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Ancient Cambodia

Author: David Pettitt

Retaining a quiet charm and independent Khmer culture, Cambodia stands unique from its near neighbours. For many the town of Siem Reap in Cambodia’s north-west is synonymous with the country and its proximity to the spectacular temples of Angkor Wat – one of the ancient wonders of the world – draws visitors from across the globe. Yet there is another side to Cambodia, where little-visited ancient ruins remain hidden in dense jungle and pre-Angkorian cities stand alongside striking Brahmanic temples. These are our eight key lesser known sights of ancient Cambodia.

1. Beng Mealea

Located an hour-and-a-half's drive northeast of Siem Reap, Beng Mealea is a spectacular and mysterious temple complex in the heart of the jungle. Unlike many other Angkor temples where the vegetation has been cut back, Bang Mealea remains very similar to when it was discovered with moss-covered sandstone blocks, vine-tangled walls and collapsed galleries. Discover impressive carvings, a well-preserved library and the dark cool chambers.

Beng Mealea, Cambodia
Bang Mealea

2. Sambor Prei Kuk

Constructed during the Chenla civilisation and dating back to the 7th century, Sambor Prei Kuk is an excellent alternative to over-populated Ta Prohm. Made up of lots of small temples and towers all thickly wrapped in vines and roots, this complex is thought to be the first large bas-relief design. The most impressive sight at Sambor Prei Kuk is Prasat Chrey, a small tower which has completely been overgrown by an ancient tree.

sambor prei kuk
Sambor Prei Kuk

3. Preah Vihear

Cambodia’s only other UNESCO World Heritage Site besides Angkor, Preah Vihear located in the far north of Cambodia is one of the countries less visited but most beautiful temple complexes. Dating back to the 10th century, this beautiful Hindu temple sits on the edge of a 525m plateau overlooking the Dangrek Mountains and endless rolling Cambodian countryside. Slightly difficult to reach, the views alone are worth the effort.

Preah Vihear ancient temple, Cambodia
Preah Vihear

4. Koh Ker

Like those at Preah Vihear, the impressive temples of Koh Ker are some of the finest Angkorian remains in Cambodia. Over 1,000 years old, the magical Koh Ker complex was once the capital of the Angkorian Empire and, until recently, was enveloped by thick jungle. Still hard to reach, there are 42 major structures here and Prasat Thom – a 40 metre high pyramid – is the must-see highlight.

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Koh Ker

5. Banteay Srei

To the north of Ta Prohm, further from Angkor’s main sites, Banteay Srei is a 10th century temple complex. Not a royal site, Banteay Srei was devised and financed by two prominent local inhabitants and was dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. The temples here are known for their use of vibrant pink sandstone and there are elaborate carvings of floral reliefs and Ramayana scenes.

banteay srei angkor wat
Banteay Srei
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6. Angkor Borei and Phnom Da

Located south of capital Phnom Penh, Angkor Borei is a pre-Angkorian city close to 1,500 years old and a gateway to the sanctuary of Phnom Da. Originally known as Vyadhapura, the city was heavily influenced by subcontinent religions brought to the region by travelling merchants and traders. Similarly, spectacular Phnom Da housed for centuries numerous Buddhist and Hindu shrines.

angkor borei cambodia
Angkor Borei carvings

7. Ta Prohm

Forming part of the larger Angkor site, the temple complex at Ta Prohm remains much as it was discovered in the 19th century – surrounded by thick jungle and enveloped by creepers, twisting vines and heavy undergrowth. Exceptionally atmospheric, Ta Prohm was completed at the end of the 12th century, was dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII and latterly became a monastery.

ta prohm temple cambodia
Ta Prohm

8. Phnom Chisor

Site of an 11th century Khmer Brahmanic temple, Phnom Chisor sits high on a hilltop in the southern province of Takeo. The king and his religious advisers would have once climbed over 400 steps to the hilltop complex and following in their footsteps certainly takes dedication. The views from the summit over the countryside justify the climb and the surrounding villages are also well worth a visit.

phnom chisor
Phnom Chisor / Image credit: Christina Andrada

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