Our Epic Guide to the Temples of Angkor
Guide to the Temples of Angkor
There’s something almost mystical about the temples of Angkor. From the sunrise at Angkor, to the early morning mists around Ta Prohm, to the spiritual presence of Bayon, the temples will move you more than you might expect.
We were both captivated by the shear complexity of the construction, the granduer of the temple mountains and the intricacies in the bas-relief carvings. There is a reason that Antonio da Madalena, a Portuguese monk and one of the first Westerners to visit in 1556 had this to say of Angkor Wat:
“…is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”
Beginning with Ta Prohm, I have gone through the temples in the same order that we explored them (please do not use this as a guide as it doesn’t make a lot of sense but at the time it worked) and have provided some info, tips and pictures which I hope will persuade you to put on your Tomb Raider gear and head to Siem Reap for at least a week. As you will see, it is worth it!
Ta Prohm had always been at the top of my list for temples to see in Angkor, even more so than Angkor Wat. Maybe the most picturesque temple of the “Big Four” due to the many trees growing around, in and on top of the ruins as well as the lush jungle surrounding it. Also, this temple is quite famous in the West because of its use in the movies “Tomb Raider” and “Two Brothers”.
Travel Tips: The best time to visit is between 5:30 and 8 am as the tour buses do not arrive until the latter. We arrived at 6 am our first day and saw only one other person until about 7am. The afternoons are better for pictures because of the light, but you will have to push through hoards of tourists as this is one of the “Big 4” mentioned above.
Nitty Gritty: Built in the 12th to 13th century under King Jayavarman VII as a tribute to his mother, it was used as a Buddhist monastery and university.
Kbal Spean “River of 1000 Lingas”
This architectural gem is located 25 km north of the main Angkor temples and will cost you a bit more than the normal daily rate that most Tuk Tuk drivers will charge but it is well worth it. Set deep in the jungle, and I mean deep as it takes about 30-40 minutes to reach by a path that is not “wheelchair accessible” if you catch my drift. Along a 50 metre stretch of the Stung Kbal Spean River are various carvings on lingams (phalic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva) as well as depictions of the gods Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Lakshmi, Rama and Hanuman. The overall theme is creation as it is believed to occur in Hinduism. We reccomend making the trek down the river as you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful little waterfall that you can swim underneath. The best time to visit this site is in the dry season as more of the sculptures are more easily seen but it is still worth a visit in the rainy season. We combined this to a visit to the Banteay Srei (Ladies Temple) which is quite close to this site.
Travel Tips: You will have to pay an extra $10 to the Tuk Tuk driver for the trip as it is an hour away from Angkor Wat. Combine the trip with Banteay Srei. Also worth noting is that the land-mine museum is on the way to this site so you might want to plan for some time for this as well.
Nitty Gritty: Built in the 11th to 12th centuries under King Survyavarman I and King Udayadityvarman II.
Without a doubt this temple had the most detailed, precise and beautiful bas relief carvings of any temple around Siem Reap. It is famously known as the “Citadel of Women” because it is believed it was carved by women and not men because of the intricate detail in each and every carving. It is built primarily of red sandstone lending to its now pink colour. Another interesting little fact is that it is the only temple not to be built by a monarch at Angkor.
Travel Tips: As mentioned above, combine with a trip to Kbal Spean. Best lighting because of the red stone is early in the morning or near sunset.
Nitty Gritty: Consecrated in the year 967 AD under Yajnavarah. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.
Much like Ta Prohm, this temple has been left mostly unrestored making it a history buff’s dream while the jungles that are slowly taking it back as their own make it very photogenic. As mentioned above, Ta Prohm was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s mother while Preah Khan was dedicated to his father and was built on the site that the Angkor people won a major battle over the Cham people. As we walked up to the front of Preah Khan, we were immediately awestruck by the large moat surrounding the complex as well as the garudas holding onto nagas running along both sides of the massive walkway and bridge leading up to the main gates.
Travel Tips: Not as busy as some of the other temples but still a tour bus destination so make sure to go between 11:45 am – 1 pm when the tour groups go back to Siem Reap for lunch.
Nitty gritty: Built in 1191 AD under King Jayavarman VII as a symbol of his victory over the Cham people at the same site while being dedicated to his father. At one time it held close to 100,000 officials and servants making it one of the most important temples at the Angkor site.
Religion: Buddhist with Hindu temples later constructed in the surrounding area.
Terrace of the Leper King
Inside the city of Angkor Thom is the mysterious Terrace of the Leper King. Many experts still argue to this day as to what it was used for and how it received its name. Many believe that it was a royal cremation site because of its U-shape while the name is said to come from the statue on top (which is now in the Cambodian National Museum) which resembled a man with leprosy. This fits with the legend of the Angkorian king Yasovarman I who was said to have leprosy. Another theory is that the statue on top is the god of death which coincides with the idea that this was a crematorium. Additionally, the bas relief sculptures on the terrace are of demons and other dark creatures.
Nitty Gritty: Built in the late 12th century under Jayavarman VII
Terrace of the Elephants
Attached to the palace of Phimeanakas, the 350 m Terrace of Elephants was used by Jayavarman VII as a viewing area to see his army return victorious from war.
Nitty Gritty: Built in the late 12th century under Jayavarman the VII
Speaking to other travellers about their favourite temple in Angkor, I’m usually not surprised to hear them say Bayon. Bayon is the state temple of Angkor Thom and the last state temple to be built in Angkor. It is most famous for the approximately 200 faces each which each are said to resemble Buddha while also baring a striking resemblance to Jayavarman himself. The bas reliefs on the outside and insdie walls of this temple are extraordinary and must be seen. The outside depicts everyday life in Angkor during the time of construction while the inside depicts mythology from the period.
Travel Tips: Second busiest temple next to Angkor Wat (although Ta Prohm may be close) so make sure to see this one either early 5:30-8am or at lunch 11:45am-1pm when the tour groups have gone for lunch. The bas-relief carvings are vast so make sure to plan for 30 minutes just for these.
Nitty gritty: Built in the 12th or early 13th century under Jayavarman VII
Religion: Buddhist. Later altered to reflect Hinduism.
According to legend, the king spent the first watch of every night with a woman thought to represent a naga in the tower. During that time, not even the queen was permitted to intrude. Only in the second watch would the king return to his palace with the queen. If the naga (who was the supreme land owner of Khmer land) did not show up for a night, the king’s day would be numbered, if the king did not show up, calamity would strike his land.
Travel Tips: There is only one staircase to get to the top around the back of the temple and it is a steep one!
Nitty gritty: Built in the 10th century by Rajendravarman and then later rebuilt by Suryavarman II.
Known as the “Bridge of Stone”, it is one of the few Khmer stone bridges to have survived to this day. It is located just west of Ta Keo. It is thought to have been rebuilt in the 15th century.
Travel Tips: If you follow the path through the bridge you’ll be rewarded with a very cool water wheel.
With five towers surrounded by a moat, it was built to symbolize Mt. Meru (mythical mountain worshipped by Hindus). It was the first temple to be built entirely of sandstone while being completely absent of any carvings because construction was halted just before the sculptures were set to begin due to a lighting bolt striking the temple brining with it a supposed bad omen. Just a FYI for those of you going to this temple, the stairs are extremely steep so make sure to wear some good shoes, or just go barefoot!
Travel Tips: As mentioned above, there are three separate staircases to reach the highest central tower and they may be the steepest stairs of any temple in Angkor so be careful!
Nitty gritty: Built around the year 1000 under Jayavarman V who used it as his state temple.
Known also as “A Citadel of Chambers” and “Citadel of Monks Cells”, it was built in a similar style (Bayon) as Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. It was used by monks in different capacities until the 1960’s. It is quite dilapidated due to poor construction techniques but the rubble and ever closing jungle makes for a very picturesque experience.
Travel Tips: Best viewed midday when the rays of sunshine beam through the crumbling columns.
It was built in second half of the tenth century (961) by the King Rajendraman II dedicated to the god Shiva (Hindu), replica to Pre Rup style of art. It is built entirely of brick and laterite.
Travel Tips: Not the most popular temple to visit so you can plan a stop here anytime.
Nitty gritty: Built in the late 10th century under Rajendravarman who used it as his state temple.
Dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s father Dharanindravarman II who himself was the king of the Khmer empire between 1150-1160. Similar to Ta Prohm but on a smaller scale, it is largely unrestored and has overgrown trees and plants throughout the ruins making the temple very picturesque. The main attraction of the site is the eastern outer gopura which has been overtaken by a massive sacred fig tree. If you can take a picture without one of the dozens of small children hawking postcards and bracelets, consider yourself lucky.
Travel Tips: As mentioned above, be prepared for the hoards of children and their mothers hawking souvenirs as soon as you get to the east gate. They will impress you with their knowledge of your home country’s capital city and they are extremely cute as all kids are, but they also will ompletely ignore every “no thank you” that you toss at them.
Nitty gritty: Built in the late 12th century under King Jayavarman VII.
A temple to rival all others, the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat is by far the most grand and impressive temple built during the Khmer empire and sees somewhere around 20 million tourists every year. When you first take in Angkor Wat at sunrise (the best way to first see it, trust us) you can’t help but feel emotionally taken aback by is beauty and grandeur. Although not every traveller may agree that it was their favourite temple in Cambodia, everyone agrees that it is an architectural masterpiece and very worthy of the 7th Wonder of the World distinction as well as its place in the middle of the Cambodian flag.
Take a minute and think about these little factoids:
1) Angkor Wat was built in only 35 years while at the same time in Europe, cathedrals were being constructed over hundreds of years!
2) The site is floating. You heard me right, the priest architects were able to figure out a way to keep this massive temple above ground and level all of these years by using expert knowledge of the seasonal water levels and types of rock (laterite) used for construction.
3) The 5 million tons of sandstone used for construction had to be carried from a quarry 25 miles away.
4) A Vietnamese company (Sokimex) has owned the tourism rights to Angkor Wat since 1990 which is a majorly sour topic amongst most Cambodians. Add to that, only about 25% of ticket sales go into restoration work as most restoration work is paid for by foreign aid.
Under King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat was built to replicate Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology, a heaven on earth of sorts. Angkor Wat was built with the primary purpose of providing King Suryavarman II a mausoleum in order to assure a quick and direct path into heaven while also serving as the state temple for the ancient city of Angkor.
Travel Tips: Make sure to get up nice and early and head out to Angkor Wat when it is still dark out and take in the breathtaking sunrise from the lake. Make sure to bring your headlamp/torch! As with the other “Big 4”, it is best to view this temple before 8am and between 11:45am-1pm when the tour groups have left. I would also recommend hiring a guide as well. We didn’t, but wish we did after trying to listen in on others!
Nitty gritty: Built in the 12th century under King Suryavarman II as his state temple and mausoleum. It was dedicated to Hindu deity Vishnu, upholder of the universe.
Religion: Hindu, converted to Buddhism in the late 13th century
Alyse and I spent five unforgettable days temple hopping around Siem Reap and as you can see from our pictures, it was all that we hoped for and more. Even after seeing the temples we did, we still have a big list of temples close to Siem Reap that we plan on visiting on our next trip as even now they are uncovering hidden temples in the jungles.
My hope is that you’re reading through this post while still in the planning stages of your Cambodian trip and that you’ll perhaps reconsider spending only one day in Siem Reap. Trust me when I say you’ll be happy you did. You won’t feel rushed or overwhelmed trying to decide which ones to see, which ones to skip and you won’t have to worry about being rained out on your only day in Siem Reap.
I hope you enjoyed this post and please do not hesitate in sending us any and all questions that you may have about exploring the ancient temples of Angkor as we’d be happy to help in any way we can.
Ross & Alyse