The biggest draw card in Kampong Thom province is the pre-Angkorian temple complex of Sambor Prei Kuk, which consists of over 100 brick and sandstone examples of early Khmer art. The three main sites of what was once the capital of ancient Cambodia date back to the Chenla Kingdom of the early 7th century, and make for a fascinating, logical prelude to Angkor.
There are also dozens of other minor temple sites, with the Buddhist pilgrimage mountain at Phnom Sontuk, the ancient centre of commerce at Prasat Andet and the renovated Prasat Kuah Nokor all well worth visiting.
The countryside rice fields and grasslands that edge towards the Tonle Sap are an important wildlife centre with several endangered bird species, such as the endangered Bengal Florican, storks and pelicans all combining for some spectacular sightseeing at the Boeng Tonle Chmar Bird Sanctuary, which can be visited in combination with a tour through ox-cart run farms, rural fishing villages or the stone craft centre.
Hiring a moto guide is the best way to explore the many sights, while keen DIY enthusiasts should note that some roads are often little more than muddy paths – especially in the wet season. Arunras Hotel has the best selection of drivers and guides hanging around out front, but be sure to agree on a price before departing.
Sambor Prei Kuk
The stunning Sambor Prei Kuk is a vast collection of 7th century temple ruins, sitting 30kms to the north of Kampong Thom. A must for any serious temple-goer or for those with an interest in Cambodia history, the site is best seen before heading to Angkor to keep the construction history in chronological order. Once known as Isanapura, this pre-Angkorian national capital was 150 years ahead of its more well-known successor, and today makes for a splendid day trip from Kampong Thom.
Popular with locals yet still largely unvisited by tourists, the semi-jungle setting, with giant tree roots wrapped around crumbling sandstone edifices, add character and mystery. The three main temple sites (Preah Sambor (or North Group), Preah Tor (Lion Group), and Preah Yeay Poun) are all within the one complex, along with intricate bas relief walls, dozens of minor ruins and stunning stonework, will keep you exploring for hours.
On arrival, there is a craft shop which sells brochures (2,000 riel) at the main gate, and a small cluster of eateries and food stalls. If driving by yourself, the turnoff from the NH6 is around 11kms from town – look for signs directing you to Tbeng Meanchey.
Phnom Santuk Mountain
The holiest site of Buddhist pilgrimage in the region, the still active temple atop the 207m Santuk Mountain is flanked by numerous images and carvings, with some made from stone, others from boulders and yet more cut directly into the mountain face centuries ago. Climb the 809 steps through the forest walkway and be rewarded with a series of intricate shrines, a colourful pagoda and a group of chatty monks. The sunsets are superb, although the descent in hike down isn’t – bring a torch if staying late.
To get there, head south on the NH6 for around 18kms till you see the large ‘Santuk Mountain Site’. There are plenty of food vendors and begging children around the entrance, remember that their guide services – which can be both informative and entertaining, especially if you bring sweets or a balloon or two – will need to be rewarded in cash. Entrance technically free but you may be asked to pay for parking.
Prasat Andet Temple
A bumpy ride from town towards the Tonle Sap, this was once the commercial hub for ancient traders along the river around the same period as Sambor Prei Kuk. It features some impressive masonry work in its laterite and sandstone buildings. Though its historical significance is more impressive than its current aesthetic, the small, crumbling temple site is one well and truly off the beaten track. Look for the signpost pointing south on the main highway.
Prasat Kuh Nokor Temple
A good hour’s drive south of Kampong Thom, Prasat Kuh Nokor is easily reached by road, and best visited as a side-trip if driving to or from Phnom Penh. Thanks to a large restoration project in the 1960s before the fighting started, the 11th century pagoda, which lies within the grounds of a modern, working temple, is in remarkably good condition. Look for the signs on the NH6, around 20kms north of Skuon, directing you to the gate. From the NH6 turnoff, there are always moto drivers milling around to make the 4kms round trip.
Boeng Tonle Chmar Bird Sanctuary
Covering some 400 hectares of land linked by interconnecting water ways along Boeng Kla, the flooded forests at the meeting point of the Stoung and Stung Chik Kreng tributaries provide a sanctuary and seasonal buffet for tens of thousands of rare and exotic birds, while the traditional local houses to rise and fall with the water level. A trip here can be combined with an excursion to the Stoeng Chikirieng grasslands – ask at your hotel for an English-speaking moto guide.
Stone Handicraft Village
Heading towards Phnom Penh, the stone masons at Ka Kos village are famed for their impressive, in both size and detail, sculptures. They are mostly of Buddhist imagery for local residents who travel from across the land to watch these workers ply their trade. Also offered are a number of smaller figures for exporting, but buyers be warned – the rock from the Santhuk Mountains is incredibly heavy.