Northwestern Cambodia has some of the best places to visit to see temples, lakes and some of the most ancient history in the whole of Southeast Asia. Here is our guide to the must-see attractions in the northwest of the country.
Prasat Preah Vihear
Set high on a cliff in the Dangkrek Mountains, close to the Cambodia-Thai border, Prasat Preah Vihear, or Sacred Shrine, enjoys the most spectacular setting of any ancient Khmer temple.
Offering breathtaking views of the lush green plains below, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is believed to have been built on the site of a 9th-century sanctuary dedicated to Shiva, the Hindu God of Destruction.
The greater part of the complex was constructed during the reigns of King Surayavarman I (r.1002–50) and Surayavarman II (r.1113–50), the great builder of Angkor Wat.
The earliest surviving parts of the temple, however, date from the 10th century. Following the decline of Hindu worship in the Khmer Empire, the temple was dedicated to Buddhism.
The upper level comprises the impressive third and fourth gopuras and a causeway lined with nagas (serpents) leading to the Central Shrine, which is flanked by galleries offering superb views over the temple complex and the plains far below.
Hidden in the forests of Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, enigmatic Koh Ker is finally on the visitor map thanks to improved roads and mine clearance. It was built during the reign of King Jayavarman IV (r.928– 42), who had moved the capital of Angkor here for a brief period.
Not long ago, it was one of the most inaccessible and heavily mined Angkorian temples. Today, visitors can safely reach and explore these ruins on a day trip from Siem Reap.
The complex has over 100 temples with 42 significant structures, the most impressive of which is Prasat Thom, a 131-ft (40-m) high, 180-ft (55-m) wide, seven-tiered sandstone pyramid. Complete with a steep central stairway, it offers dramatic views of the Kulen Mountain and the Dangkrek Mountains to the southwest and north-west respectively. A giant garuda (mythical beast, half-man, half-bird) statue sits atop the summit.
To the southwest of Prasat Thom lies the huge Rahal Baray, into which the Stung Sen had been diverted to irrigate Koh Ker. Prasat Krahom, the second largest temple in the complex, is notable for its graceful lintel carvings, and its naga-flanked causeway. Also of interest are the temples Prasat Thneng and Prasat Leung, both of which lay claim to the largest Shiva lingas (phallic symbols) in Cambodia.
Visitors can hire a car to go around the complex, but it is best visited as part of an organized tour from Siem Reap. The site is patrolled and maintained by the Apsara Authority’s Community Heritage Patrol.
Situated in the heart of Cambodia along the banks of the Stung Sen, this busy artery town enjoys trade from the traffic en route to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. Its original name was Kompong Pos Thom, derived from pos thom meaning two snakes who, according to legend, lived in a cave here and were worshipped by the local Buddhist population.
The cave’s location has since been forgotten; however, relics of the recent past, namely the pre-Angkorian temple monuments of Sambor Prei Kuk, are increasingly drawing more visitors to this town, as is the quirky mountain temple of Phnom Santuk.
The countryside surrounding Kompong Thom is picturesque, with buffalo lazing in roadside pools, and villagers riding their livestock-drawn carts across their farmlands. Visitors should keep an eye out for the home-made effigies outside houses, which are believed to ward off evil spirits.
Sambor Prei Kuk
Located east of the Tonlé Sap Lake in Kompong Thom province, this 7th-century complex of temples was constructed during the reign of King Isanavarman I in the Chenla period. Spread over a large area of semi-cleared jungle, the ruins are all that remain of the ancient capital of Isanapura. There are three main complexes here – Preah Sambor (North Group), Preah Tor (Central Group), and Preah Yeay Poun (South Group).
The sun-dappled, rectangular shaped Lion Temple, guarded by a lion at its entrance, is one of the highlights of these ruins. Unique to Sambor Prei Kuk are its many octagon-shaped prasats (towers). Despite being choked by the roots of strangler fig trees, some of these towers are in excellent conditions with lintels, columns, and pilasters displaying intricate carvings.
Large bas-reliefs rendered in brick also represent some of the earliest attempts in this style – amazingly, Sambor Prei Kuk was pioneering new forms of artistry 150 years before the mighty Angkor. Visitors can hire trained guides, who can be found near the café, to show them around the ruins for a fee, while school children will try and tag along to practice their English. A cursory walk through the ruins will take about an hour.
Given the low volume of foot traffic and the welcome shade provided by the forest, these are rewarding and atmospheric ruins to visit, and can easily be covered in a day trip from Siem Reap.
Rising to a height of 679 ft (207 m) above lush paddy fields, Phnom Santuk is the most sacred mountain in Kompong Thom province. It is approached via a stone pathway of 809 steps, flanked by gaudily rendered statues, and a number of fairly insistent beggars. Alternatively, visitors can drive up a steep road that snakes through thick jungle and past a resident colony of macaques.
The complex at the summit has a gilded, white-walled central temple. A number of Buddha statues have been carved into the rock face, including a few Reclining Buddhas, all of which are over 33 ft (10 m) in length.
Various interconnecting cement bridges between small shrines, statues of horses and deities, and a sculpture workshop add to the appeal of the place. There is also an active monastery whose friendly monks like to chat with visitors.
The views from the summit are stupendous and are a welcome change from the infinite flatness of the lush rice plains. It is recommended that visitors take regular breaks and carry plenty of water should they decide to walk up the road.
Santuk Silk Farm
Just outside the village of Kakaoh, and opposite the start of the road that leads to Phnom Santuk, is the Santuk Silk Farm run by ex-Vietnam War veteran Bud Gibbons, and his wife. Visitors can view the various life stages of the silkworm – from egg to caterpillar to cocoon.
Cocoons provide the base for the thread, which is then spun and woven into attractive kramas (scarves) by 15 local girls housed in a cooperative on-site. The kramas can be bought from a shop on the farm. Several mulberry trees dot the farm, the leaves of which are fed to the silkworms.