Sambor Prei Kuk became Cambodia’s third UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017, yet the temple complex remains relatively unknown. Those visitors who stray from the beaten path and explore the ruins will discover a place marked by tranquil beauty, war and irresistible mystery
Words by Thomas Brent, Photography by Thomas Cristofoletti
To most tourists who travel between Cambodia’s capital city of Phnom Penh and Temple Town, aka Siem Reap, Kampong Thom is simply a pit stop on the bus route. Most won’t even remember being there, let alone its name. But the provincial town conceals a secret: just outside it lie the ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk, an ancient religious site that predates the world-famous Angkor Wat by more than 500 years.
Before setting off on a two-day trip to the historic city, I scrolled my way through dozens of websites to find out more. The sheer age of the temple complex alone had the history geek in me chomping at the bit, and the more I learned, the more my excitement grew. I read stories of mysterious faces carved into the temples, inscriptions by a king who ruled over a mighty empire, lions, bombs, thieves and, most recently, recognition as a heritage site of global importance. Sambor Prei Kuk – meaning the temple in the richness of the forest – awaited me.
The first thing I noticed was the silence, a stillness that seemed to have endured an eternity. The forest was illuminated by the soft afternoon light. The scaly roots of a great tree, bent, deformed, elegant, wound their way around a stone structure. I had just entered the temple grounds and stood staring at Prasat Daem Chrey, the skeleton of a temple that has now been claimed by nature. Its captivating beauty was a sign of what was to come.
Sambor Prei Kuk comprises three main temple groupings: northern, southern and central. Visitors first stumble upon the north grouping after entering the grounds. This section, called Prasat Sambor, is considered the principal area, where it is believed Isanavarman I, ruler of the ancient Chenla kingdom, presided over the construction of the site’s first temple in the seventh century AD. On the second day of my trip, just before it was time to leave, I finally found the small inscription carved into one of the temples in the north complex that is attributed to Isanavarman I, detailing the construction of the site and surrounding city. It is dated 13 November 627. To put that in perspective, the carving was made around 200 years before the tribes of my home country, Scotland, unified under one flag. It was 800 years before the founding of the Aztec Empire and 865 years before Christopher Columbus set foot in what is now the US.
That breadth of history was in my thoughts as I strolled around Prasat Sambor late in the afternoon on the first day taking in the ancient structures. I wandered freely inside the temples without obstruction from tourists or hawkers, inspecting the shrines to the god Shiva. Many statues and relics have been stolen or moved for safekeeping to museums in Kampong Thom and Phnom Penh. Each temple, although worn down by time, holds a certain incalculable majesty. That first afternoon, I contented myself merely by seeing, without looking too closely. But, as I would find out on the second day, the joy of Sambor Prei Kuk lies in the details.
I exited the temple known as N1, after having stared upwards at the hypnotising ceiling for endless minutes, and found myself • completely alone. The birds tweeted, the crickets croaked, but otherwise, I had Sambor Prei Kuk all to myself.
After another hour of wandering idly through the pages of Cambodian history, the sun began to set. We decided to call it a day, and so together with Discover photographer Thomas and our driver, who had earlier introduced himself as Santa Claus, we set off back to our hotel in Kampong Thom, eager to return early the following morning.
Cambodia’s history is long, Sambor Prei Kuk attests to that, but it hasn’t always been as spectacular as when Isanavarman I took Isanapura as his capital and inscribed details of the construction work on the door frame of a great temple.
It is believed that Isanapura, now known as Sambor Prei Kuk, was for a time the capital city of Chenla. Chenla’s origins remain murky. It is not known for sure if it was an empire united under one leader, if it was a series of tribes or if there was a Chenla religious or political centre. It is thought that the last Chenla king in Isanapura was Jayavarman I, whose death sparked chaos in the region and eventually led to the formation of the mighty Angkor Empire.
On the second day, as we roused ourselves bleary-eyed in the pre-dawn light, a far more recent history occupied our thoughts.
As you drive towards the temple complex, deep wounds on each side of the road follow your journey, imperceptible from the road but shockingly visible to us when we sent up a drone to get aerial shots. Crater after crater pockmark the land in and around the ancient temple site, caused by US bombs aimed at North Vietnamese hiding out there in the 1970s.
The US bombed the temple site in the 1970s during its war with Vietnam even though they were far from the Cambodian border with Vietnam and the Ho Chi Minh trail. The bombs destroyed whole temples and left the surrounding area scarred. Bomb craters are still visible in the complex; at one point, when I was looking at a ruin in the north grouping, a child selling kramas pointed to a hole that I hadn’t noticed and said, “Bombs”.
It is a haunting reminder of the destruction that befell Cambodia in the 1970s as it found itself caught in the middle of the US’ deadly war with Vietnam. The consequences of those bombs would have long-lasting effects and play a part in the latter half of a decade marked by blood and genocide.
We watched the sunrise over a rice field as school children rattled past on old bikes. Traditional music floated from a nearby house over a crackling speaker and two young cows raced by to catch up with their seniors, herded along by an old woman who looked as if she had already seen everything life had to offer, not even blinking at the drone that was hovering over her head. The day had begun.
I hurried past the north grouping and headed straight for the central one, where Prasat Tao, or Lions’ Temple, is the last remaining temple, restored hundreds of years after Isanapura was first abandoned.
The approach to Prasat Tao is impressive. As I passed the crumbling outer wall, I spotted two lions in the distance watching me. Then, suddenly, the full temple comes into view. It is bigger than the others of Sambor Prei Kuk and much more intact. Once there were eight lions, two guarding each of the four sides, but now there remain only two, the others having been moved to museums or ransacked by vandals. They sit proudly, with stout figures, front legs raised and mouths agape, watching over their temple. I saw a young man there, kitted out in a designer jacket and stylish headphones, praying at what is left of the altar. Afterwards, he stood up and took selfies with the lions.
There were once 293 temples at Sambor Prei Kuk, all of them dedicated to the Hindu gods Shiva, Vishnu or Brahma. Now there are only 42, the rest having been worn away by nature, damaged by plunderers or destroyed by bombs. Prasat Tao impressed me, and I was loath to tear myself away from it, but the thought of seeing the rest of the site urged me onwards.
There was still one mystery left to uncover, and it lay in the southern complex. A series of unusual faces carved into one of the temples are said to be of “foreigners” by scholars and locals. This piqued my curiosity, so I ploughed deeper into the forest to find these faces.
I grew frustrated as I searched every structure in vain, with no hint of these mysterious faces. Then a guide came strolling past, the only other person there aside from a few renovation workers. Chenda, as he was called, took me to Kda Ouk, a small, dilapidated structure where my prize awaited.
The carvings showed men with moustaches, prominent noses, large eyes and curly hair, utterly out of place and very much foreign.
Chenda suggested they were based on the image of a Greek king, but so far no one seems to have arrived at a definite conclusion. I had read before the trip that they depicted Indians, who of course had a great influence on the people of that era. Others say they could have been based on Roman or Persian traders, and there is evidence to suggest that such people had travelled this far. The mystery remains unsolved.
I left the faces and strolled with Chenda, who’d become engrossed as he described this magnificent place to me. He showed me the stone steps in the shape of lotus flowers that led up to some temples. He talked about how vandals had removed shrines in search of buried gold and of the holes in the temple walls from where they exploded dynamite to get at the treasure. He talked about the bas-reliefs and carvings that showed flying temples and the renovation work that was being done there. He explained the ten octagonal temples, unique in Southeast Asia, that were built in honour of the god Vishnu, who is commonly depicted with eight arms. I asked him where the inscription attributed to Isanavarman I was, and he led me back to the north complex to temple N14.1. And there it was, written in a mixture of ancient Khmer script and Sanskrit. Next to it was a crater – a bomb destroyed most of the rest of that temple, but happily the door frame where 1,391 years ago a king eternally engraved details of the construction of this site still stands.
Chenda left and I was alone again and able to reflect in the solitude that surrounded the ruins. The number of visitors to Sambor Prei Kuk is increasing. The place is thriving under the protection of UNESCO – at the end of the first day, our driver told me they were planning to improve the entrance road to make it more accessible to tourists. These temples deserve more tourists, but for now, the site remains stunningly tranquil.
The beauty of the place is in the details: the age-old walls and the trees that obstinately grow from them, the skittish squirrels that clamber on the jungle canopy above, the reliefs and carvings that have idly watched over this forest for a thousand years, the stray beam of sunlight that breaks through the trees and illuminates, for a short moment, the temples in the richness of the forest.
From now on, I will no longer think of Kampong Thom as a mere stop on the way to Siem Reap, but as a temple town in its own right with the most extraordinary secret.
This story was originally published on Discover magazine 2019 vol.