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.
A trip to this historic spot just 15 kilometers south of Phnom Penh is not for the faint of heart. Known as The Killing fields, some one million Cambodians were murdered here by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Nearly 9,000 bodies have been discovered—including former prisoners from Tuol Sleng.
A Buddhist stupa marks the memorial, and visitors can gaze through its clear walls at some 5,000 human skulls—all victims of the bloody regime. Dozens of mass graves are visible and it is not uncommon for travelers to find human bones, teeth or discarded clothing here—particularly after heavy rains—as a large number of people are still buried in shallow graves.
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.
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.
While the decaying structures and overgrown temples of Angkor Wat remain among the most popular destinations in Siem Reap, the rare collection of stone carvings along the Stung Kbal Spean River, often referred to as “Valley of 1000 Lingas,” continues to bring art and archaeology lovers outside the city and beyond Angkor.
The impressive carvings that line the 125-kilometer riverbed pay homage to the Hindu god Shiva. During the 11th and 12th centuries, artisans chipped away at delicate sandstone leaving intricate phallic symbols, mythological creatures and religious images along the shores. Visitors must trek two kilometers up rocky, uneven terrain to spy the hand-carved statues. Some argue the hike is more trouble than it’s worth, but most agree that travelers seeking to connect with nature and explore Cambodia’s rich and colorful history will appreciate a trip to Kbal Spean.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Set near the center of the Royal Enclosure in Angkor Thom, Phimeanakas served as the king’s personal temple during the 10th and 11th centuries, before Jayavarman VII constructed Angkor Thom around it. Historians believe the three-tiered temple was once topped with a gold-covered tower, but very little of it remains.
According to local legend, the king would visit the top of the temple each night to meet a woman with the head of a naga (a serpent deity), and that if he failed to show up for the tryst, disaster would strike his kingdom. While many of the temple’s decorative elements have been removed over time, it’s still worth making the short but steep climb to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with excellent views of nearby Baphuon.
Believed to have been built during King Suryavarman II’s reign in the first half of the 12th century, Wat Athvea (Prasat Vat Althea) is one of several Hindu temples in the area shrouded in mystery. Built from laterite and sandstone, both still in relatively good condition, the temple has no inscriptions and few carvings. It seems as though the carvings it does were abandoned before they were completed.
Wat Athvea isn’t nearly as touristy as many of the other temples of the Angkor complex, even though it’s one of the better maintained temples. Visitors looking for a peaceful place to take photos without the crowds can easily do so here, particularly in the late afternoon when it’s at its quietest.
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.
The 3 main temples of Roluos stand apart from the main attractions around Siem Reap, lying to the west of the town rather than on the main northern axis. They’re also significantly older, dating from the 9th century when this area was known as Hariharalaya.
Preah Ko, the oldest, is arranged as two rows of three “prasats” (towers) each, and boasts stunning stone carvings and plasterwork. After that comes the intricate 5-tiered Bakong, and finally Lolei, which dates from 893. This last temple resembles Preah Ko but with 4 instead of 6 towers, once stood on its own island, and is noted for its fine examples of Khmer calligraphy.
Though it’s more than 500 years old, Wat Preah Prom Rath is a modern-looking temple and monastery located in the heart of Siem Reap. The front gate is the perhaps the oldest looking piece of the site, with Bayon style carvings that are similar to the ones found in Angkor Wat. The temple grounds are large, home to a university building as well as the main hall. However, the main attraction is the reclining Buddha—which is now sinking as well as reclining—and the story that explains how the statue came to reside there.
As the legend tells it, a famous monk was traveling on the nearby river when sharks attacked him and the boat broke into two pieces. The monk escaped in the prow of the boat and soon landed ashore. The remains of the boat were carved into the reclining Buddha that is housed in the Preah Vihear building. Outside of the Preah Vihear building is a statue that illustrates the monk and his boat; it’s a popular spot for photos.
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.
There’s a reason why most businesses in Siem Reap give their addresses in relation to Psar Chas—better known as the Old Market. Its well-stocked stalls selling Buddhist treasures, hilariously misspelled t-shirts, jewelry and other souvenirs are a must-stop destination for travelers visiting this ancient city.
Friendly sellers used to foreign visitors make it easy to haggle for the best deal at this market in the heart of Siem Reap. The narrow passes between vendors are typically jam-packed with locals and travelers creating an energy that’s as kinetic and alive as nearby Pub Street. Hungry shoppers can wander to the food stalls on the northern side of Psar Chas, which sell traditional dishes prepared on the street, as well as the farm fresh ingredients locals use to prepare the evening’s dinner.
Recognized as the first nature preservation in Cambodia, Angkor Center for Conservation of Biodiversity is known for its wildlife rescue, animal rehabilitation and endangered species breeding.
Visitors to ACCB can tour the grounds under the direction of expert guides who are well informed about the unique challenges facing the protection of Cambodia’s wildlife. From the pileated gibbons to silvered langur, ACCB is home to animals found in few other places on earth. Visitors leave impressed by the well-kept grounds, knowledgeable staff and diversity of animals. And whether it’s combined with a trip to nearby Banteray Srei, or made a destination all its own, ACCB treats visitors to a one-of-a-kind experience up close with the wild.
Just to the northwest of the center of Angkor Tom lies one of the Angkor Wat region’s more mysterious ruins, the Royal Enclosure. All that remains of this ancient royal abode (the home of kings during the 10th and 11th centuries) is its surrounding walls and a pair of stone-lined bathing pools. Historians believe the lack of any other archaeological evidence suggests the royal palace itself was constructed of wood.
Unlike the carvings that adorn most of the other temples in the Angkor complex, with subjects limited to religious ones for the most part, the figures carved into the sandstone panels lining the pools here depict the usual demons and deities, but also a series of more whimsical sea creatures and monsters.
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