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. The attraction was recently named Cambodia's third Unesco World Heritage Site.
A 40-minute drive from Kompong Thom, the area has a serene and soothing atmosphere, with the sandy trails between temples looping through the shady forest. A community-based tourism initiative employs local guides, organises activities and sets up homestays.
Originally called Isanapura, Sambor Prei Kuk 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. The principal temple group, Prasat Sambor, dating from the 7th and 10th centuries, is closest to the entrance and 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 yoni (female fertility symbols) around the central tower.
Prasat Yeai Poeun is arguably the most atmospheric of the three ensembles, 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 Tor is the largest of the Sambor Prei Kuk complexes. It boasts excellent examples of Chenla carvings in the form of two large, elaborately coiffed stone lions.
Community-based organisation Isanborei runs an excellent homestay program and manages the guides (half-/full-day US$6/10), who can be easily found hanging around the old entrance near Prasat Sambor. Isanborei also offers cooking courses, rents out bicycles (US$2 per day), organises ox-cart rides and operates a stable of remorks to whisk you safely to/from Kompong Thom (US$15 one way).
To get here from Kompong Thom, follow NH6 north for 5km before continuing straight on NH62 towards Preah Vihear City (the paved road to Siem Reap veers left). After 11km turn right at the laterite sign, and continue for 14km on a new sealed road to the new temple entrance and parking area, which is about 500m from the Prasat Sambor group.