Long-regarded as not much more than a a place to break the journey between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Kompong Thom is beginning to attract those who are able to recognise its charms as a real Cambodian market town and a staging post for two of the most gorgeous temple sites that Cambodia has to offer. For those longing to escape the crowds and madness of Cambodia’s main tourist attractions, yet keen to visit some spectacular locations, Kompong Thom might be just the ticket.
Kompong Thom, once called Kompong Pos Thom, derives its name from a legend. Long ago, it says, a pair of big snakes lived inside a cave and emerged every Buddhist holiday to be worshipped by the local people. Since Thom means big and Pos means snake in Khmer, the town became referred to as such, with locals eventually shortening the name to Kompong Thom. Don’t expect anyone to actually be able to tell you where the cave is — though many will undoubtedly try. In more recent times the province is infamous for being the birthplace of Pol Pot.
The first of the notable temple sites is Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, which used to occupy a near-mythical position in Cambodia-traveller lore. This enormous 25-square-kilometre temple-city complex used to be only accessible to the more unhinged of motorcyclists, who were prepared to risk some of the most difficult roads in the country in order to get there. But no matter how punishing the journey, or how many times they fell off and did themselves damage, it was always worth the trip. Now the journey is much easier and, while a little long, hugely rewarding not just for the temple but also for the breathtaking scenery on the way.
Sambor Prei Kuk, the second site, is a pre-Angkorian complex whose brick temples are dotted about within tranquil woods and are among the loveliest we have seen in the kingdom -- and it’s only a short trip away from Kompong Thom city.
Aside from these, the province of Kompong Thom is home to a huge number of archaeological sites, exceeded only by Siem Reap and Preah Vihear), dating back to the Angkor era and beyond. For pre-Angkor sites, it cannot be beaten.
The city of Kompong Thom doesn’t offer a great deal to do, but you can check out the tiny though interesting local museum (be careful not to frighten the guardians, they’re not used to seeing anyone there), enjoy a leisurely evening stroll, catch the bats, or simply chill in a sala with a beer in hand. Relaxation is the key to this town.
There are no organised tours, but some of the more enterprising tuk tuk drivers stationed outside of the Arunras Hotel will do their best to provide you with one. They’ll offer themselves for hire for a trip around town, and down the road to Santuk and Sambor Prei Kuk, or can alternatively arrange motorbikes or taxis. Basic English is spoken, with friendly service and reasonable rates. We were quoted return trips to Santuk for $12 and Sambor Prei Kuk for $15-20. For Preah Khan of Kompong Svay, a tuk tuk would be a punishing choice — the road is good, but still very bumpy and just over 100 kilometres away. The best option would be to take a taxi for $130 return, or motodop for $60. There is a taxi station behind the buildings on the opposite side of Route 6 from the Arunras Hotel. They also quoted us $30 to go to Sambor Prei Kuk.
Kompong Thom may look unassuming today, but by the late seventh century the province was the centre of the Chenla Kingdom and one of the earliest major urban centres to be settled in Cambodia. The kingdom extended across much of central and northern Cambodia and southern Laos, and was heavily influenced by India with Hinduism as the main religion, though there is evidence that Buddhism was practised at this time too. Much of the culture, politics, art and architecture that would shape the future Angkorian Empire can be traced back to this time and place.
King Bhavavarman (reign: 550-590), whose capital was known as Bhavapura, is thought to be responsible for the northern temples of Sambor Prei Kuk. His brother (or cousin), who took the name Mahendravarman, ruled for the next 20 years. He is credited with bringing peace with the neighbouring region of Champa before handing the reins over to his son, Isanavarman, who renamed the capital Isanapura — after his own name as was the custom. Isanavarman reigned from 616 to 637 and it is thought that he is responsible for most of the temples at this site.
The inscriptions from this time, the earliest known inscriptions in Cambodia, are confusing and reveal little about the prevailing political context. More recent discoveries indicate that around the eighth century the kingdom may have split into the “Land Chenla” and the “Water Chenla”. The latter, considered to have been more outward looking and powerful, was subjugated by the Javanese Sailendra dynasty when their last king, Jayavarman I, was allegedly killed around 790. In the turmoil that followed, one man emerged victorious and settled his capital as the ruler of a small Khmer state to the west of Kompong Thom. His succession, as Jayavarman II in 802, marked the end of Javanese control and the beginning of the Angkor Empire.
As that empire’s power bloomed, so Kompong Thom’s importance faded, evidenced by the relatively small size of the Angkor-era temples that were constructed here (Preah Khan of Kompong Svay is technically in Preah Vihear province).
While the rich number of archaeological sites dating back to the Chenla era indicates that the area was (relatively) densely populated, that population will have diminished in line with the province’s importance.
Today, the population stands around 700,000, most of whom are concentrated around the busy National Route 6 and, more lightly, along the Sen River. The majority of the population is ethnically Khmer, though as with the rest of Cambodia, ethnic Chinese have a strong presence here and account for much of the merchant and official sectors. Interestingly, there is a community of ethnic Laotians, mostly in the Baray district, who are descendants of prisoners of war taken in the 17th century. There are also small Cham and Vietnamese populations. The Kuoy are an indigenous minority accounting for about 15,000 people in the province. In the more remote reaches, you will still find some people (older ones) who speak only limited (or no) Khmer. However, with ongoing assimilation the Kuoy language is declining as most children are now being schooled in Khmer.
Kompong Thom province is primarily a flatland, consisting of low-lying alluvial planes that lower down towards the Tonle Sap lake. The area nearest the lake consists of flooded forest, followed by virtually uninhabited, seasonally flooded and totally flat grasslands that extend almost all the way to Route 6. In 2011, Cambodia was hit by savage floods that devastated the country. With its extensive floodplains, Kompong Thom was especially vulnerable, and tens of thousands of families were affected, with many losing their homes and livestock.To the north of Route 6, rice fields stretch out as far as you can see until you get to the forests that line the northwestern perimeter. The Beng Per Wildlife Sanctuary is home to numerous wildlife species that face a growing threat from illegal poaching and logging .
National Route 6 is Kompong Thom’s principal artery and where most of what you’re looking for can be found. The town is centred around the market area and transport hub which, for historical reasons, centres around the Arunras Hotel. This is where you’ll spend most of your time. From here, roads bleed off to the north and south, where you’ll find the market (south), and guesthouses including Kompong Thom’s first and very own boutique hotel (Sambor Village), to the north.
In town, there is a post office which offers EMS services so can send mail and parcels internationally. They are just east of the Arunras Hotel on Route 6, and open Monday to Saturday.
There are a couple of pharmacies around the market area, though we couldn’t find one with staff who spoke English. It helps if you know what you’re looking for before you go, or you may have to bring someone from your guesthouse. The Calmette Pharmacy is on the same block as the Arunras Hotel, on the western side facing the covered market, and looked quite well-stocked.
There is a provincial hospital on the road behind the main market which had plenty of patients but not one doctor or administrator to be seen on the day that we visited. Note: whatever you do, don’t get sick on a Sunday. In fact, if you do get sick, depending on the degree, get yourself to Phnom Penh if not so serious, or Bangkok if serious, as quickly as possible.
The police station is before the hospital on the same road. It was closed on the day that we visited, so we couldn’t determine whether they had any English speakers there. You would likely need to bring someone from your guesthouse with you in any event — unless they’re the problem!
There is a small supermarket at the Tela petrol station diagonally across from the Arunras Hotel. The Tela Mart stocks snacks and basic toiletries.
Canadia Bank is the most accessible bank from the market area, and is just 100 metres down from the Arunras Hotel, on the other side of the road. Holders of MasterCard, Visa, Cirrus, Maestro, Plus and UnionPay cards can withdraw from their ATMs, subject to a $4 fee. The fee does not apply to holders of Visa cards issued in Europe.
By Nicky Sullivan.
Last updated on 12th November, 2016.