Explore Cambodia’s Unesco heritage-listed forest temples

Often seen as little more than a pitstop for tourists travelling from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Kampong Thom’s serene beauty and ancient ruins should not be missed

A fallen tree adds some natural drama to a temple at Sambor Prei Kuk

Words by Logan Connor Photography by Sam Jam

Driving down a dirt road hugging the Stung Sen river, I pass a boy casting his fishing rod into the midnight waters, past stilted houses made from wood and corrugated metal. A chicken ambles into the road. Several boys playing football stop and wave. After weeks spent in Phnom Penh, the calm of Kampong Thom is almost unnerving.

Situated on National Highway 6 roughly halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, Kampong Thom is usually no more than a quick food stop for tourists on their way to or from the temples of Angkor. Often, the most a tourist sees of the province is the roadside Arunras Restaurant.

The provincial capital, also called Kampong Thom, is cut in half by the Stung Sen river, which flows into the Tonle Sap lake. It is a pleasant but relatively unknown town, devoid of the schizophrenic noise of the capital and the roving tourist hordes of Siem Reap. But despite being a mere footnote to most tourists’ Cambodian adventures, the town has the components to become a destination in its own right, offering a bucolic refuge and a launching point for several provincial attractions.

On a hazy Tuesday morning, I meet Chin Vothea, my guide and director of Kampong Thom’s Tourist Transportation Association. He is perpetually smiling, wearing a chequered blue, red and yellow shirt, loose-fitting black trousers and weathered blue sandals. He lays out the day’s itinerary, pointing to locations on his smartphone map. “But first, we drink coffee,” he says.

Chin Vothea is a knowledge guide to Kampong Thom

In a café humming with the sounds of early morning gossip, Vothea describes the former French governor’s residence, an abandoned, and supposedly haunted, colonial-era mansion in town. Set on the Stung Sen’s south bank, the overgrown property contains three towering mahogany trees populated with hundreds of squeaking bats. Their days are spent hanging in the trees, but at dusk they fly out en masse to look for food.

Now appropriately caffeinated, we set off for Sambor Prei Kuk, a vast complex of more than 100 Hindu temples that even predates Cambodia’s tourism jewel of Angkor – a rich history recognised this month by the decision to inscribe the ancient temple as Cambodia’s third entry on the Unesco World Heritage List.

Located about 30km north of town, the site was originally called Isanapura and was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Upper Chenla during the early 7th century. Later, it was the site of the Khmer capital, before Angkor became the seat of the empire.

Bomb craters are still visible throughout Sambor Prei Kuk, a relic of the country’s violent modern history. US forces, backing the ill-fated Lon Nol regime in the early 1970s, peppered the area with cluster bombs in an attempt to reopen the Phnom Penh-Siem Reap route that had been cut off by the Khmer Rouge.

En route to the complex, Vothea turns his Honda Dream motorbike down an unassuming path into the forest. “Tourists don’t know this way,” he yells. Soft sand makes for a tough drive and, following behind, my bike nearly comes out from under me several times. Eventually it does, and I’m left with a mouthful of sand and a broken sandal.

Motorbikes are useful to reach some of Sambor Prei Kuk’s more remote temples

Deep in the forest, we come to a clearing. In the centre sits a lone temple, crumbling and overgrown with vegetation. Its name is Prasat Srei Krop Leak, Vothea says, and it was built in the 11th century. A parade of ants moves across the trail, and it feels as if we are in a place that very rarely sees humans. Vothea smiles proudly while I stare in awe, an insignificant intruder in this ancient space.

We spend the rest of the morning at some of Sambor Prei Kuk’s better-known temple complexes. Prasat Sambor, the main temple group, is a monument to Gambhireshvara, an incarnation of Shiva. Some of its structures retain clear inscriptions telling of King Isanavarman I; others, overwhelmed by vines and suffering from centuries of neglect, have been reduced to little more than rubble.

We visit a temple dedicated to Durga, Shiva’s wife. Inside sits a fractured statue of the goddess. “They want to express the unity of man and woman, that they look after each other,” Vothea says. Another temple, Prasat Chrei, sitting near the forest’s edge, has been engulfed by nature, a snarl of tamarisk roots and stone that have become a solitary structure reaching lopsided toward the sun.

On the way back, Vothea leads us on a longer route, coasting down copper red roads, dodging potholes and lopsided stones, with verdant oceans of rice on both sides. The midday sun soaks the landscape in a pleasant haze. A boy leads a drove of oxen across the road. Families lounge in the shade of their stilted homes.

After a lazy afternoon, we drive to Phnom Santuk, a Buddhist heritage site located roughly 17km south of Kampong Thom. Set about 200m above sea level, visitors can reach the site’s spires and pagodas by climbing more than 800 steps. Less intrepid travellers, such as this writer, can take a bypassing 2.5km road.

A group of macaques lounge at Phnom Santuk

“We should move our bikes,” Vothea says at the top. “The monkeys will knock them over.” He is referring to the horde of macaques that rule Phnom Santuk, feasting on donated, dropped and pilfered goods from tourists.

Close to the peak of Phnom Santuk is a cliff where, alongside a few primate friends, visitors are afforded a view of the countryside’s seemingly endless rice paddies. We spend more time than might be necessary gazing out on the provincial landscape, dotted, as it is, with stately sugar palms and delicate rumduol trees.

Phnom Santuk itself is a collection of pagodas and stupas peppered with statues of nagas, dragons and 15th-century reclining Buddhas, cracked and ageing. Vothea points out a bell made from the tip of a B52’s bomb. The deep, distant booming of a drum gathers Phnom Santuk’s monks for an evening ceremony.

We leave them and walk back to our motorbikes, the sky darkening. The drive down the mountain is sombre, my visit to Kampong Thom nearly over. The clamour of Phnom Penh seems closer than I would like to admit.

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