Back in the halcyon days of my first few months in Cambodia in 2014, when political discussion among local colleagues still included optimism for the future and there were far fewer coffee shops, I first visited Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom province while en-route to Preah Vihear.
In fact, I saw both of these before even venturing to Angkor Wat a few months later to brave “the temples” with the great hordes of unwashed masses. It may not get the attention that Angkor does, but the Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex is no less worthy of a visit.
Pre-dating the temples of Angkor by hundreds of years, the more modest 6th-9th century towers of the Sambor Prei Kuk complex lack the shock and awe of their famous descendants in Siem Reap, but they possess a charm and peace that has endeared them to me, and clearly others as well, with UNESCO adding the temples to their World Heritage list in 2017 (and with it a jump in entrance fee to $10).
The simple red-brick structures, located along sandy forest tracks that allow for a pleasant two-hour stroll to see the highlights, were built at a time when Cambodian monarchs worshiped Hindu gods. Modern replacements of the long-ago pilfered status and lingas inside some of the temples help to conjure brief images of what was once a bustling holy site, and capital to an empire stretching into modern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
The roots of ancient banyan trees, which almost seem old enough to be from that era, seem to be holding some of these structures together today.
For some visitors, the still-visible carvings and reliefs of religious importance will elicit excitement, for others it’s the opportunity to wander in peace and quiet in nature. Either way, the temples at Sambor Prei Kuk are a fantastic spot to visit, and offer a markedly different experience to the (pre-covid-19) crowds of Angkor Wat.
The fact that this site has survived over 1,000 years of worship, neglect, conflict, erosion, and some US bombing in the 1970s is testament to the care with which it was built, and maybe a little divine intervention.
Kampong Thom sits roughly between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, making it a great stop off for those taking a leisurely drive between the two. It is also on the road to Preah Vihear, the impressive cliff-top temple over which Cambodia and Thailand have fought twice since the 1960s – and which is now firmly accepted to sit inside Cambodia’s borders.
Homestays are possible close to Sambor Prei Kuk in O’Kru Kae village, through the Isanborei Community Tourism Project, or Kampong Thom town offers a variety of accommodation options (with Sambor Village boutique guesthouse a gem).
It is worth spending some time exploring the quiet streets of this provincial capital – beautiful wooden houses are still common sights in Kampong Thom, while the fenced-off French governor’s mansion on the banks of the Stung Sen river (complete with tree-roosting bat colony) points to the town’s long importance.
Isanborei Community Tourism Project
O’Kru Kae village, Sambor commune, Kampong Thom
Tel: +855 (0)97 95 73 520; +855 (0)92 798 334
Sambor Village Hotel
Democrat Street, Brochea Thebatey, Kampong Thom
Tel: +855 (0)17 924 612; +855 (0)62 961 391