For many people, Angkor Wat alone justifies a trip to Southeast Asia. Like many sites in the Angkor Archeological Park, this breathtaking temple dates to the 12th century, with its unique west-facing orientation indicating that it was intended as a mausoleum for its creator, Suryavarman II.
Angkor Wat’s colossal size reflects its ambition: this was intended as no less than a microcosm of the universe. Nonetheless it’s difficult to get lost here, with the complex arranged on three tiers and the instantly recognizable 5 inner and 4 outer towers of the raised central temple serving as orientation points. And they make a particularly majestic sight reflected in the nearby water basin.
Every surface in this well-preserved complex is covered with intricate carvings reflecting Hindu cosmology and the Khmers’ military triumphs.
The Bayon temple forms a square at the center of the much larger square of the vast Angkor Thom, and is the architectural highlight of the complex. This was considered by the Khmers to be the conjunction of heaven and earth, though the auspicious site was covered in jungle for centuries.
Like much in the area it dates to the 12th-century reign of King Jayavarman VII, and is particularly noted for its magnificent carved stone faces with their beatific smiles. They depict either the king himself or a bodhisattva; the confusion was probably deliberate.
The bas relief carvings on the temple’s outer walls are a riot of scenes depicting everything from celestial beings and mighty battles to humble village life.
Located within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, the Terrace of the Elephants stretches across a grassy expanse for nearly 1,150 feet (350 meters) and once served as a ceremonial platform and foundation for the king’s royal audience hall.
The ornately carved Terrace of the Elephants, built near the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, gets its name from the relief stone carvings of parading elephants that adorn the terrace walls. Some of the elephant trunks form decorative columns, while more relief carvings depict circus-like scenes of acrobats and wrestling matches.
From the top of the central staircase onto the platform, you can stand and imagine what the view would have been like for the Khmer king at the height of the kingdom’s power, gazing out over sporting events, ceremonies or the triumphant return of his army.
When the temples of Angkor were abandoned by the kings who built them, the jungle took firm hold of Ta Prohm. This Buddhist monastery, built in 1186 by King Jayavarman VII for his mother, today looks much like it did when it was uncovered in the 29th century. In eerie fashion, giant trees shoot through the tops of structures, while thick vines split walls in two.
A favorite among visitors, Ta Prohm served as the backdrop for Lara Croft’s adventures in the film Tomb Raider, and it’s easy to see why. In all of Angkor, it’s the place where the dominance of nature over manmade creations is most evident and most impressive.
Keep an eye out for a Sanskrit inscription in the stone of the complex, which details that the temple once employed 18 priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 dancers, all supported by 3,140 villages.
Located 24 miles (38 km) northeast of Siem Reap, the Hindu temple of Banteay Srei lies off the beaten tourist path in Angkor but is a must-see for temple buffs. While small by Angkor standards, the 10-century red sandstone structure is famous for its intricate and well-preserved decorative carvings. French archaeologists who uncovered it during the early 20th century called it “a jewel in Khmer art.”
At the center of the complex are three temples, a central one honoring the Hindu god Shiva and two smaller ones for Vishnu and Brahma. It’s the only complex built from red sandstone and the only one not commissioned by a king, but instead by a royal adviser.
The last capital of the Khmers is a stupendous complex on a stupefying scale; established in the 12th century on the site of an earlier capital, Angkor Thom dwarfs even nearby Angkor Wat. The city’s 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) of wall is ringed by a moat (which no longer holds water or – thankfully – crocodiles). Each of the five enormous gates is a monument in itself, approached by avenues lined with 108 divinities (good on the left, evil on the right).
Some elevation will help you make sense of the layout; head for the Terrace of the Elephants or nearby Terrace of the Leper King with their intricate carvings, or the hilltop Phnom Bakheng, particularly popular at sunset. Among the myriad other points of interest are the temples of East Mebon and Pre Rup, built in the same “temple-mountain” style as Angkor Wat.
Preah Khan was built around the same time as Angkor Thom, and like it was conceived as a whole city, though on a smaller scale. It was erected on the site of an important military victory and its outer perimeter is guarded by 72 stone garudas (winged mythological creatures depicted throughout Southeast Asia).
A stupa (a domed structure holding Buddhist relics) and numerous smaller Hindu temples indicate the spiritual mix that Preah Khan embodied. In later years it was renowned as a center of scholarly Buddhism. The restoration program has left mighty silk-cotton tree roots undisturbed; they make an awe-inspiring sight, appearing to wrestle with the stonework. Elsewhere a two-story, round-columned pavilion of uncertain purpose is a charming, free-standing oddity.
Built in 961 by King Rajendravarman II, the three-spired Shiva temple of Pre Rup resembles Angkor Wat on a smaller scale. The name of the temple translates to “turning the body,” suggesting that it might have once served as a crematorium for Angkor’s royalty.
Built a few years after nearby Mebon but identical to it in architectural style, Pre Rup was made from gray sandstone, once coated in a layer of plaster that has largely worn away. The crumbling sandstone, especially on the eastern towers of the complex, paired with the jungle vines beginning to grow through portions of the stone, give Pre Rup a wild feel, and its vast scale is still impressive despite being smaller than the main temple at Angkor Wat. Visitors who make the steep climb to the top of the temple will be rewarded with views of Angkor Wat’s spires to the west on clear days.
The prolific King Jayavarman VII was behind the creation of numerous temples in Angkor, but Neak Pean is one of his most unusual. A bit off the trodden tourist path, the temple sits on a small island in a reservoir, flanked by four smaller ponds fed by carved gargoyles. Scholars believe that in building the temple, the king was trying to recreate the sacred Anavatapta Lake in the Himalayan Mountains, which is believed to be situated at the top of the universe. At the time Neak Pean was built, devotees would come to the temple to bathe in the waters, which were believed to have healing powers. This site in particular is an interesting example of one of many “hospital” temples and structures Jayavarman was famous for building. While the central temple itself is blocked off, a wooden platform takes visitors out toward it and makes for a beautiful stroll, especially in the evening when the light of the sunset reflects off the water.
Srah Srang is a baray, or reservoir, that is located south of the East Baray and east of Banteay Kde. Srah Srang was created by excavation in the mid-900s and, while there are several theories, it’s not clear whether the significance of this reservoir was religious, agricultural or a little bit of both. However, Srah Srang is best known as an ideal location for viewing the sunrise.
At present Srah Srang measures almost 2,300 feet (700 meters) by almost 1,200 feet (350 meters) and is still partially flooded. A basement was found in the middle of it, which suggests that there may have been a temple on an artificial island at some point in the past. The landing-stage is located opposite the entrance to Banteay Kdei and is bordered by naga balustrades, ending with the head of a serpent mounted by a garuda with unfurled wings; guardian lions watch over the steps that lead down to the water.
One of the earliest temples in the region, Bakong was built in tiers within a strict geometric matrix, a style recognizable in the later Angkor Wat. Though significantly smaller than that complex, Bakong has a charm all its own.
The central temple rises on 5 tiers and was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It dates to 881 AD, though the tower which forms its focal point was added much later. Around two dozen graceful, free-standing “satellite” temples dot the grounds in various states of repair, some garnished with jungle growth. Stupas reflect the temple’s later embrace of Buddhism, while an adjacent monastery ensures the site retains its spiritual significance into the present day.
One of Angkor’s many mysteries, the Terrace of the Leper King once served as the northern half of a long viewing stage and audience platform for King Jayavarman VII and his entourage. The mystery of the site stems from the statue at the top of the terrace, a replica of an original statue of a nude, sexless figure known simply as the Leper King.
Scholars aren’t sure who he was, though legend tells of at least two kings of Angkor having leprosy. Another theory states that the statue isn’t a king at all, but the Hindu god of death, Yama, and that the nickname came from the lichen discoloring the statue’s surface. The original statue of the Leper King sits in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Baphuon began life in the 11th century as a Hindu temple meant to represent mystical Mount Meru, like most temples in the region. It was later rededicated to Buddha but hasn’t weathered the intervening years as well as its neighbors, with much of the construction lying in countless pieces.
A vast reclining Buddha forms a wall of one of the temple’s three tiers, but you will have to exercise your imagination to visualize the divinity’s features. Despite – or maybe because of – its present state, Baphuon is one of the most magical Angkor sites, with shaded pavilions looking out on elaborately-carved stone pieces battling the jungle for supremacy.
The unrestored ruins of Banteay Kdei, a Buddhist monastery complex, date back to 1181. This was one of the first structures built by the prolific King Jayavarman VII, and it features four gates, each adorned with a carved face of the king, much like at Bayon.
One of the first things you’ll notice upon visiting Banteay Kdei is the way its walls and structures lean precariously, some held up by ropes and cables. Unlike Banteay Srei, which was constructed from durable red sandstone, Banteay Kdei was made from softer gray sandstone that has eroded over time. Just opposite the temple is the Sra Serang reservoir, a pleasant place to sit and enjoy a sunset.
Built during the ninth century at what was the center of the royal city at the time, Phnom Bakheng (also known as the temple of Shiva) is one of the oldest temples in Angkor. The five-tiered pyramidal structure, built on top of a hill, and was originally surrounded by 108 towers, an auspicious number in many Eastern religions.
While the temple ruins of Phnom Bakheng are impressive, the reason most visitors come is to watch the sunset from the top or to attempt to snap the money shot of Angkor Wat rising up from the jungle in the distance (the site sits less than a mile from Phnom Bakheng). To avoid the crowds, consider coming at sunrise instead.