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Sambor Prei Kuk Temple, Cambodia

Sambor Prei Kuk Temple, Cambodia

By Wendy Updated Sep. 30, 2022

Cambodia is a unique country in Southeast Asia. Its many religious temples are an important part of its heritage and the main tourist attraction of the country.

Built before Angkor times, the Sambor Prei Kuk temple was the basis for the Khmer style of the following centuries. It is a unique masterpiece appointed in 2017 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cambodian Temple


  • Beautiful scenery in the middle of the forest
  • Impressive temples from pre-Angkorean art
  • A beautiful attraction away from tourist areas
  • Stunning bas-reliefs decorating the stone walls
  • Ruins immersed in peace and silence

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Where it is

The temple is in Kampong Thom Province, 30 km north of Kampong Thom and 176 km east of Angkor Wat. It is on the eastern bank of Tonp San Lake, close to the Sen River.

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In 2017, the Sambor Prei Kuk temple has been added to the UNESCO list of cultural heritages. A “temple in the fertility of the forest”, the site was built 300 years before Angkor Wat and is actually home to 10 different temples. These are divided into three clusters: North, Central, and South.

Each cluster consists of impressive temples depicting pre-Angkorian art: built mostly in brick and sandstone, the architectural features include prasats (Khmer for “castles”), octagonal towers, shiva lingams (phallic symbols for Shiva), ponds and reservoirs.

  • North: The most ancient buildings are here, as well as temples from the 10th century. The sanctuaries are built of brick and limestone and are located on a rectangular hill. The temples are square or octagonal.

Prasat Sambor is the main temple: it was dedicated to one of the reincarnations of Shiva (the supreme being in Hinduism).

  • Central: The least ancient group. Nowadays, only the central tower is visible. This temple is known as Prasat Thao, “Lion Temple”, since two lion statues sit on top of the stairs. The temple also has a pond, which empties during the dry season.
  • South: This cluster was built during the reign of Isanavarman I (in the 7th century) and it includes 22 sanctuaries. These were built on a hill with a gopura (a monumental tower).

The main sanctuary is the best preserved: according to the carvings on the wall, a golden statue of Shiva was placed right before the silver one depicting Nandi (a gate-guardian deity).

The temples constitute a unique opportunity to learn what paved the way for the glorious temples of Angkor.

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A typical tour of the site

A walking tour takes more than an hour. Start from the North Group and admire the square and rectangular prasats.

Then proceed to the Central Group, where you can admire the famous “Lion Temple”. From here, you can easily reach the South Group, where the bas-reliefs, carvings and structures are in good condition.

Walk back to the North Group and look for the prasat almost entirely swallowed up by a huge tree.

Getting there

You can visit the temple on a daily trip from Siem Reap. Driving to Kampong Thom takes about 3 hours.

  • Private car: if you want to travel in more comfort, you can book a private taxi online with your hotel or with a travel agent. Or sign up for a day tour which includes transportation.

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When to visit

The best time of day to visit the temple is during the morning: since most of the temples face east, that's the time to admire them in their best light.

You can sleep there the night before and start the tour early in the morning, or start driving from Siem Reap around 7 a.m. and arrive there by 11 a.m.

A little bit of history

It is believed that the city of Isanapura (now Kampong Thom) was built by Isanaravam I, king of the Chenla Kingdom (Chenla is the name used by Chinese people to indicate Cambodia). The city was a few miles from the actual temples.

Under the kingdom of Janavarman I, the last king of Chenla, Cambodia knew peace and stability. When the king died, his daughter Jadayevi took power: Cambodia's territory grew and the capital was moved from Isanapura to another city (it's not clear which one, maybe Banteay Prey Nokor).

During the following centuries, Isanapura began to decline. It was still an important city during Angkor times, but it was entirely abandoned around the 15th century.

During the 19th century, French explorers travelled around Cambodia and became interested in Isanapura. Securing its future has been a long process, culminating with its election by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2017.

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The two other UNESCO sites in Cambodia

Angkor archaeological park

Chosen by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1992, the world's largest religious site is a magnificent testimony to the glory of the Khmer Empire and a must-visit location in Cambodia. Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world.

Built between the 9th and the 15th centuries, Angkor was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The temples were at first dedicated to Shiva, but they changed to become Buddhist temples.

Located in the middle of the forest, the site has been restored and it comprises the most important site of Khmer architecture. Two million tourists visit it each year. The site stretches over 400 km2, and it includes countless temples and monuments.

The unique atmosphere and the grandeur of the temples transform the visit into an experience you won't forget.

The temple of Preah Vihear

Located on a hill on the Cambodia-Thailand border, this temple is one of the most spectacular from the Khmer Empire. It used to be symbolic of the spiritual life of the empire, so it has been restored many times during its life by different kings.

The site has been disputed for many years between Thailand and Cambodia, until finally the International Court of Justice ruled that the temple belonged to the latter.

It was listed as a World Heritage Site in 2008. Its style is totally different from the style used in Angkor Wat. The entrance is marked by five gopuras (an entrance building), so that it is impossible to see the entirety of the temples all at once.

The temple is famous also for its location: a typical tour will involve hiking up the hill to enjoy the breathtaking panoramic view of the Cambodian plain.

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