We took off for Siem Reap, and made a stop in the Kompong Thom province, about halfway through for a tour of the Sambor Prei Kuk temples. Our guide, Dr. So Sokuntheary has been involved with the research, documentation, and conservation of the temples since 1998 (or earlier?). She now teaches at Norton University and the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in the faculties of architecture, having received her Ph.D from Waseda University in Japan.
The information I am providing about the temples is from two pamphlets that she helped publish: Sambor Prei Kuk Kompong Thom, Cambodia, and Sambor Prei Kuk Conservation Project, as well as The Rough Guide to Cambodia.
Both Hinduism and Buddhism were influential in the pre-Angkorian and Angkorian empires. Prasat Sambor, which is the largest temple compound of the three in the complex is a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. There are several shrines still standing around the temple. This temple has several inscriptions of ‘flying palaces’, which are believed to be the home of the spirits that take care of the temples.
The Sambor Prei Kuk monuments was part of the ancient city of Isanapura, the capital of Chenla in the 7th century, formerly part of the Funan kingdom. In the early 7th century Chenla asserted its independence. The monuments were founded by King Isanavarman I, and the decorative style of Khmer architecture and sculpture is said to have been derived from Sambor style.
From Chinese accounts, this city may have been abandoned in the second half of the 7th, or the 8th century, when Chenla was divided into ‘land’ and ‘water’ Chenlas — this was a dark period for this society’s history.
With the accession of Jayavarman II, who founded the beginnings of the Angkor empire in the 9th century, the history of Sambor Prei Kuk re-emerges. Decorative details of Prasat Tao are similar to the style of monuments during the reign of Jayavarman II, particularly the lion statues. The city is often known as the pre-Angkorian capital city, but these findings suggest that the city was in use during the Angkor time as well.
The lion statues also resemble statues found at Phnom Kulen, and triangulate the age of the sculpture and temples to the reign of Jayavarman II.
The ‘South temple’ compound of Prasat Yeai Poeun had a lot of remarkable shrines, and our first of many temples eaten by trees. The name of Isanavarman I is carved into many inscriptions on this temple and it is believed that he constructed the temple in the beginning of the 7th century. Many of the shrines are octagonal representing all of the cardinal directions, and are decorated with circular medallions.
This is only the beginning of a week-long immersion into the Angkorian history and legacy of present-day Khmer culture. Get ready to be slapped in the face with archaeological wonders in the coming weeks.