Neak Pean, “the entwined snakes” is a small temple located on an island in the center of the now dry Jayatataka baray, a water reservoir 3,500 meter long and 900 meter wide. Initially dedicated to the Buddha, the temple was rededicated to Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.

Much of the temple area is flooded during the rainy season. A wooden walkway over the waters leads to the central sanctuary, which is fenced off to protect it from further decay.

The Neak Pean was cleared from jungle vegetation in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Restoration works have been carried out using the anastylosis method in the late 1930’s.

Nowadays, the temple is part of the Angkor Wat Grand Circuit Tour and is widely visited by tourists.

What does it mean?

Neak Pean, originally known as Rajyasri, "kingdom's brightness" or "rule's bless", is located about 2.5 km east of Preah Khan, on the same east-west axis. It was in the centre of a Baray built by Jayavarman VII in the end of the 12th century. The historcal reservoir dried up. 

Today it is a swamp called "Veal Reach Dak" by locals, meaning "plain of the royal reservoir". But more common names are "Northern Baray" or "Baray of Preah Khan". It was originally called Jayatataka, "Jaya(varman)'s reservoir". The Baray measured 3500 m by 900 m.

"Neak Pean" should be pronounced more like "Neerk Porn" with an open "o" or a diphtong "oa" in the second word. "Neak" is a modern Khmer word derived from Sanskrit "Naga". Naga means serpent. Khmer usually use the word "Naga" not for living snakes, but for multi-headed serpent sculptures. "Pean" means "wave around". 

So "Neak Pean" is the "entwining serpents" or "coiled snakes". This modern Khmer name alludes to the imposing Naga balustrades around the basis of the circular central Prasat, raising their heads to the east.

Neak Pean Overview

Neak Pean is really exceptional. Its layout differs from all the rest of Khmer architecture. It was a temple on an artificial island of 350 m diameter in the huge Baray. Unlike other Mebons, those well-known island temples in the centre of other reservoirs, Neak Pean has a round platform for the temple proper and, as its main feature, a series of ponds arranged in a concentric Mandala structure. 

The central circular temple platform of 14 m diametre, its form resembling a lotus bud, is an island within the island, it is surrounded by a square pond measuring 72 m. This larger pond sits at the axis of a cross of four more square ponds in the cardinal directions, each of them 24 m by 24 m. Originally the five ponds were surrounded by eight more square pools in a lotus pattern.

The central single main temple is faced by a statue of the horse Balaha, depicted saving drowning sailors. They are clinging to his flanks and tail. The sculpture is placed inside the central pool and partly under water. Balaha was a reincarnation of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara. It was identified with a flying white horse with five heads rescuing devotees from a sinking ship threatened by a female sea demon trying to devour them.

There are four sandstone structures at the cardinal points of the central pond, connecting it to the neighboring smaller ponds. During the rainy season, only the roofs can be seen. Inside those four structures, there are gargoyles of four different forms: a lion to the south pool, a horse to the west, an elephant to the north, and a man's face to the east. It seems that water would only emerge from the gargoyles' mouths when pilgrims poured water from the main pond into the small receptacle above the backside of the gargoyles.

An inscription stated that Neak Pean was "a sacred island, drawing its charm from its ponds and clearing away the sins of those who approach it". This is why Neak Pean is supposed to have served an absolution function and medical purposes. The water of the ponds was thought to have sacred healing power. 

The water was consecrated by flowing through the mouth of one of the sacred animals mentioned above. Maybe, they symbolized the four elements, lion for fire, horse for air, elephant for water, and man for earth. It is assumed, each sick person was sent to the pool of that element believed to be of specific healing power for his desease or according to his astrological character.

There is another interpretation of Neak Pean, namely that its central pond symbolizes the mythical lake Anavatapta. The location of the real lake associated with Anavatapta is in the Himalayas, near Mt. Kailash. In this area there are springs of the most important and sacred rivers of India, leaving into four different directions (approximately). 

The rivers are Ganga, Jamuna, Indus and Brahmaputra. The four springs at Anavatapta are said to be spewed from the mouths of a lion, an elephant, a horse, and a bull. In Buddhist traditions those four animals became common symbols of the four directions, representing this world. For example, they are well-known from the Ashoka capital in Sarnath. 

They are a common motif at Budhist temples in Sri Lanka, too. The bull is replaced by a man at Neak Pean. This is strange and a reason to doubt Neak Pean's association with the Anavatapta myth. However, the bull is also removed from 12th century moonstones in Sri Lanka. 

By the way, both interpretations of Neak Pean, medical pilgrimage site and Anavatapta symbol, do not at all contradict each other, as lake Anavatapta was believed to be of healing power, too.

The Balaha sculpture and the animal and human gargoyles could be seen better during the dry season. But visitors are not allowed to enter the area of the pools anymore. They only can view the arrangement of pools from the southern edge. 

This is why the wet season, when the pools are full of water, is now more recommendable for a visit. There is a wooden footbridge from the car park at the Grand Circuit route leading to this observation platform of Neak Pean. Because access to the pond area is not permitted any more, visitors cannot study the sculptural decoration described below.

There are figures of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara on the wall of the central Prasat, which is built of sandstone. Above the one to the north, whose head was stolen in 1982, there is a pediment carving depicting prince Siddharta's "Great Departure" from his life in a palace to a search for salvation. 

The east pediment shows the cutting of his hair, symbol for the begin of his life as a hermit, the west pediment depicts him meditating under a tree. Each corner has statues depicting Airavata, the three-headed elephant being the mount of Indra.

Neak Pean had lion statues, which were made of bronze. They possibly symbolized Kubera, the god of wealth. In the 14th century, Siamese invaders conquered Angkor. The bronze lions from Neak Pean were looted and brought to the Siam capital Ayutthaya. But when the Burmese seized Ayutthaya, they took the Neak Pean bronze lions to Mandalay, where those statues remained to be till the present day.

Though dedicated to Buddha, Neak Pean contained several Hindu images, too. A stone sculpture of Vishnu was found on the west side of the island, and Lingas at the north side. Maybe, Neak Pean was even a former royal Hindu site.

Below is the glimpse of Neak Pean Temple in 360o viewing:

What to see at Neak Pean?

Central pond surrounded by four smaller ponds

The temple area on the island in the center of the Jayatataka baray is enclosed by a square laterite wall measuring 350 meters wide, in which were contained a number of ponds. While the outer ponds have gone, the central pond and four surrounding ponds remain.

The central pond of Neak Pean symbolizes lake Anavatapta, a lake located in the center of the world in Buddhist cosmology. At each of its four sides is a smaller pond (srah) and a chapel connecting the large central pond with the surrounding ones. The four chapels were used by pilgrims who would wash away their sins in the cleansing waters of the central pond. 

In each chapel there is a stone gargoyle in a different shape, namely a head of a King, an elephant, a lion, and a horse. Through their open mouths flowed water that filled that chapel’s small basins with the healing waters from the central pool. Each of the chapels contains a base, on which the main idol stood. Several depictions of Lokeshvara can be found inside the chapels.

Central sanctuary

In the center of the central pond is a circular island with a diameter of 14 meters, on which stands the sanctuary. The sandstone sanctuary is set on a circular stone base, encircled by two Naga snakes, guarding the East entrance of the temple. At the other end (West) their tales intertwine, from which the temple derives its name; Neak Pean translates to “the entwined snakes”.

Originally the sanctuary had doors on each of the four cardinal directions. At one point three of them were closed, leaving just the East entrance. The false doors were adorned with large carved depictions of Lokeshvara, believed to possess the powers of healing. On the pediment over the East entrance is a depiction of the Buddha. The image of the Buddha that was enshrined inside the sanctuary is no longer there.

Scattered around the central sanctuary are several Lingas (the representation of Shiva), and Yonis (the female counterpart of the linga). In front of the East entrance stands a statue of the flying horse Balaha, often partly submerged in the rainy season.

The flying horse Balaha

The flying horse Balaha depicts a story from one of the Jataka tales, the stories that tell about the previous lives of the Buddha. A group of merchants were sailing the ocean, when a violent storm broke out that wrecked their ship. Clinging on to pieces of wood from the broken ship the merchants ended up on a beach of an island named Singhala. The island was inhabited by demons, that took the shape of attractive young women. The sailors were warmly welcomed by the women, who took them to their homes where they had children and lived as a family.

One night the captain of the ship discovered a house with no doors and no windows from where loud cries of misery and weeping emerged. Locked inside the house were merchants previously stranded on the island, who told the captain that the women were in fact demons and that they had to escape the island while they still had the chance. Once a month the flying horse Balaha would appear on the island to rescue stranded sailors. The merchants are seen clinging to the horse’s manes and tail, escaping danger.

The storey serves as a reminder not to focus on worldly matters and temptations and instead reach for lasting happiness by following the teachings of the Buddha.

Planning to Visit Neak Pean

Temple Facts

  • Date: Neak Pean
  • Religion: Buddhism
  • Built By: Jayavarman VII
  • Dedicated To: Buddha
  • Style: Bayon
  • Best Time to Visit: Anytime
  • Length of Visit: 30 - 60 minutes
  • Temple Pass: Required (Included in the pass to the whole Angkor Complex)

Location

Neak Pean is located in the centre of the Preah Khan baray which is an ancient reservoir known as Jayatataka. It is located about 1km east of Preah Khan, with Prasat Prei and Banteay Prei to the North west. To the north is Krol Ko and Ta Som temple is to the east.

Check the location of Neak Pean Temple on the below Google Map for your reference:

Getting There

There are two ways to get to Neak Pean. You can either approach it from Angkor Thom in the east or Ta Som in the west.

If you’re coming from Angkor Thom, then leave the ancient city by the North Gate. Veer to the right side past Krol Romeas and Preah Khan temple. Follow the road along the baray until you reach the entrance to Neak Pean on the right side.

If you are coming from the other way, you can turn right from the Apsara Road towards Srah Srang and continue up to East Mebon. Keep heading north to Ta Som and turn left at the end of the baray. Continue along the road and you will see Neak Pean on the left side.

Best time to visit

The best times to visit Neak Pean for taking pictures are immidiately after sunrise and before sunset. For studying the ensemble from the observation platform, however, every hour of the day is even good. A visit is not possible without ticket.

Neak Pean Tours

Neak Pean is on the Angkor Grand Circuit Tour and many guests will come to visit. It’s often visited after Preah Khan and before Ta Som temple. If you have time, you can also visit Krol Ko and Krol Romeas which are also nearby.

You will probably spend less than an hour at Neak Peak and often visit it in conjunction with other temples as part of a tour. If you are exploring the temples on your own, make sure you head to Neak Pean when following the grand circuit.

Accommodation

There is no accommodation near to Neak Pean. As most guests will visit a number of temples during their time in the park, they will often stay in the thriving tourist hub of Siem Reap which is just a few kilometres away.

Siem Reap is home to a wide range of accommodation options. You will find hotels to suit all tastes and budgets.

Here is our Siem Reap Travel Guide

Why Visit Neak Pean?

Neak Pean isn’t as popular as other temples inside the Angkor Thom complex or those near to Angkor Wat. However, it is a popular place to visit because it’s unique and forms part of the Grand Circuit tour. The temple is in the middle of a baray where you can walk along the wooden walkway on top of the man-made lake.

If you believe in folklore, you might even improve your health after visiting Neak Pean!

The Layout & Design of Neak Pean

Nean Peak is a large pond 70 meters wide. It is surrounded by four smaller ponds with a circular island in the middle. The island is made up of seven tiers made from laterite and is in the center of the middle pond. There is a small tower in the middle of the island dedicated to Avolokitesvara.

The central island has a 14-meter diameter. The tower (or sanctuary) which stands in the middle is encircled by two serpents called Nagas. They guard the east entrance to the temple. At the western side, their tails intertwine with each other and this is where the temple gets its name – “The Entwined Serpents”.

When the temple was first built, there would have been doors on each side of the sanctuary. However, at some point in history, they were closed up with only the one eastern door remaining. These false doors contain carvings of Lokeshvara, a Buddhist deity known for healing. On the east entrance, there is a depiction of Buddha.

History of Neak Pean Temple

Neak Pean was built by King Jayavarman VII in the 12th century as a Buddhist temple. It was thought that it was built as a hospital where bathing in one of the pools would cure disease. Each of the four pools represent water, earth, fire, and water.

They are connected to a central pool (a replica of Lake Anavatapta in the Himalayas) by a stone channel. Each of these channels are looked over by an Elephant, Bull, Horse, and Lion – one of the Four Great Animals. Each channel represents the head of one of the great animals except for the east which is a human head instead of a bull.

When the temple was first built, the sculptures of the four heads sat on the floor of the lake. They can still be seen in the dry season when the water is low but are completely covered in the rainy season.

Chinese Diplomats

In the 13th century, Zhou Daguan mentioned Neak Pean in his writings, The Customs of Cambodia. He was a Chinese diplomat who wrote extensively about Cambodia at the time and is one of most important documents which helps us to understand what life was like during the Khmer empire.

Abandonment and Rediscovery

It is likely that Neak Pean was abandoned at some point in the 16th century like many of the Angkor temples

Neak Pean was cleared in the 1920s and was restored in the 1930s.

Photos of Neak Pean

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My name is Jolie, I am a Vietnamese girl growing up in the countryside of Hai Duong, northern Vietnam. Since a little girl, I was always dreaming of exploring the far-away lands, the unseen beauty spots of the world. My dream has been growing bigger and bigger day after day, and I do not miss a chance to make it real. After graduating from the univesity of language in Hanoi, I started the exploration with a travel agency and learning more about travel, especially responsible travel. I love experiencing the different cultures of the different lands and sharing my dream with the whole world. Hope that you love it too!

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