Archaeologists Set on Uncovering the History of Prek Sramoch Canal at Angkor

Photo shows Prek Sramoch Canal has now dried up and been turned into rice fields. Photo by Isa Rohany

SIEM REAP — Archaeologists from the APSARA National Authority have been looking into the construction of the Prek Sramoch canal at Angkor to find out why this waterway was built.

Was this canal whose width reached 300 meters in some sections, meant to supply water in the area, or was it mainly to facilitate the transport of people and goods? And why some of its sections were built so wide, they are asking.

So far, little information has been available regarding the canal believed to have been built before the reign of King Jayavarman VII, which would mean before the late 12th century.

The Prek Sramoch canal was mentioned by anthropologist Ang Choulean in an article published in the mid-2000s, and in the research report of an archeology student at the Royal University of Fine Arts who wrote around 2000-2001 about the communities living along the canal from the floating village of Kampong Khleang to Phnom Kulen Mountain near Angkor.

Apart from these, there has been no document found or research conducted on this canal.

Other questions include whether it was dug to transport pottery from Phnom Kulen to the Tonle Sap Lake or to transport stones from O Thma Dap to the lake and then move them along the Siem Reap River to the city of Angkor for temple construction.

Finding answers

In 2023, the Department of Research, Training, and Communication of APSARA—the Cambodian government institution managing the Angkor Archeological Park in Siem Reap province—launched the research project on the Prek Sramoch canal.

The project’s second phase in 2024 has focused on the excavation of the banks and bottom of the canal mainly to search for evidence of human settlement.

Researchers and residents have different names for the canal. Its lower part where there still is water and can still be used for boats to go to the Kampong Khleang commune is called Prek Sramoch.

The canal’s upper part, which has dried up and been turned into rice fields, goes from National Road No. 6 to Stung village in Samraong commune in Soutr Nikum district, and is called Konlong Sampov, or Sampov path. There still are dams clearly visible on both sides of the canal even though there is no longer water, and this has been fields for a long time.

As Tin Tina, APSARA deputy director of the Department of Research, explained, the project team used aerial photographs taken by French archeologist Victor Goloubew and published in 1941 along with aerial images found on Google Earth.

Those photos have shown that Prek Sramoch goes from north to south. Today, this means in Soutr Nikum district going from Samrong village, crossing National Road No. 6 at Damdek commune’s Thnal Chek village, to Kampong Khlaing commune, and ending at the Tonle Sap Lake.

Although it was previously believed that the canal stretched from Phnom Kulen to the Tonle Sap, the results of the first phase of this research show that the canal may have stopped around the Samrong Pagoda and did not reach Phnom Kulen. No trace of a possible canal has been found north of there, Tina said.

Prek Sramoch is 23-kilometer long with a width ranging from 150-to-300 meters, being narrow when it reaches the Tonle Sap Lake. The dam where the canal falls into the lake is more than 4 meters in height today. However, Tina believes that the dam may have been higher when it was built.

According to the archaeologists, the canal may have had two sources of water. The first was from Phnom Kulen, north of the Angkor Plain, the water converging at the Trach Pok dam before flowing into the canal. The second possible source is the Tonle Sap Lake.

The current condition of the canal shows that, during the rainy season, Prek Sramoch was half-full, which enabled boats to travel to the Sovan Seila Pagoda in Soutr Nikum district.

The upper part of Prek Sramoch going from the village of Thnal Chek to the north dried up, becoming fields where people grow rice. But the body of the canal is quite visible along the back of the dam where trees have grown alongside houses.

In the lower part of the canal down to the Tonle Sap Lake, the banks were badly damaged and became covered by a village. The soil from the banks has been used to make brick kilns. The bricks from the area are famous for their quality. However, in recent years, the APSARA Authority has prohibited digging for soil. 

In addition to brick kilns and the houses of the people who have been living there for a very long time, there are pagodas, stupas and crematoriums in the area.

Built for what purpose?

Although the exact year of the canal’s construction is unknown, some researchers have concluded that it may have been dug before the era of King Jayavarman VII who reigned in the late 12th century-early 13th century.

It was probably altered as time went by. During his reign, King Jayavarman VII built roads and bridges. The canal was probably cut in two at what is now Thnal Chek village, east of the Dam Dek market in the Dam Dek district. The road today is National Road 6. 

Residents living along the Prek Sramoch in Thnal Chek village said that Prek Sramoch—or Thnal Sampov or Konlong Sampov or Prey Thnal—is an ancient waterway along which ships would travel between the Tonle Sap Lake and Phnom Kulen. Some locals also believe that the canal was once a route used to transport the stones to build temples in the city of Angkor.

However, no trace of such stone has been found so far. Tin Tina of the Department of Research said that, if it had been a waterway connecting to the O Thmor Dap sandstone quarry, some stone blocks would have fallen into the canal. But previous research or questioning of the villagers has not led to finding such stones.

Questions Remain

Since the beginning of 2024, the APSARA Authority team has excavated an area at Kampong Khleang village and Thmey pagoda near the Tonle Sap Lake. According to archaeologist Chhay Rachana, the excavation is for the same purpose as the first project: to find out more about the Prek Sramoch. The excavation centers on the eastern part of the canal bank to study settlements and how long people lived there.

The project team have dug at different locations and drilled through the canal to find out its depth and study the accumulation of soil layers, Rachana said.

Based on current data, the canal may have been more than 7 meters deep. The accumulated soil is mud followed by sand, which shows that water flowed there.

Archaeologist Vitou Phirum said that initial results from the second excavation show traces of pottery, shells, and some daily-used materials that were buried.

This result confirmed that at that location near the lake, a community of people lived for a long time. The red pottery discovered at the site was made in the late pre-Angkorian or early Angkorian period.

According to Phirum, a large population lived in the area as it was close to the river that was rich in fish. Another explanation is that the area could have been a port or a busy economic area attracting people and therefore large communities settling in the area.

Originally written in Khmer for ThmeyThmey, this article was translated by Torn Chanritheara for Cambodianess.

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