A site older than Angkor lost in tranquil forests, Sambor Prei Kuk is even more mysterious (and to some, lovely) than the more famous temples to the west. In a cool and peacefully leafy setting, beautiful 1,200-year-old brick temples combine with nature to create an environment that showcases the best of both worlds.
The complex encompasses three sites, with northern, central and southern enclosures.
Most of the temples are made of warm red brick, with sandstone elements in, for example, the ornately carved lintels. It was customary for ancient Khmer elites to associate themselves with the Hindu Brahmanical Gods: Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer), though mostly with Shiva. The shape of the temple towers indicates which God they have been dedicated to, with squares representing Brahma and octagons Vishnu. Within the temple structures, the linga representing Shiva are protected.
Some of the temples in the northern complex are associated with the Chenla Kingdom’s first king, Bhavavarman I, while Isanavarman is chiefly associated with the central group. King Jayavarman I, who ruled between 657 and 690 (approximately), is thought to have built the south group.
It is very worth your while to hire a local guide for $6, who will be able to give you a rundown on all of the sanctuaries and their stories.
Aside from centuries of neglect during which the temples became so overrun that early French explorers could stand within 150 metres of them without being able to discern their presence, the temples also suffered from American bombing during the Vietnam War. More than 100 temples or sanctuaries still stand on this site, but there were once many, many more. You can still see the craters left behind by the bombs, and the area is known to be sown with ordinance and landmines. Don’t ever stray from the path here.
We don’t know a great deal about the men and women who lived and ruled here. We do know that King Isanavarman, who reigned from 615 to 637 over an area encompassing central and northern Cambodia and southern Laos — the Chenla Kingdom — settled his capital on this site and, as was customary, named it after himself: Isanapura.
It is likely that his predecessors, Bhavavarman I and Mahendravarman, also made their capitals here, and some of the temples in the northern group date from the time of Bhavavarman I’s reign, between 550 and 590.
Bhavavarman I is the man who moved his armies south from Wat Phu in Laos and united the disparate (and highly prone to squabbling) kingdoms of the region, formerly part of Funan Kingdom. Meanwhile, his successor, Mahendravarman, is credited with creating peace with Champa to the east. It’s not known exactly why Bhavavarman made his move south — some suggest he felt he had a claim to the throne of the Funan Kingdom after the legitimate heir was killed.
Sambor Prei Kuk represents one of the first urban capitals to be established in all of Southeast Asia, making Kampong Thom the centre of power for the Chenla Kingdom, or perhaps of a smaller state within the Chenla Kingdom — it is still not known which is the case — belying its rather sleepy appearance today.