At an ancient Chenla site, a series of carvings depict men who appear to be foreigners. Their identity has confounded, and divided, archaeologists and historians and raises questions about the interactions of the Khmer empires with the outside world.
Leading off of the main highway 10 minutes north of Kampong Thom city, the road to Sambor Prei Kuk is seldom travelled by tourists. But after 16 kilometres, the road reaches an ancient temple at the site of the former capital of the Chenla Empire.
The ruins provide not only a glimpse of the Pre-Angkorian period, but of a mystery that has confounded researchers – one that, if solved, could shed light on the people and cultures that interacted with ancient Khmer civilisation.
Amid the dense tropical rainforest and bomb craters left by American attacks in the 1970s lie 150 ancient sandstone temples, all pre-dating the Angkorian era. Constructed on an area of 4 square kilometres, the temples are divided into three clusters: the North Group, South Group and Central Group.
The southernmost is the home to the puzzle.
Facing the main temple, Prasat Yeah Poun, is a derelict construction called Kda Ouk. Its architrave – the beam above the columns – bears the carvings of 12 men. Each is different – some with strong, chiselled features, and others more delicate – but they have notable characteristics in common, including moustaches, long curly hair, big eyes, thick eyebrows and pointy noses.
The unique features of these men do not fit with the statues and engravings at the rest of the temples – nor, researchers say, with the physical appearance of Cambodian people. This has led to speculation that they are the portraits of foreigners. But who were these outsiders and why, in the seventh century, would they have been important enough to the Khmer people to have been literally put on a pedestal?
Chiv Heng, a 52-year-old farmer who has lived near Sambo Prei Kuk for his entire life, said he has always wondered about the identities of the men since he was a boy, but no one in the area had any answers for him.
“Some elderly people told me that they were Indian, and some said they were religious idols, but no one is sure,” Heng said. “But, when UNTAC [the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] came to Cambodia to organise the election, I noticed that the faces looked similar to the face of the UNTAC’s barang [Western] staff.”
“Although I stayed in school for only five years and do not know much about Khmer history, I could tell that the heads must have been the copies of barang men who came to Cambodia in the past.”
Smey Smak, 59, a tourism police officer born in Kampong Thom and stationed in Sambor Prei Kuk since 2004, shares the same hypothesis with Chiv Heng.
“I usually hear the tour guides explain to the tourists that they were Indian, but I do not believe that,” he said. “The busts look like the Spanish people, if one asks me, but I never learned that Spanish people came to Cambodia in ancient times.”
A foreign concept
Given its decay and remoteness, today it is easy to forget that Sambor Prei Kuk was the capital of the Khmer Empire during the Chenla period, beginning during the reign of King Isanavarman I between 616 and 637 AD.