Temples Of The Forest
By: Bronwyn Sloan. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter ( November, 2001 Volume 1 No.6 )

About 35 kilometers from the provincial capital of Kampong Thom, along the potholed road to Preah Vihear province, a cement sign points off to the right. Through sleepy villages and thick scrub it winds, until suddenly, without any warning, the forest erupts, and a huge monument rears up to the left. To the left and the right now, peeping out from behind trees, temples appear, sometimes as glimpses, something monoliths, proclaiming the power of a long gone ancient civilization. These are the temples of Sambo Prey Kuk. Even the name is mysterious. Literally translated, it means abundant forest prison cell, although the people who built them were obviously masters of this domain. So far, 179 separate prasats, or temples, have been discovered. The temples are arranged in three groups the central, north and south groups.

The southern group date from the sixth and seventh centuries, centuries before Angkor Wat, and are dedicated to Shiva. The central group is also dedicated to Shiva and of the eighth century and has links to Jayavarman II, who at one time resided in this area and went on to found the Angkor dynasty. The northern group is interesting for its distinctive octagonal shapes, symbolizing the resurrection of the Cambodian empire, according to Under Secretary of State for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Mr Chuch Phoeurn. "This is a specific feature of this site a symbol of linkage from an ancient period," he said. "The octagon means resurrection and in the Shiva god belief, it also symbolizes a linking road from the human world to paradise." This city of temples has left very little of itself to tell modern archeologists its story except for silent stones and bricks, but it appears to have served as the capital of the Chenla empire a collection of small kingdoms located along the upper Mekong and Tonle Sap which may have been linked together by the rise of wet rise agriculture and an important ruler of Sambo Prey Kuk, the powerful monarch called Ishanarvarman. "The kings of Angkor declared themselves descendents of Chenla in an inscription on a lintel in the Bakong temple of the Angkor group," Mr Phoeurn said.

Bakong was the first of Cambodia's great ancient temples to be made of stone, preceding the magnificence of Angkor and providing a link between the brick structures of Sambo Prey Kuk and the later stone monoliths. In the forest of Sambo Prey Kuk today, winding paths emerge from the trees to bring travelers face-to-face with huge prasats at every turn. Prasat Tao, or the Lion Temple, has been cleared and sits regally, two stone lions guarding its entrance. The lintel has long been looted, and there are cracks in the brick structure which run from the roof to the ground, but it maintains its air of power and importance. Nearby, Prasat Neak Poan (Temple of Grandmother Poan) shimmers in the hot sun, the seven structures that make up its whole set in a grid pattern over an area of hundreds of meters. Carvings in its octagonal outlying structures show Apsaras, or celestial dancers, in various poses. "This is without a doubt the most important archeological site in Cambodia after Angkor," archeologist William South worth of the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap said.

"This is without a doubt the most important archeological site in Cambodia after Angkor," archeologist William South worth of the Center for Khmer Studies in Siem Reap said. "This is because it is probably the most complete, and King Ishanarvarman was a most important, powerful king. "Most of what we know about Chenla is derived from Chinese sources (of the time) and exactly what this kingdom was is never very clear. We do know this was a very influential city and it was at the center of a historical shift within Cambodia." Until this time, the major political centers appear to have been in the south, with the Funan dynasty, which has left us the ruins of Angkor Borei in Takeo province. But under the reign of kings such as Ishanarvarman, the north began to emerge as a religious and political center. This would eventually give rise to the power that made the Angkorian empire the richest and most dominant in South East Asia for centuries to come. From this base that now stands peopled only by ruined temples and the forest, Ishanarvarman forged diplomatic relations with various smaller fiefdoms and other countries and dynasties across Indochina, including the Champa and the rulers of Central Thailand. These links would serve Cambodia well through the centuries.

But despite its historical importance, few people visit the city today, and there is little study being conducted into Sambo Prey Kuk at the moment. There is no money for that sort of work in a country as poor as Cambodia. "A Japanese-based organization (JSA) is currently setting up a WebPages on it and we are hoping for funding in the near future, but although the ministry has a study and conservation plan in writing, we need funding to carry it out," Mr Phoeurn explained. Nor are the tourists rolling in. They race from Siem Reap and Angkor through to Phnom Penh, rarely stopping or even realizing that these amazing monuments exist, hidden in their own forest prison. "Maybe we get 20 or 30 foreign visitors a month here," one of the guards at the gate of Sambo Prey Kuk said. "Maybe. We get more Khmer people coming here, but even then, not so many." The sheer beauty and level of preservation of Angkor and the others in the Angkor complex such as the Bayon Temple make it worth competing with busloads of fellow tourists to see it. But in the silence, wrapped in a blanket of forest with only the singing of birds to disturb the heavy air, Sambo Prey Kuk maintains an air of mystery and dignity, precursor to one of the world's great empires, alone, forgotten and serene.