Sambor Prei Kuk, the modern name for the archaeological site of the Chenla capital and it often divides Western travellers. This is probably due to the influence of Angkor, which is easily South-East Asia’s most famous historical site.
Widely hailed as one of Asia’s incomparable sights, Angkor Wat’s kilometre-long bas-reliefs and soaring lotus-bud towers are undoubtedly a hard act to follow. You will find their stately silhouettes everywhere in modern Cambodia from the oil paintings on the walls of restaurants and hotels to the label of the country’s favourite beer, Angkor Beer.
But the idea put forward by many travellers of Sambor Prei Kuk being a big letdown after Angkor is a mistake because the Chenla capital of Isanapura was constructed five hundred years before Angkor’s greatest temple.
While it is easy to understand why tourists would start their Cambodian travels at Angkor (and with the rise of Siem Reap as a fly-in destination, tourists often venture no further), this is backwards chronologically. The chronology for Cambodian kingdoms is Funan, followed by Chenla, followed by Angkor and lastly arriving at the Buddhist kingdom of Cambodia, which is much smaller than the Angkor Empire at its peak.
To judge everything in Cambodia in relation to Angkor Wat is to view everything else as less worthy or impressive than the artistic and cultural pinnacle of the culture. Perhaps a better way to approach a visit to Sambor Prei Kuk is to anticipate seeing South-East Asia’s earliest temple city, where more than a hundred stone temples formed the symbolic and political core of the Chenla Empire.
The History of Sambor Prei Kuk
It was founded around the end of the sixth century by a former Dangkrek Mountains chief known as Bhavavarman, whose war-like father Viravarman had given the whole kingdom-building process a kick-start.
After the death of Bhavavarman, the crown passed to his brother Citrasena, who had also been a Dangkrek Mountain chief at an earlier phase of life. Upon succeeding to the throne, Citrasena had adopted the more regal-sounding name of Mahendravarman and he too had ruled from Isanapura.
But it was his son, Isanavarman who is remembered as the greatest of Chenla kings and his reign was marked by the frantic temple-building which was to be the hallmark of all subsequent Khmer kings until the end of the eleventh century. And his main legacy was his namesake city, Isanapura, which still constitutes the most impressive archaeological remains of the whole era.
Reaching Sambor Prei Kuk today presents few difficulties. There is no public transport to the site, but you can rent a tuk-tuk there and back for fifteen dollars, with a few hours’ waiting time.
From Kampong Thom you follow the new road to the spectacular temple of Preah Vihear, which is the subject of border tensions between Cambodia and Thailand and is perched atop a peak in the Dangrek Mountain chain which was always the ancestral homeland of the Chenla kings.
About fifteen minutes out of Kampong Thom, you reach the signposted turnoff to Sambor Prei Kuk. A stretch of rich, reddish-brown soil runs straight off through the countryside, bordered on either side by rice farms.
At the height of the rainy season, the road is impassable on a tuk-tuk; although you can always jump off and walk whilst the tuk-tuk finds its way through.
This will give you an opportunity to have a look at the farming communities alongside, in which people lived in wooden houses, often raised on stilts, with large water-jars under or alongside the houses.
After a couple stops, the road gets less troublesome and you soon approached the entrance to the archaeological site, which is hidden within a green nimbus of tropical forest.
The temples in the area are not just some of the oldest in the whole of Cambodia but they are subject to some wonderful and yet mysterious carvings and archaeological findings.