Koh Ker Achieves World Heritage Site Status

The ancient temple of Koh Ker has joined Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear as UNESCO-crowned World Heritage sites after being officially awarded the title in a move that is hoped to boost tourism
Koh Ker, an ancient Khmer capital in Cambodia, has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Kiripost via UNESCO
Koh Ker, an ancient Khmer capital in Cambodia, has been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Kiripost via UNESCO

Koh Ker: Archeological Site of Ancient Lingapura or Chok Gargyar has been officially inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List during the organisation’s 45th session in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia further propelling Cambodia’s prized heritage onto the international stage.

According to a press release from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Monday’s announcement by the World Heritage Committee marks a “momentous achievement in the commitment of the Royal Government of Cambodia to the preservation of cultural heritage, and a key milestone in the recognition of Cambodia's rich heritage worldwide”.

The press release added that Cambodia’s achievement in reaching this status is memorable, while the UNESCO designation acknowledged the “exceptional historical and architectural significance” of Koh Ker archaeological site.

UNESCO added that the site has Outstanding Universal Value, serving as a tribute to the enduring legacy of the Khmer civilization and efforts made by Cambodia to safeguard its treasures for future generations.

Sardar Umar Alam, UNESCO Representative to Cambodia, said, “The inscription of Koh Ker on the UNESCO World Heritage List constitutes a significant milestone for Cambodia, reaffirming our joint endeavour to protect and promote the values of cultural heritage for sustainable development.

“As we celebrate, this achievement opens doors to numerous opportunities for sustainable tourism development and livelihood promotion.”

He added that UNESCO will continue to work hand-in-hand with Cambodia for site conservation, including through scientific research, and to further promote Khmer cultural heritage to the world.

Chhay Sivlin, president of the Cambodian Association of Travel Agents (CATA), said, “Koh Ker being recognized by the UNESCO World Heritage list is a positive sign for Cambodia to promote our culture and tradition. Koh Ker has different architecture from other temples, so it also can attract people from around the world.”

Sivlin added that World Heritage status will reap more rewards for Cambodia, especially with regard to tourism targets as both visitors and investors will be drawn to the site. Koh Ker sits off the well-trodden temple track, often deterring visitors. However, its new status serves as an additional draw for people to visit.

“It will not only boost tourism growth, but can provide people with more jobs along the way to Koh Ker, including businesses, services, and transportation,” Sivlin said. She believes that as more tourists visit Koh Ker, a business ecosystem will be built around it as visitors will stop along the way, promoting the development of tertiary destinations.

Sambo Manara, a history professor at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, told Kiripost, “Koh Ker is a very wonderful temple that inspired the world about Cambodian culture. Also, when other people see this heritage site, they will want to explore more, so they will come to visit Cambodia.

“That is the influence from Cambodia's history when the Cambodian king had an excellent idea to build Koh Ker, which mixed many interesting movements in the Kingdom, so, I would call on all Cambodian citizens to preserve and protect this spirit.”

Aok Sophy, a Year 4 student at a Phnom Penh university, said, “I'm really happy that UNESCO has included our Cambodian Koh Ker temple as a World Heritage Site. It is a great opportunity for Cambodia because many Khmer temples, which are ancient, are now recognised.”

Koh Ker joins Angkor Wat and Preah Vihear temples as UNESCO-crowned World Heritage sites.

Sophy welcomed the temple’s inclusion, saying, “We are protected by the international organisation. On the other hand, the temple is not prone to any damage due to the temple being included in the World Heritage List; the surrounding area is controlled by law, and is governed by the law of UNESCO.”

Koh Ker’s background

Koh Ker was the capital of the Khmer Empire for a brief period between 928 and 941 under its founder King Jayavarman IV. Nestled within a verdant broad-leaf forest between the slopes of the Dangrek and Kulen mountains, the site sits on an ancient road that connects Angkor to Beng Mealea, Preah Vihear, and from there, Phimai in Thailand and Wat Phu in Laos.

In the past decade, under the leadership of the Cambodian government and in cooperation with the international community, Cambodia has achieved impressive results in the repatriation of ancient statues and artefacts in the framework of the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Some reclaimed pieces can now be seen at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.

Koh Ker boasts several archaeological remains, including unique-in-style temples, impressive Shiva-lingas sanctuaries, as well as civil structures, ponds, dykes, reservoirs, and ancient roads that reflect the influence and grandeur of the Khmer Empire.

This archaeological marvel offers a profound insight into its era's well-organised projects of regional, social, economic, and architectural development, town planning, and rural infrastructure. At the heart of Koh Ker's significance also lies its exceptional architectural achievements.

Other unique characteristics of Koh Ker include water management techniques that combine elements of highland river damming with a more traditional lowland system of large reservoirs, canals, and terraced fields, as well as monumental art, of which the sculptures are the most prominent.

Its one-of-a-kind iconography – currently referred to as the Koh Ker style – is best defined by its dynamic motion and sense of movement. Giant sculptures of the Indian epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata adorn the temples and sanctuaries, and are considered masterpieces.

Koh Ker preserved by the international community

In a concerted effort to preserve Cambodia's cultural heritage, UNESCO has embarked on ambitious projects in support of the preservation of the ancient site of Koh Ker and the improvement of the livelihoods of communities living around the site.

UNESCO's involvement in Koh Ker represents a multifaceted approach to safeguarding this heritage site, the press release cited.

It added that UNESCO has also worked actively to strengthen disaster risk resilience in Koh Ker, thanks to the support of its Heritage Emergency Fund, and contributed to reducing the site’s vulnerability to natural and anthropogenic hazards.

At the same time, UNESCO will continue to work in Koh Ker and support Cambodia and its people for the safeguarding of cultural heritage and the realisation of the full potential of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development.


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