Cambodia Temples: Sambor Prei Kuk

Posted 7th October 2013 by David McGuinness

My bus dropped me in the town of Kompong Thom, about halfway between Siem Riep and Phnom Penh, and I was picked up by my Tuk-tuk driver and we headed out on the bumpy road to Sambor Prei Kuk. The rain threatened intermittently and my driver stopped to button and unbutton the plastic sheets to keep it out or let the air in.

The landscape was lush and people smiled and children waved and shouted “hello” when they saw me passing. We arrived at Sambor Prei Kuk and I saw the only other two tourists I would see here; they were leaving as I arrived.

I was met by Bunteng, my guide while I was here and we sat down to eat. Lunch consisted of a thin vegetable soup, fried chicken and sticky rice, all locally sourced from the village and organic, Bunteng told me. It was simple but tasty. After lunch there were some hammocks to relax for a while before we got on some bikes to explore the area. The distances between the temples are not far so bike is a good option to visit them but they can also be visited by bull cart or by car.

Sambor Prei Kuk means “Many forest temples” and the description is spot on. The site predates the Angkor temples by several centuries, dating from the 6th to 8th Century and you can see both the origins of the Angkor temples as well as the progress made in design techniques and materials since the days of Sambor Prei Kuk. Of originally 280 temples, some 64 still exist in varying conditions. The temples are Hindu originally. The first temple complex we visited was known as Prasat Yeah Puon (or “Two Dragon nun temples”).

The main temple was circular in shape and dedicated to Shiva (the “Destroyer”, one of the three principal Hindu gods). Shiva is often represented by a holy phallus (hence the round shape). The temples around it were octagonal and dedicated to Vishnu (“the Protector”), with eight sides representing the eight (or many) arms of Vishnu. In front of the Shiva temple was a headless bull, the bull being the traditional vehicle of Shiva. The gateway to the inner wall has been overgrown and is now tangled together with a tree, and is ultimately now held in place by the knotted tree. There are many examples of this throughout Sambor Prei Kuk.

The outer walls of the temple area were excavated and were found to be three metres high, with about 2 metres now below the earth. The ancient town that accompanied these temples was about 2 km away and held around 20,000 families or aroun140 to 150 thousand people. A beautiful stone carving of lotus flowers at various stages of its life is believed to represent the circle of life. The entrance of almost all the temples face East, towards where the sun rises, except for those which house the bodies of important kings or leaders, whose doors face West to signify the community’s loss.

Bunteng told me one of the most important festivals in his community (called “Chia Yang” meaning “Sacrifice”) in which a monkey is sacrificed. The festival takes place in January and starts with the old men telling people how to capture a wild monkey. Then they go to capture one and bring it back to be sacrificed. Once, back in India, a human would have been sacrificed.

Of the other temple complex the Lion temples with two massive one two stone lion carvings and the Sam Bor temples are the most noteworthy, the latter having a temple that is 90% tree root and looks like some sort of hobbit temple with a massive crater next to it. Throughout the area there 310 bomb craters, many very close to important temples. Many smaller temples were destroyed by US bombs. The surrounding area is a national park and is home to wild monkeys, cobras, wolves, hornbills, deer and wild cats. Elephants and tigers also used to live here but have not been seen since the civil war.

We cycled on to a nearby village and down to the paddy fields where some water buffalo wallowed under the watch of their minder and a young brother and sister played on the flooded rice fields in a wooden boat as the sun fell lower in the sky. We continued on to my homestay for the night, a very simple affair, and had some tea with the owner and chatted. I cautiously broached politics (through Bunteng, my guide and translator) and found he was happy with the result of the election as he felt power would be shared more and everyone could work together. It was the first time I heard this view though most of the people I spoke with previously were from the more educated class and were hoping for an end to Hun Sen’s rule. He also felt now was a Golden age for Cambodia and that people were happy. It certainly did seem like people were happy. There was a real sense of peace in what I had seen of the country which surprised me given its past.

Myself and Bunteng then wandered through the village and into a couple of homes to chat with the locals. One old man was shocked and looked at me with compassion, almost pity when I told him I had rice only once or twice a week. Potatoes, pasta and bread were no substitute in his eyes, as he, like most rural (and indeed many urban) Cambodians would eat rice three times a day, every day. The next homes we stopped at I was honoured by the owner telling one of his sons to fetch some coconuts which he scurried up a trees and fetched down. We all drank the coconut water and then the boys skilfully chopped up the coconuts and we all shared the flesh. Very gracious hosts. He told me to come back with some friends next time!

As well as coconuts this area produces mangoes, cashew nuts (mostly for export), palm sugar, bananas, jack fruit, milk fruit, pineapple, potatoes, morning glory, carrot, guava, granite apples and, of course, rice. Not too shabby.

We headed back to the homestay and had dinner – with two types of fish dish (one a fermented fish dish that was interesting but I think perhaps an acquired taste) and a truly delicious crispy pork dish, served with rice. I chatted a little more with the owner via Bunteng before returning for an early night.  Cambodia’s charms seem to grow by the day.

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