A couple weeks before I left Phnom Penh I had a chance to go to Kampong Thom to visit Sambor Prei Kuk with a friend. Sambor Prei Kuk was one of the most important Pre-Angkorian capital centers in Cambodia but has been overshadowed by the Angkorian period ruins a few hours north in Siem Reap. After the jump there is some background as well as photos and details of my visit as usual!
Background and Disclaimer
The time period I am researching for my dissertation is often called Funan and was located in the Mekong Delta region, with the capital most likely at the modern day city of Angkor Borei. This area was called Funan by Chinese historians whose historical documents were the primary source of information on this region/time period for many years–until archaeological work started to be done. These Chinese visitors later described competing kingdoms with Funan that they called Chenla, eventually distinguishing between Water Chenla and Land Chenla. It is generally believed that Sambor Prei Kuk is the capital of this polity known as Chenla.
I should note that a brochure you can purchase at SPK describes Chenla and Sambor Prei Kuk as a “vassal state” of the Funan kingdom until they conquered Funan in the 7th century. This is merely a hypothesis based on these Chinese historical records and as with all ancient historical records, it must be taken with a grain of salt. We really do not have enough information about either of these kingdoms to assert their history with much confidence. These written histories, along with stone inscriptions in Sanskrit and Khmer, provide an interesting but vague hypothesis about what was happening during this time period. [For an excellent background on this time period based on detailed research of Pre-Angkorian inscriptions I highly recommend Michael Vickery’s Society, Economics, and Politics in Pre-Angkor Cambodia.]
What the inscriptions and history do tell us is that there were many elites competing for power and that the center of power was slowly moving out of the Mekong Delta and further inland, eventually settling in the Siem Reap area. The reason for this move further inland was probably related to changing maritime trade routes and polities that were becoming more and more reliant on agriculture and less on international trade We don’t really know the details how how these elites were competing with one another or if for example, they were chiefdoms or states (a classic archaeological/anthropological question). Inscriptions describe several rulers, starting with King Isanavarman I who apparently founded SPK. Eventually all of these polities were united under Jayavarman II in 802 AD when he created what we know as the civilization of Angkor.
So it should be remembered that while we know that Sambor Prei Kuk was a major center in the transition from Funan to Angkor but we know frustratingly little outside of this. There has been some research done at the site in the past by the EFEO and more recently a conservation program done by Waseda University in Japan and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts in Cambodia. Hopefully once more of the brick architecture there is stabilized there will be excavations at non-temple locations to find out more about how people lived at this site and their relationship with people in other parts of Cambodia/SEA.
Kampong Thom is only about a 3 hour ride from Phnom Penh and once you’re there it’s another 45 minutes to an hour to SPK. We hired a car and then stayed overnight in KT so we could check out some other sites in KT.
Once you arrive in SPK you pay a small admission fee and then you have the option of hiring a local guide. I highly recommend this as the paths are not clearly marked and SPK is forested, so it is sometimes hard to tell where you are going. Additionally, our guide was well-versed in the history of SPK and excited to share this information with us. Our guide, Chenda Cheng, is available if you need an English speaking guide at SPK. You can reach him at: 017.282.749 and he lives nearby in Atsu village.
There is a nice map of the temple layouts here. SPK is made up of three walled temple groups with over 200 total temples, of which you can really only visit about 40 or so. The brochure I picked up there has a great aerial photo (below) showing the extent of habitation in the area around (primarily to the west) of the temple sites. This includes an ancient road and causeways that lead from the Prasat Sambor and Prasat Yea Poeun temple groups to a village near the Stung Sen river. This made this area accessible by land and water.
It is important to remember that this area was inhabitited for several hundred years and that temples were constructed at different time periods– so the area looked different “back then.”
The first temple group we visited with our guide was Prasat Yea Poeun.
Above: Entrance to Prasat Yea Poeun temple grou with cows grazing.
Prasat Yea Poeun temple group is made up of a main central tower, many sub-towers and unusual octacgonal shrines surrounding the central tower. These ocatagonal shrines made of brick had the interesting and unusal “flying palace” motif carved from the brick.
Above and Below- different flying palace motifs on the walls of the octagonal shrine.
Below: An octagonal shrine through the trees.
Another building in this temple compound was in bad shape but had some beautiful carvings inside and what our guide described as a Cambodian Chess board.
Our guide told us one interesting story about this chessboard (which I unfortunately did not get good pictures of). He said that one day the King of Sambor Prei Kuk was playing chess with the King of Champa. The King of SPK bet his daughter’s hand that he would win the game. Unfortunately he lost and his daughter was then betroved to the King of Champa. When his daughter found about about this she was furious and ran to the central tower in this temple complex and locked herself there. She never left the tower and the tower (Yea Poeun) is apparently named after her. [As an aside if you’d like more info on Cambodian chess there is some information here, here, here and here.
Below: The central tower in the Prasat Yea Poeun temple group.
Below: The interior of the temple used to house a golden linga. Note the linga shaped flags!
As we left this temple group and headed out to the next temple group we passed through some brick enclosure walls that had scenes from the Ramayana.
The next temple group we visited was called Prasat Tao (Tao meaning lion in Khmer) after the lion statues sitting outside the temple. It is the only standing temple in the group that tourists can visit. It was apparently built by Jayavarman II (founder of the Angkor empire) and this temple is one of the latest in the whole complex.
Below: The lions outside Prasat Tao
Below: A “doorway” to Prasat Tao with beautiful carvings
We then continued on to the northern temple group of Prasat Sambor. There is one octagonal temple in this group which was in fairly good condition. A sculpture of the horse-headed incarnation of Vishnu was found here (now in the Musee Guimet) that dated to the 10th century whereas the temple was believed to have been constructed in the 7th century. This indicates that the temple was being used even after the center of power moved to Angkor.
Below: Octagonal shrine in the Prasat Sambor group
Below: The interior of the shrine.
There were several other towers in various states of disrepair. A few of them had replicas of famous statues that were found inside and now in the National Museum of Phnom Penh.
Below: This temple once housed an image of the Harihara.
Below: This temple housed an image of Durga.
The last couple small temples we visited were just across the road from the northern temple group. The first is a small sandstone temple that is called Ashram Maha Russei. It is similar in style and shares the same name as a small temple near Angkor Borei that I have written about before.
Above: This temple is a small plain box shape with some interesting carvings on it (below).
There were also a few bullet holes in the side of the temple, remnants of the civil war.
The very last temple we visited, Prasat Chrei, was the most photogenic. It has become such an icon for SPK that they are selling the image on t-shirts (but they were all sold out on our visit).
Above: Yes, there is a small brick temple under that tree.
There is an inscription in that doorway:
It took us a couple hours to make our way through the site and see all these temples. It’s definitely worth a visit for anyone with a little extra time in Cambodia. There have been some community development improvements and now there is a little giftshop selling t-shirts, baskets, and other crafts as well as a drink stand. I think there will also be a new guesthouse opening nearby. I’m looking forward to checking things out on my next visit!
-Andy Brouwer visited SPK a few weeks before I did and wrote about it here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here! [Confidential to Andy- you should start using tags/labels, it would help folks like me find all your great info!] 🙂
-A very neat project at Berkeley that created a Virtual Sambor Prei Kuk including digital models of the temples (below). Well worth checking out!
– An article in the Phnom Penh Post on the new community tourism efforts at SPK.