Sambor Prei Kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk, about 20 km north of the provincial capital Kampong Thom, is the most ancient archaelogical area of Southeast Asia that can be called a temple town. Definitely, it is the most important excavation from the pre-Ankorian Chenla period. The original power centre of the Chenla era had been the Mekong valley between Wat Phu in modern-day southern Laos and Stung Treng in northern Cambodia. Ishanavarman I, who ruled in the first half of the 7th century, expanded his territory and shifted his capital further west, to the small Stung Sen river. The new capital got this king's Sanskrit name: Ishanapura. By the way, in Khmer history the capital's name usually was also applied to the kingdom, whereas "Chenla" or "Zhenla" is only a Chinese name for Cambodia, Chinese travelers and chroniclers also used it for the Angkor empire, not for the pre-Angkorian period only.
Sambor Prei Kuk was most probably not founded, but conquered by Ishanavarman I. The North Group of monuments, the largest in Sambor Prei Kuk, is of an earlier date than his reign, at least partly. However, Ishanapura became a considerable city during Ishanavarman's reign, surpassing all previous capitals of mainland Southeast Asia. Chinese chronicles claim it was inhabited by 20,000 families. In contrast to the Funan era (1st to 6th century), the Chenla era (7th and 8th century) left plenty of inscriptions, by far more than the early Angkorian period (9th century). Stone inscriptions were found in Sambor Prei Kuk and its vicinity as well as in eastern and southern parts of the kingdom, particularly in the former Funan capital Angkor Borei near Phnom Da. The inscriptions mention dates and the king's name and even call him a god ("deva"). Furthermore, Ishanavarman is one of the important Cambodian kings who sent embassies to the Chinese emperor.
Sambor Prei Kuk has 150 structures in an area covering 300 hectare. 47 of them were Prasats of the 7th century. The temple buildings are divided into three larger and one smaller group, the latter called "Z". "N" is the North Group, "C" the Central Group and "S" the South Group.
Though from very different periods, temple compounds and Prasat buildings of all groups share characteristics in layout, size and decoration, and some of these characteristics are not found in Angkorian temple towns. Remarkably, the rooms in Sambor Prei Kuk's sanctuaries are much larger than those in Angkor's Prasats and there are more monuments in the core areas of Sambor Prei Kuk's temple compounds than in those of Angkor. In Khmer architecture, octagonal temples are unique to Sambor Prei Kuk. A characteristic decorational element of Sambor Prei Kuk's monuments are so-called "flying temples" or "flying palaces", very detailed stone carvings depicting whole buildings at the outer walls of Prasat towers.
Sambor Prei Kuk's oldest structures, as already mentioned, belong to the North Group. Its central tower, perhaps erected or renovated by Ishanavarman I, is surrounded by four smaller towers in quincunx order. Two splendid statues were found here, they are now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, but copies can be seen in Sambor Prei Kuk. Two structures of the North Group located even further north (on the other side of today's access road and car park) are of special interest for tourists: Prasat Chrey (N18) and Prasat Luong Chom Bok (N24) are completely covered with roots of strangler figs, making Sambor Prei Kuk a place deserving the title "jungle temple".
The South Group was the main sanctuary under King Ishanavarman I, inscriptions mention him as the founder. The complex was erected about 620, during the early years of his reign in Ishanapura (Sambor Prei Kuk). The outer walls of the central Prasat carry tile reliefs depicting the "flying palaces" mentioned above, a kind of mythological aeroplanes of the gods. The lintel reliefs of this sanctuary are among the most celebrated in Khmer art, their medaillons are typical for the Sambor Prei Kuk style. The colonettes show an unusual feature, namely friezes with stylized birds in pendant garlands. Lintels and colonettes have traces of red paint. The interior walls were ornamented with thin pilasters. Smaller octagonal towers surround the central one. The ruin of the main Gopuram (eastern gate) of Ishanavarman's South Group is completely conquered by a huge strangler fig.
The Central Group "C", slighty further west, is much younger, most of it is from the Angkorian period. Its central Prasat tower is known as "lion temple", since there are two impressive lion sculptures flanking the access stairway. The Khmer word for "lion" is "tao". So the Khmer name for the temple is Prasat Tao. Compared to Angkor's lion statues, they are of rather unusual design.