Sambor Prei Kuk

Sambor Prei Kuk
Photo by Ian Cade.

The Temple Zone of Sambor Prei Kuk is an archaeological site of the Pre-Angkorean period.

The site correspondents with Ishanapura, the capital city of the Chenla Empire whose buildings and watercourses influenced later Khmer architecture. 186 fire-brick Hindu temples remain, showing a mix of regional architectural influences and carrying sculptures and important temple inscriptions in the Khmer language. A particular feature is its octagonal-shaped temples, the oldest of their kind in South-East Asia.

Community Perspective: clearly complementary to Angkor, as it provides a good look at pre-Angkorian styles of art and architecture. It does have the same jungle setting with trees growing in and on top of buildings, but due to the smaller crowds (if any) Sambor Prei Kuk is a more intimate experience. Read Frederik’s review for more details on the art styles.

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Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero

The Philippines - 03-Dec-23 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero

If one spends enough time to carefully explore the area, there are many temples here that have been overgrown by strangling fig trees in ways that do not fail to charm any visitor. I visited Sambor Prei Kuk as a halfway stopover from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap via a rental car. The three clusters have all been well reviewed already, so what I can add here is about the Trapeang Ropeak temple complex west of Prasat Yeay Poen. Its temple Z is originally surrounded by four shrines forming a quincunx, of which only one of these ruined octagonal shrines stands (there are only 11 of these unique octagonal structures remaining, so its good for ticking off as much). The carvings on the temple are in relatively discernible state, and the vault is described to be irregular but is complete compared to most that have collapsed. A stone throw away is another octagonal temple named temple Y, and it is spectacularly taken over by a tree. In the afternoon light, these two temples are photogenic as there are no tree covers above them. I recommend making the swing here after seeing Group S as a way of capping off a visit. 

PS. Prasat Tao (Group C) is currently off limits due to conservation work, and no one can get near the famed lion statues. The same is the case for the main temple in Group S.  


GabLabCebu

Philippines - 04-Aug-23 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by GabLabCebu

As the capital of the Chenla Empire, Ancient Ishanapura is one of the greatest and most influential ancient cities in Southeast Asia. Today, it, along with all of Cambodia's other ancient ruins, lie in the shadow of the great Angkor; however, I would argue these oldest sites of the Khmer, along with those in Burma, being the oldest in the region, are just as, if not more, important than the greatest Thai, Vietnamese, or Javanese ruins. They are the reason the heights of such sites as Angkor and Bagan could be reached, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Sambor Prei Kuk.

Though Sambor Prei Kuk has yet to find its way into the itineraries of the masses, I'm pleased to see how well it's been covered by the World Heritage Site community. While it is quite isolated in its location, it is strategically nearly equidistant from Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, making for a nice halfway point to break up the 6-hour drive. Thus, if you're in a group of 3-4 (or 5 if you're all on the petite side), you might want to consider taking a taxi between the two cities, inserting Sambor Prei Kuk while you're at it. This is just what we did in January 2023, also stopping at a market to eat tarantulas and grasshoppers, lunch on a lakeside, and the Khmer bridge at Kampong Kdei (also a must-see!).

While there are many more temples in the ancient city, tours will generally just take up the three main clusters, as mentioned by others. If you have a driver, definitely have them drop you by Prasat Yeay Poan; from there, you'll go through Prasat Tao, then end up at Prasat Sambor, by the parking lot, and just across is the famous temple with a tree growing from it, Prasat Chrey - in my opinion, this is every bit as impressive and surreal as Ta Prohm in Angkor. Do avail of the services of the local guides too; they know their way around the forest, and they always seem to be locals from the nearby villages, so you'd be helping out the local economy. Also, just as in Angkor Thom and Preah Vihear, macaques are present and may even climb onto your car. This is a forest, after all, so all kinds of wildlife could be around. Plants thrive here too, obviously, and the trees are labeled. If you get the chance, you can munch on the nuts of the Chambak tree as you explore the ruins. You might find them freshly roasted and sold by a local vendor, and they're very much worth a try.

Apparently, the three main zones contain a total of 79 temples! However, less than thirty remain standing, mostly split between Sambor (which contains the most, over ten) and Yeay Poan. Prasat Tao is home to the largest temple, its central Lion Temple, which is the only temple still standing in its cluster. Each cluster is surrounded by an outer and an inner wall, and large ceremonial baths and wells can also be found alongside the temples. Despite its age, one can note the intricacy in the brick architecture and see how the Khmer came to be such skilled carvers - they had an early start. It is starting in Sambor Prei Kuk that you can cohesively see the journey Khmer architecture took from these single-structured rectangular or octagonal temple buildings to the early temple mountains of Bakong and Eastern Mebon, the intricate prasats of Banteay Srei and Preah Vihear, and finally the later masterpieces of Angkor Wat and Bayon. The glory of the Khmer can truly be traced back to this spot, and that's why I believe it is a must-see when visiting Cambodia. If you have time for just one thing other than Angkor, let it be Sambor Prei Kuk.


Els Slots

The Netherlands - 06-Feb-23 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by Els Slots

Sambor Prei Kuk means "Many Temples in the Forest". And that precisely is what it is!

I spent 1.5 hours at the site, accompanied by a local guide, her dog, and my tuk-tuk driver from Kampong Thom who before had never been beyond the parking lot. The guides work for the area’s Community-Based Tourism organization, which also offers homestays and other activities (similar to those available at Banteay Chhmar). I found it worth it to hire a guide this time: the site is not really self-explaining and there are just a few boards with information. I also enjoyed hearing her take on tourism in this region and life in general in Cambodia’s countryside. The cost is 10 USD, in addition to the 10 USD entrance fee.

All temples here are Hindu and were specifically built for the worship of Shiva. The most common feature is the presence of the yoni. Unfortunately, a lot of the original interior statues have been looted or brought to museums in Phnom Penh and France.

The temples show some unique characteristics, as already pointed out by earlier reviewers. The octagonal shape of several of them for example, for which no Indian precedent is known. And the presence of 'Flying Palaces': carvings on the outer walls of the temples, which look like windows with deities or royal figures peering outside. 

Rainwater reservoirs, which supplied the temples with water for their moats and for agricultural irrigation, can be seen as well. The temple area has a very large one, the others are outside of the walls.

The grumpy ICOMOS evaluation of the site (with Deferral advice) wanted the Cambodians to choose between the temples or the city. The excavations so far have focused on the temples and not too much is known yet about the ancient city, but I think the two are inseparable anyway – so why choose? There can be no doubt about the site's value: Angkor wouldn’t have been what it is without the stepping stone of the much earlier Sambor Prei Kuk.

Sambor Prei Kuk is just the kind of site that profits from World Heritage listing: it provides a boost for conservation and community-based tourism in a rural area of what is still one of the world’s least developed countries. They saw a real surge in visitors after the inscription in 2017, but then they had to close because of Covid. Tourists are now slowly returning, but not more than a handful of individual parties per day. Japanese and Cambodian restoration teams have been working to repair damages at several of the structures since 2021. During my visit, numerous buildings were under scaffoldings or forbidden to enter because of the danger of collapse (not that there would have been much to see inside). 

Read more from Els Slots here.


Frederik Dawson

Netherlands - 08-Dec-22 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by Frederik Dawson

I was fortunate to join ICOMOS international experts two weeks field trip to Cambodia and Thailand exploring pre-Angkorian and Dvaravati arts and Sambor Prei Kuk was one of the many highlights of this trip. To understand this World Heritage Site’s Outstanding Universal Value, we first visited Phnom Da and Angkor Borei, which is on tentative list, to see how Southern Indian art and architecture influenced the area which was Funan Kingdom. After Chenla Kingdom or Ishanapura annexed Funan and built Sambor Prei Kuk, one of the greatest moments on art developments of Southeast Asia happened when the art of Southern India was developed into local style.

There are two major art styles at Sambor Prei Kuk, Sambor Prei Kuk and Prei Kmeng, the latter one I never heard or mentioned in the ICOMOS report so I asked those experts and got insight answer that the nomination dossier of Sambor Prei Kuk was intentionally omitted middle and late Sambor Prei Kuk art history to avoid more comparative studies since Prei Kmeng art can be found in Angkor and other similar period of art development in other sites, even though Prei Kmeng in expert eyes is the apogee of this World Heritage Site’s development. Since the trip was quite in depth, we only saw four temples during our four and a half hours in this archaeological site. The first one was Prasat Sambor group, the main temple still preserved elements of pure southern Indian art, despite its old age the intricate of brick ornamental motif of “Sky Palace” that adorned next to the doors, was incredibly Indian. Since the archaeologists cannot find evidence of art or craftmanship development in other temples, the sudden appearance of Sambor Prei Kuk’s elaborate art style caused many historians to believe that all artisans were imported from India via ancient maritime trade routes. The highlight of Prasat Sambor group is the well-preserved small satellite temples especially the octagonal one with superb motifs in all of its sides, the oldest of its kind that make Sambor Prei Kuk’s art special.

The next one was Prasat Tao group, this one was built in Prei Kmeng. The most obvious features are two lions at the gate and the octagonal colonnades that supporting the lintel, this octagon was quite important as before Prei Kmeng, all temple colonnades were made in round shape. Another important thing is the details of lintel, the Sambor Prei Kuk style is more intricated but also too Indian, Prei Kmeng one is more simplify by reducing details and set the standard pattern of later lintel art of Angkor Wat. After Prasat Tao, we walked into the jungle to see another small temple which I could not fine the name, to see another Prei Kmeng styled lintel. Then we went to Prasat Yeay Poan complex, in my opinion this group was the best for untrained eyes. The first highlight was the brick carved bas-relief medallions on the surrounding wall, again the first of its kind and the forefather of wall decoration of later Angkorian temples. The whole temple was built in Sambor Prei Kuk style like Prasat Sambor group but more details and grandeur. Again, the highlight turned out to be those smaller octagonal temples since each side of these pagodas are decorated with beautifully crafted ornamental motifs of Sky Palace of Hindu gods.

With many time-consuming discussions among arts experts and preservation professionals, we did not have time to stop and see other smaller temples especially the covered by huge tree one that quite popular among photographers, but at least I saw it from the coach. In my opinion, Sambor Prei Kuk is very interesting in art history, undeniable that with load of information from ICOMOS experts helped me to appreciate this site deeply especially its value on cultural transition from India to ancient Khmer Empire. If I did not come with these scholars, I doubt that my idea on Sambor Prei Kuk will be just another old temple and probably only focus on its history as capital city of Chenla Kingdom. Another thing I got from this trip is that my view on Angkor Wat and Banteay Sri as the zenith of Khmer arts are completely wrong, the arts and craftmanship of pre-Angkorian periods are much better and that I would love to see all pre-Angkorian sites to be listed as World Heritage Sites in the future.

 


Martina Rúčková

Slovakia - 04-Feb-20 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by Martina Ruckova

We visited Sambor Prei Kuk on the second out of three days of our Siem Reap Stay. Starting early again it took us about two and half hours to reach the place. Some of our fellow WHS hunters-gathereres noted their driver was similarly surprised by the place and took pictures. Ours was seasoned and told us stories of Khmer Rouge militants stopping the cars and asking tourists for money and cigarettes some years ago. Nowadays, fortunately, the whole area is cleared and safe to visit, no problems occur anymore.

Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk is a complex of temples and cluster of temples from pre-Angkorian Chenia kingdom. Our driver led us to the smaller temples first and then to the main temple ensemble. It was very pictureque and interesting, we walked along the single temple structures with couple of local tourists along. It was a pleasant visit and I enjoyed myself. There were some interesting carvings as well, one of the temples was under a scaffolding due to its structural integrity being compromised.

It was a good visit overall and though we've already seen some more substantial sites the day before, I appreaciated the site for its history but also as a secluded and quiet spot, away from the main hubub. After our visit we stopped for a lunch and went on to see the mighty Angkor Wat itself.


Svein Elias

Norway - 03-Jan-20 -

This is the newest whs in Cambodia, but the oldest site (of the three). We rented a car and a driver to get there on a day trip from Siem Reap. It’s about a 3 hours drive.


The site was founded by the Chenla empire In the 7th century which makes it 3-400 years older than the Angkor empire.
The site is much more ruined than Angkor due to nature, but also to American bombs in the early sixties and to the vandalism of the Khmer Rouge in the seventies.


The whs cover three temple complexes, but there are some small temples scattered around. The first temple complex is close to the parking lot and easy to find. The others slightly more hidden.


Prasat Sambor 
The most precious to see is the stone carvings. Most of them are gone, but some are visible. One carving covers typically one side of the octagonal temple.


Prasat Yeay Poen
There’s a bit more to see here and there are present restoration going on. Here you can also enjoy the carvings, but the most enjoyable is parts of the surrounding walls that are recovered and at some places you can see some of the 160 huge “medallions” which covers the wall on the inside. Very nice!


Prasat Tao
There is only one temple left, the main temple. The rest is just stone piles. The greatest objects are the two lions in front of the temple, They were both broken down by the Khmer Rouge so they are thorrowly are restored.

### Randi & Svein Elias


Nan

Germany - 04-Dec-18 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by Nan

Ignoring Els’ rule to "always do Angkor last on any trip involving Angkor" I opted for one last WHS visit on my way to the airport in Phnom Penh: Sambor Prei Kuk. The site is conveniently located close to the main road between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. So this was simple stop over, splitting a long bus ride into two more manageable legs.

Sambor Prei Kuk was the first capital of the Khmer Empire and predates Angkor by 300 years. Initially I was worried to get a worse version of Angkor. But the age difference clearly shows in artistry and architecture and sets the site apart. It does have the same jungle setting with trees growing in and on top of buildings. But due to the way smaller crowds (if any) Sambor Prei Kuk is a more intimate experience.

So in summary, the site felt like a nice last visit complementing my Angkor experience. So I would argue that Els original rule needs a revision.

Getting There

The next big town is Kampong Thom. Most buses running between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh will stop here. You can buy tickets at your local hotel or a travel agency.

Via minibus it took 2.5h including pickup at my hotel to get from Siem Reap to Kampong Thom. Travelling on via normal bus to Phnom Phen the journey took 4.5h, 30min spent on a break and at least 1h spent in the terrible traffic of Phnom Penh. I would opt for a minibus if you have the choice.

From Kampong Thom you can take a car (20 USD) or a Tuk Tuk (15 USD) to the site. I opted for the Tuk Tuk and we drove for an hour to get there. The ride was organized by my hotel, but there are plenty of Tuk Tuk drivers roaming the main street in Kampong Thom. Alternatively, you can contact the local tourism board. Finally, Thomas stated that there was also a public bus available, but Tuk Tuk will always be my preferred option if available.

You can do Sambor Prei Kuk easily as a day trip from Siem Reap using public transport. Doing the same from Phnom Penh is probably harder due to traffic.

While You Are There

Kampong Thom itself is uneventful. It boasts some rather simple hotels and restaurants.

Main nearby attraction would be Tonle Sap Lake, the largest fresh water lake of South Eastern Asia. The lake is unique as the flow to the Mekong reverses during high tides. It is already a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, but maybe it also has potential for a world heritage site.


Boj

Philippines - 19-May-17 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by Boj Capati

From Phnom Penh, it is possible to do a day trip to Sambor Prei Kuk, a beautiful pre-Angkorian temple complex in the middle of the forest. The Kampong Thom local tourism office actively encourages tourists to arrange visits with local communities - from tuk-tuk rides, tour guide service and site interpretation.

According to my guide, Sambor (many) Prei (forest) Kuk (temples), means, many temples inside the forest. Indeed, SPK is situated in a distinct landscape, different from the vast plain of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, or the sacred cliff of Prasat Preah Vihear. The forest appears to be an integral element of the temple complex, no wonder the site is nominated as a cultural landscape


Ian Cade

UK - 16-Nov-10 -

Sambor Prei Kuk by Ian Cade

This is the best preserved pre-Angkorian archaeological site in Cambodia and if all goes to plan then this should be Cambodia's next World Heritage Site.

The ruins here comprise three different temple complexes all within easy walking distance of each other. They are set among a nice sandy forest that gives the site a cool and relaxing atmosphere. The ruins are different enough from those at Angkor to warrant a visit and also provide a good look at pre-Angkorian styles or art and architecture. The temples are mostly brick built and look more like hollow pyramids, the distinctive poses of the statues of this period are shown in reproductions as the originals are now in museums. There is also a fair bit of bomb damage to some of the temples, from the US bombing raids and also from the civil war. There are also several temples that have been completely taken over by trees, the gatehouse at the final complex is now more tree than brick.

The site is located to the north of Kompong Thom. I managed to visit in a short day trip from Siem Reap. It was very easy to get a moto from the junction just before Kompong Thom out to the site and to bring me back. The route out there was very enjoyable, going through some nice villages and between some lovely paddy fields.

The temples here were sufficiently different from those at Angkor to warrant a visit. There is a nice ambiance to the site and it is a good way of seeing something more of Cambodia's earlier heritage.

[Site 7 Experience 7]


Site Info

Full Name
Temple Zone of Sambor Prei Kuk, Archaeological Site of Ancient Ishanapura
Unesco ID
1532
Country
Cambodia
Inscribed
2017
Type
Cultural
Criteria
2 3 6
Categories
Archaeological site - Far Eastern
Link
By ID

Site History

2017 Advisory Body overruled

ICOMOS had asked for a Deferral, mostly to choose between focusing on the ancient city (which needed more scholarly study) or the temple zone only

2017 Inscribed

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The site has 1 locations

Sambor Prei Kuk

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