Two major temple sites each lie within a day-trip of Kompong Thom. East off National Route 64, Sambor Prei Kuk is the site of a Chenla-era capital that once boasted hundreds of temples, although many of them have now been lost, perhaps smothered by the encroaching forest. Several temple groups have been cleared, and particularly fine brick carvings and decorated sandstone lintels and columns can be seen. Much further north, and more easily reached by cutting north from NR6, the temple enclosure of Preah Khan is the largest in Cambodia, its central sanctuary featuring the earliest example of four huge faces looking to the cardinal directions, a motif which later became a feature of many Cambodian temples.
Five kilometres north of Kompong Thom National Route 64 veers off to the north; a wide dirt road, it can be slow going in the rainy season. After about 10km, turn east where the fifteen-kilometre side road to Sambor Prei Kuk is decent enough.
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as an easy trip to Preah Khan, around 70km to the northwest and actually in Preah Vihear province. It’s best approached from NR6, turning north about 20km west from Kompong Thom. From the turning the dirt road is in quite good condition for 40km, but deteriorates to little more than a path, with endless opportunities to head off in the wrong direction. In the dry season, starting from Kompong Thom early in the morning and arriving back after dark, it’s just possible to visit as a day-trip. In the rainy season it’s virtually impassable.Read More
Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk
The history of Sambor Prei Kuk goes back to the late sixth century, when Cambodia consisted of numerous small states; one of these was a kingdom on the Mekong ruled over by Mahendravarman, who extended his domain as far north as Khon Kaen in present-day Thailand. His brother Bhavavarman created his own kingdom by conquering lands in central Cambodia and territory as far north as Battambang, setting up his capital in the area of Sambor Prei Kuk. When Bhavavarman died in 598, the two kingdoms were merged under Mahendravarman, who retained Sambor Prei Kuk as his capital. From 610 to 628 the area was known as Ishanapura and was ruled by Mahendravarman’s son Ishanavarman, who built the towers of the temple’s south group, the earliest at the site. With his death, the kingdom gradually declined and split into smaller states, though Sambor Prei Kuk remained inhabited; it was from here that Rajendravarman I came to take the throne at Angkor in 944, after which references to it disappear from the records. The site was cleared in 1962, but restoration and research were suspended at the outbreak of civil war in 1970, and post-Khmer Rouge the threat of guerrilla attack meant that it remained inaccessible up until 1998. Today, it is looting rather than insurgency that the guards stationed here are supposedly trying to forestall.
The site is easily visited by moto from Kompong Thom ($10 round trip), the journey taking about 40min. The site is seldom busy; tour groups, arriving on day-trips from Phnom Penh, are usually on a tight schedule, and if you just wait awhile you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself again. The admission charge is $3. There are food stalls near the ticket booth and a small shop.
The temple divides into three main sections: the north and south groups, which date from the seventh century, and the centre group, a ninth-century addition. Separated from these by the access road are the ruined sanctuary tower of Ashram Issey and the single-towered Prasat Bos Ram, which has a lion’s-head channel through which holy water flowed; it is now at ground level, but would originally have been more than a metre up the wall of the tower. The whole site is covered with the remains of towers, and carvings can be seen poking out from piles of earth or partly covered by undergrowth – exploring at random can throw up some real gems. If you’ve come with a driver, he may well know of new temples that have recently been uncovered.
Little is known about the history of Preah Khan. To distinguish it from the temple of the same name at Angkor, it is sometimes suffixed with the province name “Kompong Thom” or the district name “Kompong Svay”. To add to the confusion, locals call it Prasat Bakan. The earliest buildings are attributed to Suryavarman I, and it’s believed that Jayavarman VII spent time here before moving to Angkor – the famous carved stone head of the king displayed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh was found on the site (see West Gallery). In the 1870s Louis Delaporte carried off the temple’s prize sculptures (they’re now in the Guimet Museum in Paris), while looters have also pillaged the temple in recent years, using pneumatic drills to remove statues – resulting in collapsed towers, crushed apsaras and the broken images which lie scattered on the ground.
Even so, the sprawling site – the largest temple compound of the Angkor period in the country – is rewarding, with four different temple groups and numerous prasats and buildings to be explored. A little confusingly, the three-kilometre-long baray to the east is partly contained within the outermost enclosing wall. East of the baray, a small ninth-century temple, Prasat Preah Damrei, is enclosed by its own laterite wall with its upper levels guarded by stone elephants, often draped in orange robes. The most noteworthy thing about the baray itself is what remains of Prasat Preah Thkol, a cruciform sanctuary on an (inaccessible) island in the centre. At the west end of the baray, 600m inside the enclosing wall, the elaborate eleventh-century Prasat Preah Stung boasts galleries, carvings of apsaras and a central sanctuary topped with four massive faces, the latter the hallmark of Jayavarman VII and found only in a few places outside Angkor.
West of here, at the heart of Preah Khan, the main temple group dates from the twelfth century and was most likely built by Suryavarman II. Its well-preserved causeway, not dissimilar to those at Angkor Thom, is decorated with a frieze of swans (peer over the edge just before the steps up to the gopura). Making your way through the complex, via the elaborate east gopura and two sandstone galleries, you’ll come to the central sanctuary, where the Bayon-style, four-faced tower is, so far, untouched by looters.
There is nowhere to buy food or drink, and the ticket office is seldom manned (but it’s $5 for foreigners if there’s someone there).