Friday, March 15, 2013

Kampong Thom and Sambor Prei Kuk

About midway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap along Highway Six, lies the small provincial town of Kompong Thom.  Kompong Thom is fairly sleepy apart from the buses whiping through en route between two of Cambodia's major destinations and those few tourists who, like us, have stopped off to see the 7th century pre-Angkor ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk which lie about 30km to the northeast of town along some charming country roads.

The drive along elevated highway 6 is, in itself, absolutely stunning. Not far out of Phnom Penh, you already find youdself surrounded on either side by bamboo houses soaring high on their stilts and dry season floodplain agriculture characterized by endless rice and lotus fields. Indian cattle with their characteristic neck humps saunter lazily across the road, blocking traffic composed of tuk-tuks, motos and flatbeds crammed with everything imaginable (and people on top), vans acting as share-taxis and the odd inter-city bus. In areas where the road crosses a river or flooded plain which has not yet dried up, locals poll along on punt-like canoes and live in floating houses along the banks. I so wish I had a picture on my phone to share! This scenery becomes even more intensified along the red dirt backroads that are best experienced by bicycle, moto or tuk-tuk. Added to this, is the fact that people in Kampong Thom were among the friendliest (among the already super friendly Cambodians) we met, with all of the children eager to say hello and breaking out into beautific smiles when we responded in kind as we went past.

One of the tree covered towers in the North Group which I may or may not have enjoyed exploring thoroughly.
Sambor Prei Kuk itself was also fun to visit. Much less touristed than its younger, Angkorian cousins to the north (I think we saw maybe 5 other tourists the whole time we were there), the North and South groups were built by the Chenla-era king Isanavarman I in the 7th century AD and still boat beautiful carved reliefs of 'flying palaces', while the central tower is all that remains of the slightly younger Central group. All of these groups acted as important temples in the Chenla area capital of Ishanapura.

Our guide through the ruins was a former monk who now volunteers his time teaching the local kids English and getting them to help pick up trash and keep the surrounding area clean. While I loved the country feel of Kampong Thom, I worry it might soon change as they are looking to add Sambor Prei to the list of World Heritage Monuments which will wrest control of the tourism industry away from the locals.

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