The elongated shape of Prasat Sampeau's antechamber hall in front of the tower resembles that of a ship, that’s why the structure got its modern name "sanctuary ship". The Khmer word for ship, "sampeau", is sometimes transcribed "sampheau", "sampou" or "sampov".
Located 10 km north-east of Angkor Thom and 2,5 km north of the forgotten temple Prasat Sralao, far away from the Grand and Small Circuit roads, this is one of the remote and unknown temples in Angkor, a hidden gem of Khmer civilization. The simple laterite construction is not really overwhelming. Nevertheless, covered with vegetation it is a small jungle temple, without any tourists.
Historically Prasat Sampeau is a quite interesting structure. It was built in the era of King Jayavarman VII (1181 - ca. 1218). That's nothing special, almost half of the Angkorian monuments are from the very same king. Prasat Sampeau was one of 121 so-called "Vahnigrihas" this king claims to have built, according to a famous inscription at Preah Khan. These "fire-houses" were erected along the major routes from Angkor to other cities. Prasat Sampeau is the Vahnigriha closest to his capital Angkor Thom, the only one in Angkor's present-day archaelogical zone (or at least the only structure that was a Vahnigriha without any doubt - structures inside the compounds of Preah Khan and Ta Prohm are often regarded as such fire-shrines, too).
Most of the Vahnigrihas marked the route from Angkor (called "Yashodharapura" in that inscription) to the north-east, namely to the neighbouring Champa empire in what is today central Vietnam. The second most important route mentioned is the route from Angkor to Phimai (called Vimai in that inscription). Phimai is the most significant Khmer temple structure on Thai territory, right in the heart of the region called Isan today. By the way, Phimai is the only major Khmer monument that was a Buddhist sanctuary already before Jayavarman VII reigned. The number of those Vahnigrihas along the route to Phimai, given in that inscription, is 17. Prasat Sampeau was the first one for a traveler or pilgrim to Phimai.
The word "Vahnigriha" is a typical Sanskrit combination of two nouns. "Griha" means a protected room, a "shelter", "chamber", "house", or "home". "Vahni" is the medium that conveys the essence of offerings to the heavenly beings. In Hindu rites this is the function of fire. "Agni", name of the fire and the fire-god, is etymological related to "vahni", too.
Definitely Vahnigrihas were markings for travelers. Most parts of the route were not paved, north of Prohm Kel there existed nothing that could be called a "road". A trek connecting Angkor and Phimai had already been in use for centuries. But the route marked by Jayavarman VII's Vahnigrihas was slightly shifted, it used a different pass in the Dangrek mountains. It was essential to use the fixed route, in order to be able to cross the rivers on stone bridges. Maybe, fires or smoke of those "firehouses" indicated the correct direction. They were not located on a straight line like a Roman road.
Sometimes Vahnigrihas are called resthouses. Their distances along the 250 km long Royal Route to Phimai vary, but usually they are 11 to 21 kilometres away from the next. This is an easily managable daily walking distance. However, Khmer stone constructions never served as bedrooms, not even for the king himself. Stone constructions with inner rooms were sacred buildings without exception. So definitely a Vahnigriha was a temple. But it could have been surrounded by simple wooden or bamboo roofed structures serving as lodges for overnight stays. In this case a Vahnigriha could have been a shrine of a pilgrims' rest. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat living in Angkor in the end of the 13th century and leaving an important historical record about it, noted that on the great routes there were rest places like post relays in China.
In 1925 the French archaeologist Finot introduced a new Sanskrit name for Vahnigrihas, he called them "Dharmasalas", teaching-halls. This term highlights the function of a temple as a place of education or social care. In many countries pilgrim rests had social functions, one of them was religious instruction "on the way". The new term "Dharmasala" became very common in publications. Even the Royal Route from Angkor to Phimai is sometimes called "Dharmasala route".
The Vahnigriha (or Dharmasala) Prasat Sampeau is well preserved but fiercely overgrown. It is one of the very few Vahnagrihas with sculptural decoration. The lintel above the western entrance to the Prasat tower is still in situ. But some of Prasat Sampeau's sculptures were chopped off during the decades of Civil War in Cambodia.
Only a few hundred metres north-west of Prasat Sampeau there is a stone bridge. Its Khmer name "Spean Thma" means just this: "stone bridge". It should not be confused with the better known bridge of the same name which can be seen at the Small Circle road, which is of a later date. The Spean Thma at Prasat Sampeau, 30 m long and 12 m wide, built of laterite blocks, is from the same period as the temple and the Royal Route, this means, from the end of 12th century.
There is no specific time of the day to be recommended. You do not need a ticket for visits in this remote area.