The all encompassing silence is broken by the sporadic chatter of a few tuk tuk drivers. I look back at them for reassurance that we are not totally alone here in this eerie spot. The smoke from their camp fire is trapped by the jungle and the smell of burning hangs in the air. We are miles from the main road, in a clearing where the daylight struggles to make its way through the canopy of rainforest trees. It almost reminds me of home, but in Australia there are no bomb craters nor warning signs to stick to the path for fear of unexploded ordnance.
We have traveled here this morning via a bumpy but scenic 35km tuk tuk ride from Kampong Thom in central Cambodia. There is little to recommend the town of Kampong Thom, but once outside the built up area it is a different story. Through flat rice fields complete with photogenic water buffalo, and strange little collections of rustic wooden huts we have arrived at Sambor Prei Kuk.
The pre-Angkorian temples of Sambor Prei Kuk predate the much celebrated Angkor Wat, yet for so long they were left to the mercy of nature. These stunning 7th century ruins stand silent crumbling relics of the past, many are already lost but some are being painstakingly restored . Our guide tells us that the statues inside the temples are replicas of the originals, the originals are now in the Museum in Phnom Penh. James asks about the clumsy brace around a statue of Shiva. Our guide explains that the pre-Angkorian craftsmen hadn’t worked out how to make these early statues strong enough to stand up unsupported.
I am intrigued to know what the temples here are made of, it is clearly not stone but some sort of brick. Termite mounds is our guide’s answer. He proceeds to explain how they made bricks from the crushed mounds and water, then baked them in a kiln. The bricks were joined together using a mortar, again made from termite mounds and water. The finished building was rendered in a stucco made from, you guessed it, termite mounds! He was very definite on the matter. I was fascinated, especially having asked the same question a few years ago in Vietnam when visiting the temples of My Son and the guide there told me they weren’t sure what the “bricks” were made of.
We wandered around the site with our guide for over an hour, marvelling at the buildings that remained. We were allowed to touch them, climb over the old walls that remained, and photograph to our hearts content. We saw maybe 20 other visitors, which was refreshing but also staggering for a site of such historical significance. It reminded me of a very unsuccessful Australian Tourism ad where the strap line was “Where the bloody hell are you?”.
Tips for visiting Sambor Prei Kuk
Kampong Thom is not a beautiful town but it is an ideal base for visiting Sambor Prei Kuk and Phnom Santul Mountain. We spent a leisurely day doing each of these sites and encountered very few other tourists.
The way to see them is to get a tuk tuk there and have them wait for you. We were lucky enough to score an enterprising tuk tuk driver when we stepped off our bus in Kampong Thom. Most tuk tuk drivers offer to give you a tour of some description so knowing exactly where we wanted to go (thank you Lonely Planet) we booked him. We agreed a price US$15 for Sambor Prei Kuk and US$12for Phnom Santul Mountain. He would arrive at the appointed time at our hotel, would wait for us at the site and then take us to where ever we wanted to go for lunch before taking us back to our hotel where we would pay him.
The entry fee to Sambor Prei Kuk was US$3 each and we paid $6 for the services of a guide which was worth every penny, he really knew his stuff.
We stayed at the new Glorious Hotel and Spa, very glamorous but the spa wasn’t open as yet. It’s a little out of town but only a US$2 tuk tuk ride into town. The room and the pool were beautiful, the breakfast was a fail, dinner was good but the dining room lacked soul. The price was right though!
For lunch everyday we went to Sambor Village Hotel. The food was outstanding, their homemade ice cream was the best I have ever tasted (better than any gelato in Italy!). We had looked at staying here but it was more expensive than the Glorious and the room and pool weren’t quite as glorious as the Glorious!