Joanna Wolfarth visits Cambodia’s lesser-known temple site of Sambor Prei Kuk in Kampong Thom province to discover a forest full of pre-Angkorian wonders. Photography by Phil Butterworth.

Ancient monuments enveloped in giant strangler fig trees scatter a sub-tropical forest alive with the sounds of birds and insects. This was once the city of Isanapura — the capital of the Kingdom of Chenla, which thrived under the reign of the 7th-century monarch Isanavarman I.

Although Chenla’s precise history and makeup is still a subject for scholarly debate, it is thought to have gained independence from the ancient Kingdom of Funan in 550AD, absorbing neighbouring territories during a period of expansion before breaking up into separate states in the 8th century.

Today, despite the rise and fall of several kingdoms and capitals since, many of its 7th- and 8th-century temples that pre-date Angkor by hundreds of years remain at Sambor Prei Kuk, around 40 kilometres from Kampong Thom town.

Of the 100 temples that once dotted the area around 50 remain recognisable today, grouped together in three main areas. They may lack the grandeur or scale of Angkor Wat or Preah Khan in Siem Reap, but this is possibly one of the most atmospheric temple complexes in Cambodia.

The square towers built in sandstone are similar to sites dating back to early Angkor, but other octagonal brick temples are, stylistically, very different. These structures reveal artistic and architectural influences that originated in India combined with something uniquely Khmer — a mixture of styles that reached its apex with Angkor Wat.

Many still have original reliefs clinging to exterior walls and incredible brickwork remains where such stucco has disappeared. Figures peer down from ornate false windows and stone lions guard colossal doorways. Inside the temples, gigantic yonis (pedestals that symbolise female genitalia) hint at the sizeable lingas (phallic symbols representing the Hindu god Shiva) that were once the focus of worship here.

The towers are in remarkable condition considering their age, the forest setting and the 20th-century civil war during which some temples sustained damage. Indeed, the École Française d’Extrême-Orient first cleared the site in the 1960s, but factional fighting meant that it was closed off to visitors until 1998.

A team from Waseda University in Japan is now working alongside the Ministry of Culture on restoration projects, and the temples are included on a tentative list of suitable sites for future inclusion on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The Sambor Prei Kuk Conservation and Development Community currently promotes community-based tourism initiatives in the area, including home-stays near the temples and activities such as ox-cart rides. But to fully appreciate the scale of the site, hiring a highly-trained local guide is indispensable.

They can assist with getting an overview of the original layout of the temples, pointing out partially covered ramparts and moats, and providing historical background. A guide costs $6 per day, and one dollar of that goes into a local community fund. Guides can be arranged on arrival at Sambor Prei Kuk or in advance via the Conservation and Development Community website.

Perhaps surprisingly, the provincial getaway also offers the option of a little luxury to go alongside sweaty forest excursions. Kampong Thom town — a 45-minute, $20 tuk-tuk ride away from the temples — offers several hotel options.

The delightful Sambor Village, a boutique resort on the quiet southern bank of the town’s Stung Seng River, is an ideal choice for a romantic retreat or an adventurous family weekend, with rooms from $50 per night.

Blending European comfort with Khmer charm, 19 semi-detached bungalows, each with a private terrace, sit amongst lush greenery. The tasteful decoration — exposed beams, tiled floors and simple four-poster beds — adds to their rustic charm. A restaurant and bar are located in a traditional wooden house overlooking a good-sized pool. It’s a veritable oasis of calm and the perfect place to sink a few beers after a day in the humid forest. It is only a 15-minute walk or 5-minute tuk-tuk ride from the main market.

Arunras Hotel, next to Kompong Thom market, is a budget-friendly accommodation option and its restaurant offers decent Khmer food at local prices. A double-fan room with window costs $7 per night, with rooms with air-con and hot water around $15. For handmade pizzas and delicious burgers I recommend Run Amok, a New Zealand-Khmer owned restaurant close to Sambor Village, which serves up scoops of yummy handmade ice-cream.

Despite the ease of getting to the incredible ruins of Sambor Prei Kuk, international visitor numbers are still far lower than those at Angkor. This could well change after a UNESCO decision, so wise temple enthusiasts and lovers of rural retreats would do well to book in a trip now and enjoy having the run of the forest.

For more information, visit samborpreikuk.com. Details about home-stays and other community-based tourism activities can be found at www.ccben.org