We believe that Angkor Wat is the greatest temple complex in the world. We visited the site over 20 years ago and fell in love with it. Since then, we’ve traveled the country several times searching for more incredible temples. That’s how we found the Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk temples in the heart of Cambodia.
Kampong Thom Province is north of Phnom Penh and South of Siem Reap. The vast majority of tourists that go to Angkor from the capital pass through the province without stopping. In fact, Kampong Thom province has little to no tourism. In particular, foreigners tend to ignore the area.
What a mistake! The temples are absolutely gorgeous. Besides, Kampong Thom City is a charming little town on the banks of the Stung Sen River. We’ve stopped there a couple of times and had a great time. Do not miss the chance of experiencing the real Cambodia!
Kampong Thom City
How to Get to Kampong Thom
Kampong Thom City is on the road that connects Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. Today, several companies run big buses and vans between both cities. Big buses usually take 7 hours and charge 6 USD. Shared vans take an hour less and charge around 10 USD. Tell your driver to stop in Kampung Thom halfway along the journey.
Buses and vans leave from the night market close to the river in the capital and from the center in Siem Reap. Both leave as early as 7 AM and as late as 11 PM. A taxi from Phnom Penh to Kampong Thom should take less than 3 hours and charge around 75 USD.
To continue from Kampong Thom to either city, you will have to hire a shared van or a private taxi. Ask in the center of the city. We strongly recommend our friend Borey if you are heading to Siem Reap. He is honest, clever, and a great driver! Take note that buses from Siem Reap to Kampong Cham and Kratie, and vice versa, also pass through Kampong Thom.
From Kampong Thom to the Temples
Sambor Prei Kuk is 18 miles (30 km) north of Kampong Thom city. The road is not in great shape but it’s pretty safe to go there. Depending on the weather, the journey should take between 30 to 45 minutes. It’s a fun ride through fields and residential areas.
We strongly recommend hiring a tuk-tuk for the journey there and back. Cambodians are super honest and great drivers, so you have nothing to worry about. We hired our tuk-tuk in front of our hotel, agreed on a price for the trip there, for the wait, and to bring us back.
Since we wanted to enjoy the area, we made several stops along the way. What’s more, our driver suggested beautiful spots and took us to authentic places. The whole trip took us approximately 5 hours. We don’t need to tell you not to be cheap. Would you haggle back home?
Organized Tours to Sambor Prei Kuk Temples
If you don’t feel like going alone, you can hire tours in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. These take a bunch of people in a shared van or a big bus to the temples and back. Some include a guide and a small lunch, and some don’t.
The whole Sambor Prei Kuk tour from either city takes the entire day. You leave early in the morning and take 3 hours to get there. The visit to the temples takes an hour or so, and then 3 hours to get back to Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.
Another option is this full-day tour of the temples. It includes pick up from your hotel, the ride there in an AC vehicle, and a guide. Take note that this tour is from Seam Reap and includes a stop at a fishing village.
Where to Stay in Kampong Thom
Kampong Thom has 3 good hotels. Our favorite one is the Kampong Thom Palace Hotel. The tall tower is in the center, next to the main road. The rooms are huge and come with authentic wooden furniture, great bathrooms, and a balcony with views. You can chill by the pool and eat at the onsite restaurant.
Another great option is the Glorious Hotel and Spa. The hotel is on the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh, 2 miles (3 km) south of the city. The hotel is set in a lovely garden with a big pool and a gym. The rooms are big and spotless. There’s onsite parking.
Our final recommendation goes to Sambor Village Hotel, a 5-minute walk to the center. The hotel overlooks the river and is very peaceful. We love its traditional Cambodian architecture and splendid garden. The pool is fantastic too! They’ve got bicycles! Take note that Sambor Prei Kuk doesn’t offer homestay.
Things to Do in Kampong Thom
Kampong Thom offers a lot of things to do. First and foremost, the cute little town is completely authentic. You will be one of few foreigners. We enjoyed walking about, stopping for drinks, and hanging out in local joints. It gave us a chance to interact with the local culture.
A walk along the river bank is mandatory. The area on the southern bank is the nicest. There are benches, and you can see the river and bridge. You will see children playing and couples taking a stroll. Tep Nimitt Pagoda is to the south. Locals visit the Buddhist temple to pray.
The nicest temple north of the river is Entri Sam Voreak Pagoda. Take a 5-minute tuk-tuk to the temples on the river. Wat Pobak Kor is the closest. However, Thormak Porkhi Mongkul Pagoda is our favorite. It’s in the middle of fields and overlooks the river and sandbanks.
Sambor Prei Kuk Temples
The temples in Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk predate Angkor Wat. Archaeologists believe they were built in the 6th to 9th Centuries AD. The area was the capital of the Chenla Kingdom. King Isanavarman I named it Isanapura and had the first temple built in the 600s AD.
Several kings followed and added to the complex. Prasat Sambor is the most important temple and is dedicated to Shiva’s thousand names. The temples around it are the oldest. The next to be completed are known as Prasat Yeah Puon. The last ones to be built are called Prasat Boram, from the 9th Century.
Unfortunately, the American relentless bombing of Cambodia during the 1970s didn’t spare the temples. Some were destroyed or severely damaged. A lot of people lost their lives. Today, you can see archaeologists and technicians re-building these incredible beauties.
Main Temple Complexes
There’s a tiny office before you the Temple zone of Sambor Prei Kuk where you need to pay your entrance ticket. From there, it’s a short ride to Prasat Tamom. The Hindu temple under reconstruction has gorgeous carvings. You have to go back, and then east to reach the main area: Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk.
These are the grandest and best-preserved temples. The jungle that surrounds them is thick and splendid. Take your time and admire each stupa. Daem Chrei is a temple covered by trees. Daem Cham is to the east. Prei Kuk Temple is to the south.
You have to go further south to reach the newest temples. Prasat Tao is the one with the stone lion. The temples to the north are further away from each other. Chramouh Chrouk is next to the road. From there, walk to Sandan Temple. We strongly recommend going further north to Srei Kroub Leak and Kraol Romeas temples.
Sanbor Prei Kuk is so incredible that UNESCO included it in its List of World Heritage Sites. The name in Cambodian means temple in an opulent forest. That’s exactly what the area looks like. You can tell that the architects got their inspiration from the lush jungle around the temples.
These temples are the forbearers of the world-famous Angkor Wat, north of Seam Reap. Most of the temples are made of fire brick and feature sandstone decorations. The temples have a central taller tower with a raised stone platform. Peripheral smaller ones can be seen in the corners.
Look out for the intricate carvings on doors and windows. You will also see arches and colonnades. These temples are unique because they represent the union of several religions and belief systems. You can see inscriptions and figures that come from Hindu and Persian religions. In addition, they incorporated irrigation and conservation techniques never seen before.
How to Visit the Temples
The best way to visit the temples is with a tuk-tuk. We hired one in front of our hotel and had a fantastic time. Some temples are half an hour from the city and some further north. The area is gorgeous. You have several temples and incredible nature to discover. We even saw monkeys!
Our driver knew exactly where to take us. He drove with care, made sure we were comfortable, and stopped for pictures and drinks whenever we wanted. He waited for us in every temple, picked us up, took us to the next one, and asked the local guards for instructions.
He made sure that we didn’t miss any temple. Since his English was better than our Cambodian, we never had a problem communicating. We spent a lot of time around the area, walking, and enjoying breathtaking scenery. We were more than happy to pay 40 USD for such top-notch professional service.
Where to Eat and Drink
Note that there aren’t any restaurants next to the temples. However, you can buy drinks there from any of the lovely locals. We also bought delicious locally-grown cashew nuts next to the temples to replenish our energy! If on your way to Kampong Thom, you see restaurants, ask your driver to stop.
Our favorite hangout in the city is the Skybar, on top of the Kampong Thom Royal Hotel. It’s got 360º views, cool local music, and a hip and fun local crowd. It opens till late at night. To eat in front of the river, head to the restaurant at the Sambor Village Hotel.
The young and hip hang out at The Third Place on the northern bank of the river. For coffee, stop by 99 Coffee, a cute stall next to the road with authentic espresso coffee. To eat in a garden, go to Village Coffee. The coffee shop is on a quiet street, next to the fields, east of the center.