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The ancient city of Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia

(Since we origianlly wrote this piece Sambor Prei Kuk has been added to UNESCO's list!)

Sambor Prei Kuk; – the earliest known Khmer city in Cambodia is a superb site, yet one that’s largely overlooked by visitors to the kingdom. Dozens of decorated brick towers dating from the 6th and 7th centuries – some ruinous, some still remarkably well preserved, are scattered through picturesque forest some 30 kms north of the provincial town of Kompong Thom.

 Octagonal tower seen through the trees in the Southern temple Group
An octagonal tower seen through the trees in the Southern temple Group

This former capital of the pre-Angkor civilization known as Chenla was originally founded by King Bhavarvarman I during the mid-6th century C.E. as he moved south with his followers and soldiers from his homeland in southern Laos near today’s UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wat Phu in Champassak. Quite what motivated his migration is unknown though he may have been filling a vacuum created by the decline of the earlier, Mekong delta based, Funan Kingdom, but he appears to have unified the numerous petty Khmer chiefdoms that lay scattered across what is now north and central Cambodia creating the first truly Khmer state or proto-state. (Archaeologist’s opinions differ.)

Carved bricks showing 1,500 year old paint traces
Carved bricks showing 1,500-year-old paint traces

The earliest remains at Sambor, known as the Northern Group, date from his reign whilst contemporary sites can be found to the east and west as well as north into Kompong Cham Province and south into what is now Takeo. As was traditional the city would probably have been named Bhavapura after its founder.

The splendid temple 'N21' in the North group
The splendid temple ‘N21’ in the North group

The city stayed in the immediate family during its early history with the first son, (possibly Bhavarvarman II?), and then brother, Citrasena, (who took the name Mahendravarman upon accession), ruling from Sambor during the late 6th and early 7th centuries. The latter then bequeathed a further extended kingdom, (and probably capital), in 611 to his own son who would become the illustrious Ishnavarman I and is considered the builder of much of the Southern Group of temples which he renamed Ishnapura.

Detail from a Sambor Tower
Detail from a Sambor Tower

Following the death of Ishnavarman, a period of instability and conflict ensued before the kingdom was once again re-united under King Jayavarman I who, whilst possibly responsible for the Central Group at Sambor, also moved his capital to the Angkor area near Siem Reap. This location was then to remain the focus of late Chenla and the Angkor period for nearly all of the following centuries until its decline in the 14th C., whilst Sambor – possibly reverting to its earlier name of Bhavapura – became something of a quaint provincial and historical backwater. As their earliest capital, it certainly retained a high level of prestige and indeed is thought to have become something of a centre of learning so as such maybe be seen as a kind of Angkorian Oxford or Cambridge?

Kids selling Khmer scarves at Sambor Prei Kuk
Kids selling Khmer scarves at Sambor Prei Kuk

Later kings including the powerful Rajendravarman added constructions here during the mid 10th C, (and indeed is thought to have been born at Bhavapura), whilst we’re fairly confident in having identified evidence of a Jayavarman VII period hospital chapel in a neighbouring village to Sambor.

Sambor Prei Kuk. Possible Jayarvarman VII period laterite foundations at nearby Wat Mohar
Possible Jayavarman VII period laterite foundations at nearby Wat Mohar

Today access to this previously remote site has improved considerably and certainly for anyone travelling between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap under their own steam Sambor Prei Kuk could provide a fascinating detour. Even during high season, the site is little frequented by foreign tourists whilst during the rainy season the surrounding forest setting is particularly lush and picturesque. (Warning the area was both heavily bombed and heavily mined before, during and after the Khmer Rouge period so travel with a guide or stick closely to marked paths!)

A tour of Sambor is included in our All Points East ‘Beyond Angkor‘ tour itinerary.