The Remote Cambodian Archaeological Sites You Need to Explore
Inspired by the exciting new archaeological discoveries? Dislike crowds? Then explore these remote Cambodian archaeological sites, a short drive, easy day trip or adventurous overnight excursion from Siem Reap. You’ll be blissfully alone.
The Remote Cambodian Archaeological Sites You Need to Explore
Few things capture the imagination like the notion of ‘lost cities’ if the response to our story in the Guardian on Cambodia’s vast medieval cities hidden beneath the jungle and our post on the recent discoveries of epic new urban landscapes in Cambodia are any indication.
If the news had you booking a holiday, then you’ll pleased to know that the remote Cambodian archaeological sites that have been secreting away entire cities below the surface of their forest floors can in fact be visited.
While they may be far-flung, they’re not all difficult to reach, and the temples that are a tad challenging to get to are definitely worth the effort.
Scramble these remote Cambodian archaeological sites and you’ll certainly be avoiding the crowds – most of the time. At off the beaten track temples such as Preah Khan Kompong Svay, Sambor Prei Kuk, Preah Vihear, and Banteay Chhmar you’ll be hard pressed to bump into another visitor.
Banteay Srei and Beng Mealea, however, are more popular due to their proximity to Siem Reap. You’ll need to plan those visits so you’re at those temple sites at the crack of dawn or close to dusk if you want them to yourself.
Scroll through the gallery of images above for a taste of what you’ll see at each of these remote Cambodian archaeological sites. As some are in a more ruinous state than others, the beauty is often to be found in the atmosphere and intricate details rather than the elegance and grandeur that you experience at Angkor Wat.
We’ve included a ‘what’s new’ section for each of the remote Cambodian archaeological sites below to highlight some of the new findings that have resulted from the 2015 airborne laser scanning survey, which have upended many theories about the development and decline of Angkor, and will eventually lead to a re-writing of the history books.
Remote Cambodian Archaeological Sites to Explore
Preah Khan Kompong Svay
If you really want to soak up some history in solitude, then don’t miss the majestic albeit dilapidated site of 11th century Preah Khan Kompong Svay, not to be confused with Preah Khan at Angkor Archaeological Park. The long drive here, the immense size of the site, and its location in untamed forest make the temple seem incredibly isolated.
You can also reach Preah Khan Kompong Svay (or Prasat Bakan as locals call it) via Beng Mealea on a road which follows an ancient highway, complete with centuries-old bridges, which makes the experience special. In poor condition, the road may be impassable during monsoon when a much more comfortable route from Siem Reap is via National Highway 6 and Kompong Kdei.
Like many Cambodian temples, Preah Khan Kompong Svay started out as a Hindu temple-city that was later re-consecrated to Mahayana Buddhism during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. At 22 square kilometres it was the largest complex ever built during the Angkorian period, four times the size of Angkor Wat. Its direct connection to Angkor by a major road, fitted out with infrastructure, suggests it played an important role in the empire, probably facilitating the supply of iron to the capital, according to archaeologist Mitch Hendrickson. Historians believe that the temple-city served as the home of King Suryavarman II, as well as the future king, Jayavarman VII, who led his army to defeat the Chams before moving the capital to Angkor in 1181.
Highlights include Prasat Prah Stung, pictured above, a tumbledown temple sanctuary containing a serene face tower like those at the Bayon, a reasonably well-preserved eastern gopura (entrance), a dilapidated dharmasala (rest house for pilgrims), and the central temple and towers. What you won’t see are the many sculptures and art works that were discovered by Louis Delaporte and the Mekong Exploration Commission in the 1870s. They were hauled off to Paris, where they’re now on show at the Guimet Museum. Others were looted by the Khmer Rouge.
What’s new at Preah Khan Kompong Svay
Archaeologist Dr Mitch Hendrickson, who we met at Preah Khan Kompong Svay early this year, told me last week that the survey findings for the site, which revealed a “full-blown community layout” were so “truly remarkable” that it was “arguably the ‘jewel in the crown’ of this mission”. He said while the discovery of an urban grid layout inside the main temple enclosure wasn’t surprising, “the grid actually also continues and then suddenly fades away before reaching the massive fourth enclosure wall”. The data also revealed “weird, geometric features” like those found near Angkor Wat.
Our Mini Guide to Preah Khan Kompong Svay
When to go: Dry season is best due to the road, which easily damages after rain.
Distance from Siem Reap: Around 156kms or 187 kms, depending on the route you take.
Nearest town: Ta Seng village, 4kms away. While it offers little in the way of visitor facilities, if you’re stuck you can arrange a home-stay and something to eat and drink through the village chief. Kompong Thom is around 90 kms away.
How to get there: Depending on the time you have available, you could do a tour or hire a driver and car, and perhaps even take a guide, from Siem Reap or Kompong Thom. Scoll to the end of the post for details. If you take the NR6 from Siem Reap via Kompong Kdei, it’s 156kms and an approx. 3.5 hour journey, but if you go via Beng Mealea it’s 187kms and can take up to 4 hours depending on the state of the road.
Where to stay: Siem Reap or Kompong Thom (see Sambor Prei Kuk, below).
Where to eat: Take a picnic lunch or see what the locals are cooking.
Sambor Prei Kuk
The late 6th to early 7th century pre-Angkorian complex of Sambor Prei Kuk quickly became one of my favourites of the remote Cambodian archaeological sites after we visited for the first time early this year. Dedicated to Shiva, Isanapura, as it was called, was a capital city of the pre-Angkor kingdom of Zhenla (Chenla). Built by King Isanavarman I, it was a royal city and the centre of power for at least four kings. Inscriptions, artefacts, statues, and objects found at the site suggest it was still important during the Angkor Empire, particularly in the 10th century, and then again in the late Angkor period.
One of the things that makes a visit special is the architecture, sculpture and art, which are in a very different style to what you will see at Angkor. Labelled the Sambor Prei Kuk style, which covers 600-650 AD, an archaeologist we met at the site said that its assimilation of Indian cultural influences marked an important stage in the development of Khmer arts and the Angkor styles.
The ancient city is divided into two zones, the city zone and the temple zone, and the main monuments are located in the temple zone spread across three groups: Prasat Sambor (northern group), Prasat Tao (central group) and Prasat Yeai Poeun (southern group). It’s a sprawling site, so allow at two to three hours. While it’s always best to do the sights early in the morning or late afternoon – for photography as much as for self-preservation; it’s scorching hot in the middle of the day – Sambor Prei Kuk is set amidst towering forest, making it possible to find some shade if you find yourself here in the sweltering midday heat. There was some intensive restoration work underway when we visited, which was fascinating to watch and provided a good excuse to stay put for a while.
Highlights include octagonal brick shrines featuring enchanting carvings of ‘flying palaces’ on their exterior walls and door frames, lintels and pedestals decorated with unique motifs and patterns. Inside the shrines are pedestals (which would have held lingas) and replicas of elegant statues, including Duruga, consort to the god Shiva, and Harihara (in the northern group of temples). There are handsome roaring guardian lions with intricately detailed manes at Prasat Tao (in the central group) and (in the southern group) a small shrine near the central sanctuary dedicated to Shiva, decorated with small figures that to me are very Greek looking, while one figure appears to be Persian.
What’s new at Sambor Prei Kuk
Professor Charles Higham, who is the pre‐eminent archaeologist of mainland Southeast Asia, told me last week that he thought the article outlining the findings was “the most exciting paper I can recall reading”. Higham was especially excited about the “new and vital information on the complexity of pre-Angkorian Isanapura (Sambor Prei Kuk)”. He told me “I have often wondered what the mound field was at the eastern end of the Eastern Baray. Now these mound fields are popping up all over the place, including Ishanapura. What are they? The provincial road linking Isanapura and Preah Khan of Kompong Svay. What date is it?”
Our Mini Guide to Sambor Prei Kuk
Distance from Siem Reap: 170kms, or around 2.5 hours.
Nearest town: Kompong Thom, on the NH6 which connects Siem Reap and Phnom Penh
How to get there: Depending on the time you have available, you could hire a driver and car or do a tour from Siem Reap, or travel to Kompong Thom and hire a local tuk tuk driver.
Where to stay: Sambor Village Hotel on the riverside at Kompong Thom has a serene swimming pool in leafy gardens and a decent restaurant (review coming soon).
Where to eat: Stalls at the visitor complex beside the ticket gate sell fresh coconuts, cold drinks, noodle soups, fried rice and the like. Kompong Thom has an excellent evening market.
What to read: There’s not much on Sambor Prei Kuk in the key archaeological handbooks you’ll see in Siem Reap but Michel Petrotchenko’s excellent Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook has a couple of pages on it. See if the Tourism Service Office has a thin booklet titled the Sambor Prei Kuk Conservation Project when you get to the site.
Breathtakingly situated atop a 547 metre-high cliff and offering panoramic vistas of the surrounding countryside, the 800-metre long, UNESCO World Heritage listed temple of Preah Vihear sprawls elegantly across an escarpment in the Dangrek mountain range. The temple’s dramatic location, breezy arcades, and beautifully carved lintels combine to make this one of the most pleasurable of the remote Cambodian archaeological sites to explore.
An excursion here starts out as something of an adventure, from the long journey and bumpy drive up the mountain to the interactions you’ll no doubt have a Cambodian soldier (or two) keen to bum a few cigarettes off you in exchange for photo of him poised with his Norinco, a Chinese-made version of the Russian AK-47. Do take cigarettes or other gifts for any soldiers who offer to guide you around and get you close to the border. Some of these poor blokes have been stationed here with their families (as you’ll see from the modest homes built into the hillside on your drive up) since the first 2008 territorial dispute with Thailand over ownership of the site.
While the situation was resolved in November 2013, when the International Court of Justice in The Hague confirmed that the temple did indeed belong to Cambodia (which the IJC had already ruled in 1962), the Thais still have soldiers stationed just across the border – which is so close that you can see the soldiers through the jungle, doing everything from cooking to hanging out their washing on the other side of the stream that forms the border.
Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Preah Vihear means ‘sacred temple or monastery’ and it’s thought that the location had been a sacred site since the 8th century. While some parts of the temple date to the 10th century when Koh Ker was empire’s capital, there are also architectural elements in the Banteay Srei style, dating to the late 10th century, although it’s believed that most of the temple was constructed during the reign of kings Suryavarman I (1006-1050) and Suryavarman II (1113–1150). The latter period is brought to life in inscriptions at the site, which give accounts of sacred rituals and festivals featuring elephants, white parasols and golden bowls.
Located on a narrow promontory, the temple’s design was determined by the terrain. You’ll need to climb some 200 steps to the lowest gopura, and then ascend two fairly steep inclines, flanked by naga balustrades, to the final gopura and entrance to some well-preserved galleries, and above this a courtyard complex of buildings and a long colonnaded hall. The impressiveness of the overall site can detract from the detail, so make sure you allow plenty of time to admire the prettily decorated cornices, pediment borders, lintels, and reliefs.
What’s new at Preah Vihear
Preah Vihear wasn’t included in the recent airborne surveys, however, there have been excavations at the ground since the 2013 dispute settlement, which have covered ancient ironworks.
Our Mini Guide to Preah Vihear
Distance from Siem Reap: 210kms
Nearest town: Anlong Veng, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold, however, you don’t need to stay here.
How to get there: Hire a driver and car and take a guide from Siem Reap. Preah Vihear can also be combined with visits to Koh Ker and Beng Mealea into a really enjoyable 2-day itinerary. Extend it to 3-4 days and you can also visit Sambor Prei Kuk and Preah Khan Kompong Svay.
Where to stay: Preah Vihear Boutique Hotel in Sra Em Village, 27kms away from the temple, is a comfortable mid-range hotel with a swimming pool. There are also home-stays nearby.
Where to eat: There’s a good restaurant at the hotel and a small village market a 10-minute stroll away.
This is another favourite when it comes to remote Cambodian archaeological sites. This late 12th century royal temple and garrison-city was the second monument of King Jayavarman VII. A large site, it’s far bigger in size than his Bayon temple in the walled capital, Angkor Thom.
The highlights of Banteay Chhmar are the extensive galleries of elaborate bas-reliefs depicting vivid scenes from battles, mythology and daily life, which stretch along the never-ending temple walls. A stroll around the exterior site is a history lesson if you experience it with a knowledgeable guide or a good guidebook in hand.
Dr Peter D Sharrock from London University’s School of Oriental & African Studies, who specialises in Banteay Chhmar, told me last week that he believed that Banteay Chhmar’s important role was linked to medicine. Jayavarman VII built 102 hospitals around his empire, which he supplied with medical staff and medicine, which probably came from medicinal herbs, minerals and animal parts from the nearby Dangrek Mountains. Sharrock believes Banteay Chhmar would have been a major “medical gathering, blessing and distribution centre”, as the bas-reliefs also appear to confirm.
Other highlights, among many, include balustrades bearing nagas on the bridges over the moat; the atmospheric setting itself with its towering trees dripping in beehives; and beatific Bayon-style smiling face towers. There was thought to be about 50 in Banteay Chhmar, 59 at the Bayon, and one at Preah Khan of Kompong Svay.
While it’s a magnificent site and one of the most enjoyable of all the remote Cambodian archaeological sites, part of the joy of visiting Banteay Chhmar is the chance to experience everyday life from your base at a community homestay in the surrounding villages.
What’s new at Banteay Chhmar
At Banteay Chhmar, one of our favourite temple ruins of the remote Cambodian archaeological sites, the recent lidar survey raised more questions than it provided answers. “Lidar now shows clear data for the first time of dense populations settled in an around all ancient Khmer temples – except Banteay Chhmar,” Dr Peter D Sharrock told me last week. “So why was Banteay Chhmar a lightly-populated anomaly? Possibly the city was incomplete. A big water system running from the Dangrek hills was constructed for a large city. Careful groundwork following up the lidar data may provide the answer.”
Our Mini Guide to Banteay Chhmar
Distance from Siem Reap: 161kms north of Siem Reap near the Thai border.
Nearest town: Villages skirt the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar, which will be within walking distance of your homestay (see below).
How to get there: Hire a driver and car or do a tour; both can be booked on the Visit Banteay Chhmar Community Based Tourism website.
Where to stay: Book a village homestay in a traditional timber houses with local families on the website above.
Where to eat: There’s a lovely little morning market where you’ll find delicious nom banh chock among other things. Meals can also be arranged at the temples through the community based tourism organisation, which also runs a basic restaurant.
What to read: Peter D Sharrock’s Banteay Chhmar, Garrison-Temple of the Khmer Empire is a must-read, detailing not only the history but also providing information on the restoration and guided tour of the temple.
Have you travelled around Cambodia? What are your favourites of the remote Cambodian archaeological sites?