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Sambor Prei Kuk/Cambodia

Introducing Sambor Prei Kuk

Cambodia’s most impressive group of pre-Angkorian monuments, Sambor Prei Kuk encompasses more than 100 mainly brick temples scattered through the forest, among them some of the oldest structures in the country. Originally called Isanapura, it served as the capital of Upper Chenla during the reign of the early 7th-century King Isanavarman and continued to serve as an important learning centre during the Angkorian era.

The main temple area consists of three complexes, each enclosed by the remains of two concentric walls. Their basic layout – a central tower surrounded by shrines, ponds and gates – may have served as an inspiration for the architects of Angkor five centuries later. Many of the original statues are now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The area’s last mines were cleared in 2008.

For a digital reconstruction of Sambor Prei Kuk created by the Architecture Department of the University of California at Berkeley, check out http://steel.ced.berkeley.edu/research/sambor/.

Forested and shady, Sambor Prei Kuk has a serene and soothing atmosphere, and the sandy paths make for a pleasant stroll.

Isanborei Crafts Shop, located past the ticket booth, sells a worthwhile English brochure (2000r), high-quality, handcrafted baskets and wood items, and T-shirts with original designs.

Isanborei Community Restaurant, not far from the crafts shop, is a small collection of bamboo and thatch outdoor eateries selling chicken-based dishes and cold drinks.

The principle temple group, Prasat Sambor (7th and 10th centuries) is dedicated to Gambhireshvara, one of Shiva’s many incarnations (the other groups are dedicated to Shiva himself). Several of Prasat Sambor’s towers retain brick carvings in fairly good condition, and there is a series of large yonis (female fertility symbols) around the central tower.

Prasat Yeai Poeun (Prasat Yeay Peau) is arguably the most atmospheric ensemble, as it feels lost in the forest. The eastern gateway is being both held up and torn asunder by an ancient tree, the bricks interwoven with the tree’s extensive, probing roots. A truly massive tree shades the western gate.

Prasat Tao (Lion Temple), the largest of the Sambor Prei Kuk complexes, boasts excellent examples of Chenla carving in the form of two large, elaborately coiffed stone lions. It also has a fine, rectangular pond, Srah Neang Pov.

In the early 1970s, Sambor Prei Kuk was bombed by US aircraft in support of the Lon Nol government’s doomed fight against the Khmer Rouge. Some of the craters, ominously close to the temples, can still be seen.

Visitors to Sambor Prei Kuk often find themselves accompanied by a gaggle of sweet but persistent local children selling colourful scarves (US$1). Some travellers find them a distraction, but others, after warming to their smiles, have been known to leave with a pile of cheap textiles.