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Isanapura used to be the capital of Chenla, established during the reign of King Isanavarman I (616-637). The ancient capital is now located in Kampong, about 176 kilometers to the East of Angkor complex and roughly 206 kilometers from Phnom Penh. In the 7th century, Isanapura was the home of more than 20.000 families.
The city center contains a complex of Sambor Prei Kuk, situated on the Eastern bank of Tonle Sap lake, near Sen river. Today, this area still keeps the ruins of 150 temples and buildings, which are hundreds of years older than Angkor Wat is.
In the Khmer language, Sambor Prei Kuk means the temples in sacred forests. It consists of three major parts, each of which has square ground, a temple in the middle, and several shrines surrounded by brick walls. Each section was constructed in a different time; for example, the first ones in the North and South were erected in the 7th century.
The architecture of the complex is the typical design of the Pre-Angkorean period with a simple structure. The primary material is brick, while sandstone appears in several compositions. The most distinctive feature is a series of numerous palaces, castles, prasats, octagon stupas, lingams shiva and yonis, lakes, lion-shaped sculptures, and stones with Khmer or Sanskrit languages sculpted on.
The zone of Sambor Prei Kuk expresses the vital integration of architectural and cultural values between ASEAN countries and their neighbors, actively developed in the late 6th century and early 20th century. The relics make up of 2.500 hectares of the total capital, including a central complex of various constructions with unique ten octagon pagodas. Some types of decoration, such as lintels, pediments, colonnades, are masterpieces. The visual arts and architecture here have become models for other regions and the basis for the unique Khmer architecture during the Angkorean time.
The Sambor Prei Kuk is undeniable evidence for the civilization of the Chenla Kingdom, which was formed and actively developed for 300 years, from 550 to 802.
The Sambor Prei Kuk temple complex is directly connected with the spread and harmony of external religious factors, Hinduism, Buddhism, and indigenous religion.
Currently, the relic has seven relatively intact temple complexes, including three temple clusters, Prasat Tao, Prasat Sambor, and Prasat Yeah Puon, opening to visitors after clearing the mines. Coming to these sites, visitors will be surprised to admire the patterns created by the ancient Khmer people.
The cluster of Prasat Tao, also known as Prasat Boram, lies in the heart of Sambor Prei Kuk. The main area has square ground; the central axis is in the direction of the East to the West. The central stupa called Prasat Tao (Lion Temple) is one of the most massive towers in the cluster, with a height of 19 meters. In front of the main entrance of the stupa, there are two stone lions. At first, it used to have four lions, but two of them have been stolen. To enter inside, you have to climb a two-step staircase. This temple is among seven ones remain mostly intact. Although having four gates, only the gates in the East is opened while the others are closed.
The cluster of Prasat Sambor in the North of the complex is the significant section, built in the 7th century, during the reign of King Isanavarman I. this place worships Shiva, or Gambhireshavara. In the middle of the site, there are nine pagodas and a big stupa named Prasat Sambor.
There is also a temple called Trapeang Ropeak worshipping Indra, a God associated with thunder – one of the supreme gods in Hinduism. The building used brick without concrete. The peak of the stupa has collapsed, allowing the light to go inside. Also, people believe that many holes on the walls were the marks of diamonds and jewels stuck by ancient people.
In the North and South of the central area, many scattered temples, mingled with ruins of the Linga symbolic altars and Shiva statues.
The cluster of Prasat Yeah Puon is located in the South of the complex, comprising 22 groups of buildings worshipping Shiva, erected during 600 – 635, under control of King Isanavarman I. a handful of octagon stupas and gates are still stable. Outside the stupas, tourists can see the ruins of brick walls with a height of up to 2 meters. The main pagoda is Prasat Yeah Poan, which is currently restored.
Once entering the Prasat Yeah Puon, you will feel like getting lost in the forest. The eastern gateway is being both held up and torn asunder by an ancient tree, the bricks interwoven with the tree’s extensive, probing roots. A genuinely massive tree shades the western gate. Prasat Tor is the largest of the Sambor Prei Kuk complexes. It boasts excellent examples of Chenla carvings in the form of two large, elaborately coiffed stone lions.
Although 14 centuries have passed, a lot of pagodas belonging to the complex of Sambor Prei Kuku remains intact. These days, after being recognized as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO, the compound is attracting more and more domestic and international visitors come to spend their vacation and widen their knowledge.
Kampong Thom is a peaceful town. The only noisy part was the small market lying next to the Stung Sen River, where local people sold brown palm sugar and Cambodian fragrant rice. The trip to Sambor Prei Kuk was exciting. We saw no transportation but a lonely wooden bike with handmade straw baskets. We got on a local taxi; actually, it was an open-air wooden cart pulled by an old motorbike. When we passed on a laterite road, a lot of red dust flew up.
Maybe the fame of Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm has covered the existence of Sambor Prei Kuk. Not many tourists come there. The only group of people we encountered was a horde of native children, who ran to our van and asked us to buy colorful spun scarves for $1 each. As we visited the temples, more and more young peddlers approached us with many bracelets and trinkets on their hands. They were patient to follow us and discount to a quarter of the original prices.
Although Sambor Prei Kuk was not as gorgeous as its cousin Angkor Wat, the complex brought us a feeling of soothing and comfortable. The tranquil beauty of the forests is truly suitable for those who want to spend a vacation in a serene destination. Wat Kampong Thom, or Wat Indrisamavora, is situated in Kdei village, Preykahu commune, Stung Sen district, about 1 kilometer from the center town. With the total area of over 2.000 square meters, it contains statues linked with interesting Buddhist stories. The site is a relaxing place for visitors, particularly at festival time.
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