Sambor Prei Kuk

The perfect precursor to Angkor

Photo of Sambor Prei Kuk, , Kompong Thom

What we say: 4 stars

Kompong Thom is really only known for two things: Pol Pot and Sambor Prei Kuk. The latter is the main tourist attraction in the province today and is a pleasant half-day trip from Kompong Thom town centre. The ruins are much older than the more famous Angkor to the west.

In the late sixth century, King Bavavarman I moved into what is now northern and central Cambodia from his home base near Laos' Wat Phu, uniting the disparate Khmer kingdoms of the region and creating what is acknowledged as Cambodia's first Khmer proto-state, with its capital at Sambor Prei Kuk. (Some of the northern group date from this period.)

A succession of kings, Mahendravarman, Bavavarman II and Ishnavarman, ruled from this central location with the latter embarking on an ambitious expansion programme as well as giving his name to the kingdom's enlarged capital: Ishnapura. (The Central group dates from his reign.) King Jayavarman I is then thought to have been responsible for the construction of what is today the South Group before he moved his capital to the Angkor area, where it remained with only a brief interruption for the next 700 years or so. Sambor did continue to be occupied however and indeed was renowned as a place of learning, so this ancient provincial town can be seen as something of an Oxford or Cambridge of the Angkor Empire. The later king Rajendravarman II is believed to have been born here and also made additions to the temples.

Today Sambor is a fascinating and picturesque site with dozens of brick towers, some crumbling and root covered, others in surprisingly good condition, scattered through a tranquil forest. The site consists of three main walled enclosures, each within a short walk of each other, known simply as the North, Central and South groups, though many smaller sites lie in the surrounding forest -- some of which are rewarding if time permits.

There are often some would-be guides hanging around the car park and it may well be worth a few dollars to avoid getting lost in the forest, otherwise the local kids may show you around. The Khmer scarf selling can be insistent but then they're not going to show you around for nothing! Allow an hour or two depending upon whether you wish to include any lesser sites or not. Do not go off piste – this area is known for unexploded ordinance. Entrance is $3. The car park area has drinks and snack stalls.

More details
About 30 km northeast of town
How to get there: To get to Sambor Prei Kuk, follow National Road 6 north for about 8 kilometres, then turn right onto dirt road Highway 64 in the direction of Preah Vihear. After approximately 15 kilometres is a big brick sign on the right for Sambor Prei Kuk, and the temples are about another 10 kilometres or so down the sandy track. If you don't have your own motorbike, a roundtrip moto ride should cost about US$15 while a tuk tuk will be about US$20 and a taxi about US$40 roundtrip. Allow an hour for a taxi ride each way and 90 minutes for a tuk tuk.
Last updated: 1st February, 2015

About the author:
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
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Sambor Prei Kuk
About 30 km northeast of town
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Sights in Kompong Thom