There’s one destination that dominates the relatively small list of World Heritage Sites in Cambodia – the majestic ancient city of Angkor, with its enormous temples covered by jungle.
Angkor is, by far the most visited site in Cambodia, and is also one of the most important historical landmarks in Southeast Asia. But don’t let its scale distract from the other Cambodian World Heritage Sites.
Despite the lush jungle that covers much of the country, intersected by wide flowing rivers teeming with life, all of Cambodia’s World Heritage Sites are cultural. In fact, they are all temples from when powerful empires ruled this land.
That there are other significant temples here, beyond just the most famous ones of the Khmer period, is interesting in itself. Visiting these other World Heritage Sites in Cambodia is a good way to start to explore parts of the country’s history that is often missed by most tourists.
Well before the Ancient Greeks built many of the magnificent temples that we associate with the country’s history, other great civilisations ruled the lands here. One of the most important was the Mycenaean civilisation, which reached its peak between the 16th and 12th centuries BC.
Two of the main settlements of the this kingdom now make up a World Heritage Site – Mycenae and Tiryns, both of which transport you back to a world of myths and legends that have been told through ancient texts.
Mycenae was the birthplace of the legendary hero Perseus, as well as Agamemnon, who is said to have led his troops to Troy to rescue the beautiful Helen (the face who launched a thousand ships). With many parts of its grand buildings remaining, along with monumental tombs and its famous Lion Gate, I think it’s well worth visiting Mycenae – especially if you’re touring the Peloponnese.
A short distance away, Tiryns has well-preserved Cyclopean walls that are an incredible demonstration of how advanced the engineering was for the time. You can still make out the impressive palaces and throne rooms, with remnants of frescoes, and see a collection of masks, jewellery and weapons found in the tombs.
Temple of Preah Vihear
There’s another Khmer temple complex that is a World Heritage Site, although it’s not nearly as famous… at least, not for the right reasons.
Preah Vihear is about 200 kilometres by road from Siem Reap, on the border with Thailand. And it’s this location that’s made it so controversial, with both Thailand and Cambodia claiming ownership. There have even been fights between the military over the temple, even though the International Criminal Court has ruled that it belongs to Cambodia.
When it comes to the heritage, the Khmer temple complex at Preah Vihear is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and was built between the 9th and 12th centuries. At the top of a plateau, overlooking the plains beneath, it consists of a series of sanctuaries connected by pavements and staircases.
The architecture adapts to the natural environment and there is an excellent collection of carved ornamentation throughout the complex. Although it’s a long drive, taking a tour to Preah Vihear from Siem Reap is well worth it to see the site.
Temple Zone of Sambor Prei Kuk
The site of Sambor Prei Kuk is from an earlier period than Angkor, and was once a grand city called Ishanapura, built by the Chenla Empire in the 6th and 7th centuries.
Located about halfway between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, it’s a large area that has about 100 temples made from fired brick and sandstone. They’re collected into three main groups, each with a central tower surrounded by smaller towers and other structures, enclosed by square walls.
The decorations of the temples at Sambor Prei Kuk are similar to those of the Khmer Empire, in the sense that they show carvings of Hindu gods. but there are also influences from Buddhism and Animism. The temples are built as octagonal shapes, which you don’t really see elsewhere in Asian history.
As well as the temples, there are other remains of the city of Ishanapura that offer an insight into the heritage of this culture, which doesn’t get nearly as much attention as the Khmers but is still a very significant and interesting part of the story of Cambodia. Set amongst lush forest, the peaceful atmosphere makes it a lovely place to visit.