Ker is set in the jungle between the Dangrek, Kulen, and Tbeng Mountains. Depending on what time of year you visit, you might find the ruins shrouded in green or completely exposed between barren trees. Spread across 81 km, Koh Ker is nearly as large as the Angkor complex (though it’s remote location has led to greater destruction and looting over the years).
Unfortunately, the looting is the key reason that Koh Ker isn’t more popular. Most of the most impressive sculptures were taken and continue to trade on the black market. As recently as 2011, Sotheby’s got caught in a scandal for selling one of the stolen sculptures from Koh Ker. What remains are 42 structures in various states of ruin, mostly concentrated around Prasat Thom, but also along the roads that snake through the complex.
Koh Ker is one of the least studied temple areas from the Angkor period. Much of what was known about the site was destroyed during the Khmer Rouge days, meaning the site is pretty much a total mystery. It’s dilapidated, but as it’s only partially excavated, you’ll have a real chance to explore something lost.
Please note: More than 1,382 landmines were cleared from Koh Ker by 2008, but it’s possible that some active mines remain off of major walkways. Walk cautiously and don’t stray from the main path.
WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH BENG MEALEA?
Just 61 km from Siem Reap, Beng Mealea is a Hindu complex from the early 12th century. And since it’s en route to Koh Ker, the two sites are often explored together.
Beng Mealea is one of the larger temples of the Khmer empire with a sizable moat that wraps 1.2 km around its periphery. And besides the fact it’s built in the same style as the Angkor Archeological Complex, much of Beng Mealea’s history is a mystery.
The site is mostly unrestored with strangler figs and vines growing wildly through the ruins. Sandstone bricks lay in piles of rubble. But in spite of the ruin, Beng Mealea is remarkably built with plenty of panels and carvings on display.
5 EXCELLENT ALTERNATIVES TO ANGKOR WAT
How to Visit Koh Ker & Beng Mealea
Koh Ker & Beng Mealea Tours
If you want a more in-depth experience or a local guide, there are plenty of operators running tours to Koh Ker & Beng Mealea. I made the trip independently, but here are some of the best-rated shuttle and tour operators.
Siem Reap Shuttle | This is probably the most affordable tour from Siem Reap to Koh Ker. Their Koh Ker & Beng Mealea Temples Tour is 11-hours long and includes all of your transport and the services of an English speaking guide. Tours from $30.
Green Era Travel | Green Era Travel offers tours that are professionally guided and intimate. Their Beng Mealea & Koh Ker Temple Tour is 8-hours and includes a picnic at the temple. Their tours are a bit more expensive, though I can’t say why. Tours from $80.
Hidden Adventures Cambodia | If you’re looking for a more immersive tour of Koh Ker, Hidden Adventures Cambodia has one of the most extensive offerings. The fee for their Koh Ker and Beng Mealea 4WD Adventure includes transport, accommodation, meals and water, entrance fees, guide, and tours. Tours from $90-$300 per person depending on group size.
How to Get to Koh Ker & Beng Mealea
Koh Ker is just over 120 km from Siem Reap. At the time of writing, there is no public transportation or bus that connects Siem Reap to Koh Ker.
Your best bet is to hire a driver for the day or book a tour (more info below). Since the ruins are quite spread out, it’s also nice to have a driver to drive you between sites. The drive will take about two and a half hours along bumpy roads and cost you about $80.
Most operators also offer to stop at Beng Mealea since it’s along the same road. This is totally worth doing as the sites don’t necessarily stand against Angkor on their own, but are great together.
Entrance to Koh Ker is only $10 which is a total steal compared to Angkor Wat. If you also want to visit Beng Mealea, there’s a separate entrance ticket that costs $5. Ask your driver to take you to a ticket booth on the drive out of town to buy your tickets.
Where to Stay
Koh Ker can be explored on a day trip from Siem Reap or you can make it an overnight. Here are the two best (only?) accommodations near Koh Ker.
Koh Ker Jungle Lodge | It’s easy to be the best when you’re the only joint in town! Koh Ker Jungle Lodge is located a short walk from the Koh Ker complex. It’s peacefully located in a quiet village, and staying here gives you the chance to get to the ruins before anyone else rolls in for the day. It’s called a “homestay” and they promise guests a taste of Cambodian village life. Be sure you know what you’re getting going into it as it’s probably much different than your usual hotel stay. Rooms from $51 per night.
Mom Morokod Koh Ker Guesthouse | Located about half a kilometer from the south entrance, Mom Morokod Koh Ker Guesthouse is an 11-room guesthouse. They get good reviews for hospitality but some reviewers say it’s quite basic. Rooms from $12, must call for booking (+855 78 365 656)