Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom

Kampong Thom

More than just a stopover between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, Kampong Thom is the heartland of the ancient Chenla Kingdom and the gateway to the oldest temple ruins in Cambodia.

For most tourists, the quiet and unremarkable town of Kampong Thom is little more than a highway lunch stop — and that’s all the better for you, because they don’t know what we know.

Hidden in the forest outside of town, interspersed with bomb craters left by American attacks in the 1970s, 150 crumbling temples stand in a state of slow surrender to the forest, choked but not yet vanquished by the grasping tree roots of the all-consuming jungle. Though it feels like a tranquil forest escape, this archaeological site is all that remains of the Chenla Kingdom, a Hindu state that thrived in Cambodia during the sixth and seventh centuries. Wandering among these ruins, many of them at least as impressive and even more atmospheric than their cousins to the west, you’ll see the germination of an architectural and decorative culture that would reach its zenith hundreds of years later in the temples of Angkor. If you ask us, there are few places in Cambodia more spine-tinglingly evocative.

What’s more, if you do stay, you’ll have time to contrast the ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk with one of our favorite offbeat sites: Phnom Santuk. Perched at the top of 800 steps on a holy mountain, this temple couldn’t be more different from the Chenla ruins. Stunning or gaudy depending on your taste, it’s home to a riotous gaggle of multi-colored buildings festooned with naga snakes, dragons, Buddhas and pagodas. Like it or loathe it, it's worth the climb just for the views from the top.

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