Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex in bucolic Kompong Thom province was recently added to Cambodia’s list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. Set amidst forest and shaded by towering trees, the unique late 6th century temple city is one of Cambodia’s oldest.
Around 170kms from Siem Reap, Sambor Prei Kuk – which means “the temple in the richness of the forest” in Khmer – is a sprawling complex of one hundred temples scattered over nearly 1,400 hectares of forest, rice paddies and marshlands on the west bank of the Steung Sen or Sen River in rural Kompong Thom.
One of Cambodia’s more off the beaten track archaeological sites, Sambor Prei Kuk sees nowhere near the numbers of the least visited temples in Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap. When we last visited Sambor Prei Kuk, our guide told us that on some days there were as few as a dozen tourists, on some none at all.
That’s all set to change. In July, Sambor Prei Kuk became the third archaeological site in Cambodia to receive UNESCO World Heritage listing after Preah Vihear (recognised in 2008) and Angkor Wat (listed in 1992).
Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia – A City of Guardian Lions and Flying Palaces
A two and half hour drive by car from Siem Reap, Sambor Prei Kuk is considered to be one of Cambodia’s more remote archaeological sites, requiring a day trip or an overnight excursion to experience the site properly, as well as to take in the bucolic countryside and villages.
Sambor Prei Kuk is one of our favourite Cambodian archaeological sites, as much for its unique architecture and intriguing details, as the opportunity to visit laidback Kampong Thom, the provincial capital.
We only visited Sambor Prei Kuk for the first time early last year when we were researching and shooting some archaeological stories. Strolling through the leafy forest – which would be lovely to explore on bicycle – I was regretting not having experienced this little-visited temple complex earlier.
Seeing Sambor Prei Kuk helped to better appreciate the long, rich history of this country that we now know as Cambodia and the period that came before Angkor, the era that captivates most people’s imaginations as they explore Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap.
If you listen only to your guide’s commentary as you scramble the temples of Angkor, you would think that there was nothing before King Jayavarman II declared himself universal ruler on Phnom Kulen in 802AD, marking the beginning of the Angkor Empire.
However, before Angkor came the kingdoms of Champa (once part of Cambodia but now located in what we know as Vietnam), Funan, and Zhenla or Chenla. Sambor Prei Kuk, known as Ishanapura, was the capital of the Chenla Empire.
Influenced by India, built by King Isanavarman I, and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, Ishanapura was a royal city and centre of power for some four kings, remaining important during the Angkor Empire, especially in the 10th century, and once again in the later years of the Angkor era.
While Ishanapura only flourished from the late 6th through to the early 7th centuries AD, during its time evidence – including inscriptions, statues, artefacts, and other relics found at Sambor Prei Kuk – suggests it was a cosmopolitan trading city with traders arriving from as far away as Europe.
There was a walled city centre and unique octagonal shrines, of which ten remain. Built of brick, their exterior walls and door frames are decorated with magical carvings of ‘flying palaces’ while you’ll also see lintels and pedestals featuring unique motifs and patterns you won’t see at Angkor. Within the shrines are replicas of elegant statues, including Duruga, consort to Shiva.
I was particularly smitten with the splendid statues of lions with their intricately carves manes, which you’ll find guarding Prasat Tao in the central group of temples. Another small shrine in the southern group by the central sanctuary dedicated to Shiva, which was decorated with tiny figures and faces that appeared to be very European looking – perhaps Greek – while others looked Persian, and yet others perhaps Southern Indian.
For those who prefer their temples without crowds or are curious about Cambodia’s fascinating pre-Angkor era history, Sambor Prei Kuk is a must but we suggest you experience it sooner rather than later. Ticking off UNESCO World Heritage sites is a passion of many travellers.
Cambodian Archaeological sites on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List
Other archaeological sites in Cambodia that are on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List and likely to be considered for nomination in the future include: Banteay Chhmar, Banteay Prei Nokor, Beng Mealea, Preah Khan de Kompong Svay, Koh Ker, Angkor Borei and Phnom Da, Oudong, and Phnom Kulen.
How to Get to Sambor Prei Kuk Temple
The nearest town to the temple complex is Kompong Thom, which is on National Highway 6 (NH6), which connects Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. We recommend hiring a driver with car. From Siem Reap, Mr Sophen (069 606 306) can take you the 2.5-hour drive in his lovely clean Lexus for US$80 if you return the same day or US$100 return if you stay overnight, and if he can’t drive you he’ll find you another excellent driver.
From Phnom Penh, try Mr Lucky (093 373 707) who can do the 4-hour drive in his comfortable vehicles (he has several, 4WDs and vans) for US$100 to return the same day or US$130 if you stay overnight. Both drivers provide cold water and cold face towels. You can also do a tour or take a public bus to Kompong Thom.
Where to Stay near Sambor Prei Kuk Temple
Located on the riverside in Kompong Thom, Sambor Village Hotel is the only proper boutique hotel in town. It has a serene swimming pool set within leafy gardens and a decent restaurant serving a mix of Cambodian and European dishes in a traditional Cambodian timber house overlooking the gardens and pool.
What to Eat near Sambor Prei Kuk Temple
You’ll find a wonderful evening market in Kompong Thom where we recommend going for a stroll, as much to take in the atmosphere, as to buy street food snacks and picnic supplies for your temple excursions if you’re staying a night or two. There are also stalls at the tourist complex near the ticket gate which sell noodle soups, fried rice and fresh coconuts.
What to Read about Sambor Prei Kuk Temple
Drop in to the Tourism Service Office on the way to the site to see if they have the booklet titled ‘The Sambor Prei Kuk Conservation Project’. Otherwise, Michel Petrotchenko’s excellent Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook has a couple of pages on Sambor Prei Kuk and has been recently updated.