Cambodia's lost UNESCO site, by Tristan Rutherford
The Times, 27 April 2019
At sunrise the Unesco World Heritage Site of Angkor glows blood red. The forest’s dawn chorus, as startlingly cacophonous as a car alarm, drowns the towering babel of global tongues. Each day up to 10,000 tourists visit this tropical metropolis that once supported a million people, making it the planet’s largest urban centre until London took the crown in the 19th century. There are vast groups of Chinese and Russians. Plus older Europeans dressed like they’re attending a barbeque, and younger ones dressed for Glastonbury. In a bid to curtail numbers, Angkor’s daily entry fee has been raised to £27.
A hundred miles east of Angkor sits Sambor Prei Kuk, which was inscribed onto the Unesco list in 2017. Entry costs £2, and it welcomes just 20 foreigners per day.
Under cashew nut and banyan trees, where monkeys play and butterflies swarm, lay 52 Hindu temples that were locked inside an arboreal prison for a thousand years. French colonial archaeologists claimed these jungle ruins were invisible from even 150m away. It’s many a traveller’s dream to play Indiana Jones or Lara Croft amid vine-choked shrines (indeed Tomb Raider was filmed around Angkor). Here it’s a reality. And at sunset, I’m the only guy here.
Sambor Prei Kuk means ‘the temple in the richness of the forest’. The description is poetically apt. The northernmost part of the three main complexes was founded by Isanavarman I in the early 7th century. One of the eight remaining temples here has been wholly inundated by a 400-year-old banyan tree. Its helix branches form an inescapable embrace that would send the 30m-high structure tumbling if the clinch was cut. Sanskrit inscriptions are clear as day. They speak of Hindu sacrifices carried out on the stone steps, a practise frowned upon by Angkor’s Buddhists who returned here for architectural inspiration centuries later.
All that’s left of the neighbouring temple is a crater. In the 1970s Vietnamese troops found forest solace here away from Cambodia’s CIA-backed army. American B52 bombers gutted the 25km2 site far more effectively than banyan trees, not so much Apocalypse Now as Apocalypse Why. Machine gun strafes stud many of the northern group temples. Others are fire-charred inside, as impoverished locals lobbed in bombs in the mistaken belief that gold was buried under the floor of each shrine. That said, conflict dispelled tourists, rendering today’s Sambor Prei Kuk as quiet as Angkor in the 1990s. Not that you would have visited back then: the last landmines were cleared in 2008.
Volunteer tour guide Samay advises me not to stray from the beaten track. He spotted my aimless afternoon wander from his tiny visitors centre and offers to guide me around the ruins for £5, with all monies going to the seven communities that surround Sambor. Together we spy deer tracks in the sandy forest path that leads to the southern complex ten minutes away, plus rabbit droppings and a cobra skin. Sambor Prei Kuk boasts neither the size nor the grandeur of Angkor; its grace is its untamed spirit and bucolic setting. Samay explains that elephants and tigers used to frequent the site before “noise scared them away”.
Although he saw one big cat near the Thai border. If we came across one today would he snap a photo on his Samsung? “No sir, I would run away.”
The southern group of temples are younger and bolder than those in the north. Indeed, the site would be even more impressive if the 20,000 households that once thrived here weren’t built from wood, which the jungle has slowly subsumed (only religious structures were deemed worthy of stone). A curtain of butterflies parts to gift access to a temple dedicated to fertility god Shiva. Like several others it contains a holy well that represents Yoni, the female genitalia, plus the Lingam, a bulbous stone rod that represents, well, three guesses. A gathering dusk pairs with wood smoke from the villages, winnowing the blazing winter light through an ethereal canopy of Cambodian rosewood and flowering padauk trees.
Samay and I complete our stroll to the Central Group of ruins. Again, creeping forest fingers have poked and prodded these 18 brick temples into pastoral ruin. In one case a tree has mastered a temple by sitting on top, its sinister roots scything through the structure like shrapnel from a slow motion bomb. The Lions’ Temple, one of the youngest, sits relatively intact. Macaque monkeys sit on the stone lions that gaze over this lost kingdom, which fell in 8th century, giving way to the Khmer Empire in the early 9th. I tell Samay that I saw tourists feeding bananas to monkeys at the empire’s capital of Angkor, each hoping for that classic Instagram shot. “Maybe monkey bites tourist and it goes on YouTube,” laughs Samay. It’s quite a good gag.
Local infrastructure is scrambling to catch up with Sambor Prei Kuk’s inclusion on the Unesco list, alongside 1,000 other global must-sees like the Taj Mahal and Stonehenge. The dusty road out is a timeless Asian tapestry of rice paddies and water buffalo. Of young girls herding fat pigs as their little brothers leap naked into the marsh. There are no tractors or vapour trails, just papaya trees, wood huts and egrets standing on one leg. It’s a fine place to site an empire that once stretched into Thailand and Vietnam, riven with silty brown rivers that flow into the mighty Mekong at Phnom Penh, 125 miles south.
It’s also a great place to open a guesthouse, which Franco-Cambodian couple Rico and Kunthy did in November 2017. Their charming new maison d'hôtes makes up the only worthy accommodation within 30 miles of Sambor Prei Kuk. Unlike the fab hotels of Angkor and Phnom Penh, it’s a simple affair. Guests dine on Kunthy’s esteemed cooking while Rico pours pastis for £1 per glass. Visitors then crash in upscale Thai-style bungalows with private bathrooms. The couple’s USP is their language skills and local knowledge. This enables them to run bespoke scooter tours, with guests riding pilot or pillion, into the luxuriant hinterland.
As I’ve already seen the road to Sambor Prei Kuk, Rico guides me towards the sacred Suntuk Mountain nearby. He’s riding a Phantom, the Cambodian equivalent of a Harley. That leaves me with a 100CC Honda Dream, which is considered effeminate even in this rural locale. Again it’s a road less travelled. Wide eyes, big smiles and loud ‘hallos’, if not outright invitations to tea. Red dirt roads and leaf litter tracks ensure a top speed of 30kmh. As Rico suggests: “It’s a grand tour, not a grand prix.”
We switch off the engines at Suntuk Monastery. Again we’re the only tourists here. Saffron monks chant incantations while they munch on mangos, as monkeys steal jackfruit in the trees above. The site’s arrestingly colourful frescoes and vast stone Buddhas remain intact because, explains Rico, the Khmer Rouge simply had no orders to destroy them. Group terror only followed instruction from above. In a temple precipice sit a jumble of drums. These could beat out cross-country messages via a network of hilltop monasteries in a pre-WhatsApp age. It’s a Cambodian picture of yesteryear that’s finally on the map.
More Cambodian travel journalism can be read here