Interested in seeing temples, calmly and quietly with time for reflection? How about one set in the jungles of Cambodia? One that is not Angkor Wat? Sambor Prei Kuk and Kampong Thom are one of the best Phnom Penh Day Trips.
Sambor Prei Kuk is older than Angkor Wat without the crowds.
It is less than 3 hours from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Cambodia’s third UNESCO World Heritage site is well worth the trip.
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Best Day Trips Phnom Penh: Sambor Prei Kuk
We visited Angkor Wat in 2002 before it emerged as a major tourist destination. We walked around the temples in awe. Sometimes, we found ourselves all alone. One magical evening, we joined locals and tourists watching a dance performance. The famous Angkor Wat Temple was the backdrop. As I said, magical.
Fast forward 17 years and Angkor Wat now has 6 Million tourists a year (more than 16,000/day). Helicopter tours. Four Wheel Drives. Motorcycle tours. Tons of hotels. And, not much quiet.
We wanted the Angkor Wat experience again.
So, we researched under-the-radar temple complexes in Cambodia. We found several that were near either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. We decided that Sambor Prei Kuk was one of the best day trips Phnom Penh had to offer.
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Significance of Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk is a 25KM square temple complex mainly built in 6th and 7th centuries. It is dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. The name, Sambor Prei Kuk, means “the temple in the richness of the forest.” It is surrounded by the jungle. Established by King Isanavarman I, it was the capital of the Chenla Empire (late 6th to early 7th century). The Chenla Empire was the immediate predecessor to the Angkor Empire.
In 2017, UNESCO designated Sambor Prei Kuk as a world historical site. There were hundreds of temples in the thriving city. Most are still buried. The ones that can be seen are in ruins. One of the distinct elements of the temple complex are the octagonal shaped temples. The Sambor Prei Kuk style became a model for the Khmer style at Angkor Wat and elsewhere in the region.
Impact of the Vietnam War
Sambor Prei Kuk was bombed by the US during the Vietnam War during President Richard Nixon’s secret bombing of Khmer Rouge and North Vietnamese strongholds in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge planted landmines in the complex. The landmines were cleared in 2008, though unexploded ordinances could still be buried in the forest.
Sites of Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk is divided into three zones: North, South and Central. The complex had hundreds of temples, though many remain buried.
You can walk between the three zones, though it is dusty and hot. Some tour guides use bicycles.
Isanavarman I built the North and South Groups in the early 7th century. The Central area was built in the 9th century by Jayavarnman. Each group was surrounded by a square wall. The buildings and walls are made of brick. There is some use of sandstone.
Sambor Prei Kuk is on the east bank of the Tonle Sap and near the Steung Saen Rivers. This location made the area a crossroads for trading and migration.
North (Prasat Sambor)
The Northern temple is called Prasat Sambor and is considered the main temple. It was deidicated Gambhireshvara to one of Shiva’s reincarnations.
South (Prasat Yeah Puon)
Prasat Yeah Puon is in the southern section and had 22 temples dedicate to Shiva.
To learn more about Hindu Festivals, see our post on Why You Should See Thaispusam Singapore
Central (Prasat Boram)
The central area tower was named Tor Temple (18 meters tall) and was surrounded by 7 smaller towers made of brick. The most famous structure here was Prasat Tao (Lion Temple). It originally had 8 lion statues. Two are still there.
Kampong Thom Museum
If you decide to stay overnight, you should visit the Kampong Thom Museum. There are statues, reliefs and other objects from Sambor Prei Kuk and other historic temples in the province and from throughout Cambodia.
Don’t expect a modern museum. The museum is one small room and an outdoor area. Most of the objects are out in the open and are dusty. Be prepared to take off your shoes to enter. The signs are in English. There is no fee for the Museum, but there is a donation box.
Wat Kampong Thom (Wat Indrisamvora)
Dating back to the 17th century, Wat Kampong Thom is near the museum (and across the street). It is the local temple for the villagers. There was a lot of restoration and construction work going on while we were there.
The temple has newer areas with buddhist figures, shrines and the Chinese zodiac statues. The older area has a monastery and stupas.
Getting Around Kampong Thom
The main ways to get around Kampong Thom are walking, biking and renting a tuk tuk. We hired a car to go to Sambor Prei Kuk and a tuk-tuk when we traveled into town. It is very dusty, particularly on the drive to Sambor Prei Kuk.
Getting to Sambor Prei Kuk and Kampong Thom
National Road 6 goes from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. Kampong Thom is approximately halfway between Phnom Penh (210KM or 130 miles north) and Siem Reap (180KM or 110 miles east).
If you haven’t been to Siem Reap, then definitely put it in your travel plans.
Kampong Thom is one of the closest towns to Sambor Prei Kuk (30 KM away). We planned to stay overnight so were looking for a bus to and from Kampong Thom.
There are three options for transportation: bus, van or private car. None of the travel companies that we spoke to in Phnom Penh did group day tours to Sambor Prei Kuk.
Bus or Van
Most travel companies in Phnom Penh suggested that we take the bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap. We would pay the full fare to Siem Reap, but get off halfway.
Most of these vans and buses did not guarantee that they would drop us off in Kampong Thom town. Some do a drop off right on the highway (National Road 6) outside of town. After that, we would have to find a tuk tuk to bring us into town.
We found a van company that told us that they stopped in Kampong Thom. Two seats cost a total of $21 USD ($10.50 USD each seat). It turned out that the Kampong Thom stop is not guaranteed and that we had to make sure the driver knew where we were getting off. The drive took about 2.5 hours.
For our return journey to Phnom Penh, we took the Phnom Penh Sorya Bus ($8USD, booked by our hotel). Most people go to the bus station in the central market to take the bus. We requested that they stop in front of our hotel to pick us up since we were on the way out of town. The bus made about 10 stops (including to unload 2 motorbikes) on the way to Phnom Penh. The return trip took over 3 hours. We were dropped off at the Central Market in Phnom Penh.
Private Day Trip by Car
For a private day tour by car, we were quoted US$250 (total for 2 people). This cost included round trip by car, a guide and entry fee ($10 per person).
How to get to Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk from Siem Reap
The temple complex is closer to Siem Reap than it is from Phnom Penh. You can either hire a private car to take you from Siem Reap (about 2.5 hours each way) or join a day tour to Sambor Prei Kuk. Alternatively, you can take the bus or vans that go from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Get off at Kampong Thom.
To get to Sambor Prei Kuk from Kampong Thom, you can either take a tuk tuk or hire a car. Tuk Tuk fares are standard and set by the tourism association (US$15 round trip) to Sambor Prei Kuk. Going with a Tuk tuk takes longer but is much cheaper than a private care hire (US$30 round trip). It is also a lot dustier.
Lodging & Eating
We stayed at the Glorious Hotel and Spa. It was the priciest option ($30). The hotel is clean and the pool is lovely. There are a number of guest houses and home stays that are less expensive.
We ate a couple of meals at the Glorious Hotel. Average price was $6/meal. The meals were good and the service very slow. There are local places to eat a short walk from the hotel.
We also ate at the Arunas Café. Some of the buses and van do a pit stop right in front of this restaurant. The food is inexpensive and was tasty, but there were flies everywhere. If you are in town, there are other restaurants a short walk away.
10 Tips for Going to Sambor Prei Kuk and Kampong Thom
1. Go to Sambor Prei Kuk now before it becomes a tourist destination.
2. Entry fee is $10USD and $6 for a guide.
3. Since Sambor Prei Kuk and Kampong Thom are emerging as a destination, don’t expect the food or services that you will find in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.
4.Consider staying overnight. You won’t have to race through the temples and can enjoy the peacefulness and experience of having it all to yourself.
5. Allow at least 2 hours for the temple complex.
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6.There is no water or food at the site. Make sure to bring enough water. We brought a Life Straw bottle so we could purify the water from the bathroom. It’s a great way to cut down on buying water in plastic bottles.
7. Wear pants and/or arm coverings. There are a lot of insects. Malaria is endemic in the Sambor Prei Kuk area. Make sure to stay covered, bring insect repellent and check with your Doctor about malaria prevention.
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8. Bathrooms are at the entrance and there is a nominal cost to use the facilities.
9. We highly recommend engaging a guide for the temples.
10. The roads are very dusty in Kampong Thom and on the way to Sambor Prei Kuk. Bring a face mask for your tuk tuk rides, especially if you plan to take a tuk tuk to Sambor Prei Kuk.
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11. If you stay overnight, make sure to stop by the Kampong Thom Museum and Wat Kampong Thom. You also could go to Santuk Mountain (17 Km from Kampong Town), a sacred mountain for the Khmer people.
You might also want to read How to Survive Poya Day at the Anuradhapura Ruins in Sri Lanka.
If you are traveling through Cambodia, here’s information about Phnom Penh Itinerary for 5 Days in Cambodia & Best Getaway from Singapore
If Laos in on your itinerary, then see Mekong River Cruise Luang Prabang Photos
Leave a Comment. Are you interested in Going to Sambor Prei Kuk?
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Really interesting article & thank you so much for sharing. I visited Angkor Wat for sunrise a couple of years ago….along with thousands of others. Finding these gems is priceless & it’ll definitely be on my list for my next visit
Sue-Thanks for your comments. Definitely worth getting to places before they become tourist magnets. We went to Angkor Wat 17 years ago when it was a sleepy town. And Machu Pichu and Galapagos Islands. I’ll never go back to any of those places. Just too crowded now. I hope you get to Kampong Thom.
Beautiful pictures and great post!
Tracy-Thank you. Sue
Definitely wanting to go back to Cambodia…after reading your article, I will have to put Kampong Thom on my itinerary.
Nailah-Thanks for your comments. Kampong Thom is definitely worth it. There are also other lesser-known temple complexes around the country.
This is an amazing post and I appreciate how detailed. I have not been to Vietnam nor Asia, but if I ever went, this will aide me greatly. Also, your pictures are amazing.
Linda-Thank you. I hope you’ll get to Asia sometime.
We just went to Cambodia and I wish we had time to visit this place! What a cool find. We’ll definitely have to check it out if we go back one day.
Lauryn-Thanks for your comment. Hopefully you’ll go back soon before this gets on more people’s radar.
Wow, I’ve been to Siem Reap 3 times and have never even heard of Sambor Prei Kuk! Incredible to visit somewhere temples off the tourist path.
Thanks for your comment. In addition to Sambor Prei kuk, there are a number of other temples near Siem Reap. It’s really worth checking them out.
I love finding these hidden gems and would much rather explore an unheard of site than a busy, overcrowded one. So much history to be explored in such a beautiful country. Thanks for sharing
Thanks for your comment. I agree, Hidden, uncrowded gems are the best.
Looks amazing, I have only been to Angkor Wat and that was while impressive quite overwhelming. This one looks interesting and a lot more manageable.
Thanks for your comment. Sambor Prei Kuk is definitely more manageable.
Thanks so much for posting this! I’ve been to Cambodia 5 times (first time also in 2002 and wow, was it different back then!) and I’ve never heard of these temples. I typically try to avoid PP, but if I need to layover there again, I will definitely try to see them.
Thanks for your comment. And, you can do Sambur Prei Kuk from Siem Reap. There are also several temples in other parts of Cambodia, so you can avoid PP if you want.
Although I’ve visited Cambodia twice, I’ve only made it to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap so far. I clearly need to plan a third visit and expand my Cambodian horizons!
Thanks for your comments. There is much to see in Cambodia. Hope you go back.
Oh my gosh, so many interesting facts here. wow, such a stunning place & you photograph it so well. Thanks for the creative post!