The pre-Angkorian site of Sambor Prei Kuk came under consideration this year to be added to the new historical and natural sites on the World Heritage list. But it wasn’t to be, and the UNESCO committee decided to defer discussion about the site until it meets again in 2014. This gives time for the Cambodian team to refine its bid and its management plans for the temple complex.
Sambor Prei Kuk, in Kompong Thom province, was once the city of Isanapura, the capital of the kingdom of Chenla, which thrived under the reign of King Isanavarman I (c.610-c.635).
Today many seventh and eighth century temples still remain, pre-dating the temples of Angkor by at least a couple of hundred years. There were once over 100 temples scattered in this area, and now around 50 are still recognisable.
Stylistically they are different to temples in Angkor Park and certainly lack the grandeur of Angkor Wat or Preah Khan. Some of the square towers built in sandstone are similar to the temples of early Angkor, whilst others are octagonal and made from brick.
Many are in remarkable condition considering their age. The École française d'Extrême-Orient cleared the site in the 1960s, but factional fighting meant it was closed to visitors until 1998. A team from Waseda University in Japan is now working alongside the Ministry of Culture on restoration projects.
Many of the temples still have original stucco reliefs clinging to their exterior walls. In many cases, where stucco has disappeared, the incredible brick relief still remains. Figures peer down from ornately decorated false windows, and lions fiercely guard the giant doorways.
Inside the temples, giant yonis hint at the sizeable lingas which were once the focus of worship. Huge strangler fig trees envelope some towers in a considerably more impressive way than anything at Ta Prohm. There is something magical about walking through the sub-tropical forests between each of the three main temple sites.
In this temple enthusiast’s opinion, Sambor Prei Kuk is one of the most interesting and atmospheric group of temples in Cambodia. Long-term residents of Siem Reap really have no excuse not to visit, as the complex is about a 40-minute tuktuk ride from Kompong Thom city, through beautiful countryside.
Expats are likely to have passed through the town countless times on the interminable journey between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, and it makes sense to hop off the bus and spend time exploring the area.
The services of highly trained guides at Sambor Prei Kuk are indispensable as they can assist with an overview of the original layout and provide historical background. A guide costs just $6 and $1 dollar of that goes into the local community fund. Guides can also arrange homestays.
Kompong Thom also has several hotel options and the delightful Sambor Village, a small resort on the quiet southern bank of the Stung Seng river, is highly recommended. Each semi-detached bungalow is set amongst lush greenery with private terrace and cute tiled roof.
Inside, exposed beams, tiled floors and simple four-poster beds add to the rustic charm. A restaurant and bar are in a traditional Khmer wooden house, which overlooks a good-sized pool, the perfect place to sink a few beers after a day in the humid forest.
Arunas Hotel, close to the market, is another option and also has a traditional Khmer menu. Run Amok, a Kiwi/ Khmer-owned restaurant close to Sambor Village serves delicious pizzas, pastas and burgers.
Buses, minivans and taxis pass through Kompong Thom regularly so it is easy to break up a journey between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh for a unique temple adventure.