In the early 9th century AD, the British Empire was still a pipe dream, and the Vikings were still the terror of seaside communities. But at this time, a new empire was coalescing amidst the rice fields of present-day Cambodia, one whose buildings still inspire awe today.
The Khmer Empire, founded by “king of kings” Jayavarman II in 802 AD and later centered on the capital city of Angkor, lasted about 700 years, and in its heyday ruled over present-day Thailand, Laos, and parts of Vietnam.
Angkor was not the Empire's first or last capital, but it is the only one that stood the test of time. Its most famous structure, the mega-temple is known as Angkor Wat, stands outside the walls of Angkor Thom, the actual metropolis and site of the royal palace. These, together with several outlying temples in varying states of preservation, now constitute the Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia's most significant tourist destination.
The temples of Angkor stand at the very heart of Cambodian identity. The flag of Cambodia has Angkor Wat at its center; Cambodian nationalists still seethe at the memory of Thailand claiming Angkor as its own. Angkor Park draws about two million foreign visitors a year, racking up to US$80 million in tourism revenues a year.
If you're planning to join the masses of tourists coursing through Siem Reap on their way to see Angkor Wat and its surrounding temples, read this explainer before pushing onward. That way, you'll avoid “temple fatigue”, inadvertent bad behavior and getting too little of your money's worth.
How to Enter
The Cambodian tourist town of Siem Reap is the main entry point to the Angkor Archaeological Park. To get there, travelers either fly in via Siem Reap International Airport or ride a bus from Phnom Penh or Bangkok.
Once you arrive in Siem Reap and check into your local hostel, you must decide how to tackle your Angkor Temples tour. Ask yourself a few questions:
How many days can you spare to see the Angkor temples? Before entering the Park, you'll buy an entry pass that varies in price depending on the length of validity.
You are not permitted to stagger the use of multi-day passes; these should be used only on consecutive days.
What transportation do you plan to use? Siem Reap is crawling with tuk-tuk drivers who want to take your business. They'll take you on a whole-day tour that covers the small circuit (more on that in the next bullet point) starting at Angkor Wat and circulates around Bayon, Phnom Bakheng, and Ta Prohm, among others.
All told, you can hire a tuk-tuk for about $15 to $30 a day, depending on the number of temples on the route, with lower per-day costs for multi-day hires. Tuk-tuks can accommodate up to four tourists in one group, and many provide free drinking water for guests.
For solo travelers, you can hire a motodup (motorcycle taxi, where you ride pillion behind the driver) or electric “e-bike” you can ride yourself. Old-fashioned bicycles can be rented in Siem Reap daily.
An automobile taxi is the fastest, comfiest, and obviously most expensive way to see the temples. These will cost about $20-30 a day.
Walking is ill-advised: the temples in this list are scattered over two hundred hectares of Siem Reap real estate.
Small and Grand Circuits, and Tour Guides
Two more, important questions you should ask yourself before starting your Angkor Temple tour continue below.
How many temples do you plan to see? It's not called “temple fatigue” for nothing; either you spend too little time seeing too many temples, or take multiple days doing nothing but traipse all about Angkor Park. Either will tire you out, and neither will leave you with a positive impression of the Angkor temple experience.
You can spend just one day exploring just the 10-mile loop called the “Small Circuit”, beginning at Angkor Wat and proceeds in a rough rectangle that takes you through the former city of Angkor Thom and some temples immediately outside the temple walls.
The “Grand Circuit” encompasses a 16-mile loop that heads north, taking in a few additional outlying temples, among them Preah Khan and the Eastern Mebon. You'll need to take a multiple-day entry pass to cover the Grand Circuit.
More outlying temples can be tacked onto your itinerary, among them the Roluos Group and the gorgeously carved temple of Banteay Srei.
Do you plan to explore Angkor with a guide? It's advised you do; while this image gallery or your average dog-eared Lonely Planet guidebook will give you the gist of the area you're exploring, a tour guide will be able to answer questions and provide a more customized travel experience aimed at your interests.
It's also the ethical thing to do: hiring local guides is the best way you can infuse your much-needed money into the local tourism economy.
The Khmer Angkor Tour Guide (KATGA) represents over 300 local guides trained by the local Ministry of Tourism and UNESCO. Travelers can choose a guide who speaks one or more of ten languages, among them English, German, Thai, French, Mandarin Chinese and Italian.
Angkor Wat, Center of the Universe
All Angkor temple tours start here: the most perfect Angkor-era temple in all of Siem Reap, and quite possibly in the universe. Ever since its re-discovery by European explorers in the mid-19th Century, Angkor Wat's sheer massiveness and breathtaking beauty have awed generations of tourists.
The complex was built between 1130 and 1150 AD by King Suryavarman II, and consists of an enormous temple pyramid covering an area measuring 4,250 by 5,000 feet, surrounded by a moat over 600 feet wide. "Enormous" doesn't do it justice: you only have to stand by the gates to be overwhelmed by the complex's massive scale.
Angkor Wat is intended to symbolize the universe, as the Hindu Khmer understood it: the moat stands for the oceans around the earth; the concentric galleries represent the mountain ranges surrounding the divine Mount Meru, the Hindu home of the gods, which is itself embodied by the five central towers. The walls are covered with carvings depicting the god Vishnu (to whom Angkor was principally dedicated), as well as other scenes from Hindu mythology.
"At the sight of this temple, one feels one's spirit crushed, one's imagination surpassed. You look, admire and respect. One is silent. For where are the words to praise a work of art that has no equal anywhere in the world?" wrote Henri Mouhot, the first European to set foot on Angkor Wat.
Trivia: Unusually for a Hindu religious structure, the whole complex is oriented to the west, the direction traditionally associated with death. The mystery may be solved if we believe the experts, that Angkor Wat was a funerary temple for its builder King Suryavarman II.
Phnom Bakheng, Best for Sunset Viewing
From Angkor Wat, you can embark on the 10-mile Small Circuit covering the Angkor Park's most popular temple sites, many of them inside or just beyond the moat that delineates the former Angkor Thom metropolis that served as the Khmer capital from the 12th to the 15th century.
The hilltop temple of Phnom Bakheng can be found just before you cross the Southern Gate into Angkor Thom. Phnom Bakheng was the center of the capital that preceded Angkor Thom, Yashodhara; its fortuitous location on top of a hill gave it a commanding view of the surrounding plain.
On this summit, the Khmer built a five-tiered pyramid with a central sanctuary harboring a stone lingam that represented the Hindu god Shiva.
Getting to the top requires a hike ascending 200 feet to the temple wall; alternatively, you can take an elephant ride up the southern path to the very top, starting at 4 p.m. As going up or down can be dangerous work in the dark, travelers are not allowed to ascend past 5:30 p.m.
Phnom Bakheng is Angkor's most popular sunset spot, the lofty elevation permits travelers to witness the sun setting over the Angkor plain and its temples, its gorgeous warm rays casting dramatic shadows on the countryside.
Trivia: Phnom Bakheng was converted to a Theravada Buddhist site in the 16th century, but it continued to attract pilgrims from different religious faiths until as late as the 20th century, for starters, a stela praising Allah was left at Phnom Bakheng by Arabic visitors.
Entering via the South Gate
Beyond Angkor Wat and past Phnom Bakheng, you'll travel north up the Angkor Park's paved road into the South Gate that precedes Angkor Thom.
A moat surrounds Angkor Thom, requiring that you cross a causeway into the South Gate. The causeway is lined by carvings of fearsome divinities, facing outward from Angkor Thom as if to guard the passage.
Trivia: the divinities along the causeway recall the Hindu legend of the churning of the sea of milk, a constant theme in Angkor architecture, also recapitulated in a massive relief along an interior wall in Angkor Wat.
Devas (benevolent divinities) flank one side of the causeway, asuras (malevolent spirits) flank the other. As with the legend, each line grasps a serpent's torso; in the legend, the devas and asuras pulled alternately at a serpent coiled around a mountain to churn the sea of milk.
Following his coronation in 1181, our old friend Jayavarman VII began a massive public works program that found its ultimate expression in his capital Angkor Thom and the temple at its heart, the Bayon.
Like Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom is nothing less than a physical representation of the Universe. The city is divided into four parts by perpendicular axes meeting in the middle, with the Bayon rising where the axes meet: standing as a link between heaven and earth, a symbol of the mythical Mount Meru. A now-dry moat stood in for the cosmic ocean.
Tourists will enjoy exploring the numerous narrow passageways in the temple, which once bore the statues of minor local deities. The temple's lower galleries are filled with well-preserved, extremely detailed bas-relief carvings, showing events from Hindu mythology, Khmer history, and vignettes from the lives of Jayavarman's ordinary subjects.
Nothing is more compelling, however than the forest of 54 towers on the temple's upper level, each bearing four large faces facing all four geographical directions, totaling over 200 faces all in all.
Trivia: The faces on the towers bear a striking resemblance to King Jayavarman himself!
A clearing to the north of Bayon, Victory Square, provides parking spaces for tourist cars and tuk-tuks. It's also surrounded by some of Angkor Thom's most valuable structures, as it marks off the location of the former royal palace.
The pyramid known as Baphuon can be found preceding Victory Square.
Had you visited this site fifty years ago, you'd have seen a sad mess, decades of neglect and outright thievery had undermined Baphuon. After a decades-long, $14-million effort financed by the French government, Baphuon was reopened to tourists in 2011.
Completed in the 11th century, Baphuon represents a building type that later temples like Angkor Wat emulated centuries later: a central spire surrounded by one or more stone galleries, representing the mythical Mount Meru of Hindu mythology.
As Angkor converted from Hinduism to Buddhism later on, Baphuon followed suit: an unfinished reclining Buddha can be seen at the western side of the temple's central pyramid. The galleries are of a suitable elevation for great views of the surrounding trees and ruins; look south for a gorgeous perspective on the central temple of Bayon.
Trivia: Baphuon and other Angkor Thom structures were beautifully ornamented with precious metals in their heyday. A travel journal written by a Chinese diplomat in 1297 AD describes Bayon, Baphuon, and the now-lost royal palace thus:
“North of the Golden Tower [Bayon], at a distance of about two hundred yards, rises the Tower of Bronze [Baphuon], higher even than the Golden Tower: a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base. A quarter of a mile further north is the residence of the king. Rising above his private apartment is another tower of gold. These are monuments which have caused merchants from overseas to speak so often of 'Cambodia the rich and noble.'”
The Phimeanakas Temple
As you walk north from Bayon, past Baphuon you'll eventually reach the enclosure of the former Royal Palace. Only part of the perimeter wall and the Phimeanakas pyramid remains from the Palace's heyday.
The ancient Khmer, much like the Javanese and the Burmese, only built temples out of stone; other buildings used less permanent material, like wood, thatch, clay, and bamboo. The Palace was no exception: nothing remains of the King's living quarters except the royal temple, Phimeanakas, which was located in the exact center of the royal apartments.
Built between 950 and 1050 AD by King Suryavarman, Phimeanakas served as the King's private temple: Suryavarman and his successors worshipped there before retiring to their private quarters nearby (now lost to history). Today, a wooden stair is superimposed on the ancient stairs facing west, to facilitate tourists' ascent up the three levels.
Trivia: The upper level was built of gilded wood. According to legend, the King cohabited here every night with a divine spirit who shape-shifted from a naga (seven-headed snake) to a maiden. If the King were to fail in his duty, his kingdom would fall; if the maiden failed to appear, the King was sure to die.
The Royal Terraces
If Phimeanakas represents the Royal Palace Grounds' exact center, the Royal Terraces delineate the Palace's eastern boundaries, facing the open Victory Square where parades and other public ceremonials were held before the King. Both terraces may have been built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII.
The Terrace of the Elephants stretches about 1,000 feet from north to south, interrupted by five stairways. Many stone panels bear elephants sculpted in relief, carved almost in full size, including mounted drivers. Contemporary accounts indicate that the King stood atop the Terrace of the Elephants during parades and processions, and heard royal audiences from this spot.
The terrace's inner walls are remarkably well-preserved, with numerous depictions of garuda, sacred geese, and sports activities like chariot races and wrestling.
The Terrace of the Leper King takes its name from a statue that sits at its summit. Originally believed to represent King Yasovarman I, a famous sufferer of leprosy, the statue is now believed to be that of Yama, the Khmer god of death.
The intricate carvings on the Terrace's walls represent creatures from Khmer Hindu mythology: the ever-present naga (serpents), club-bearing guardian demons, and curvaceous apsaras with bare bellies.
Going on the Small Circuit
The route from Angkor Wat through the South Gate all the way to the Victory Square represent the first part of both the 10-mile Small Circuit and the 16-mile Grand Circuit.
Victory Square represents a fork in the road: to continue on the Small Circuit, go east through the Victory Gate, exiting Angkor Thom to reach the temples of Ta Keo and Ta Prohm before looping back to Angkor Wat.
To proceed to the Grand Circuit, you'll head through Angkor Thom's North Gate to take the long way round back to Angkor Wat, passing by a larger complement of Angkor-era temples: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, East Mebon, Pre Rup, Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei.
Ta Keo, Struck by Bad Luck
After heading east through the Victory Gate and out of Angkor Thom, you'll head to a temple pyramid dating back to the 10th century, standing just beyond the city's walls.
Ta Keo stands over 70 feet tall, its height staggered across five levels. Its imposing size stands in contrast to its relative lack of ornamentation: researchers suggest the temple is actually unfinished, the workers dropping their tools after just starting work on the wall carvings.
A series of steep steps allows visitors to climb up to the upper level where Ta Keo's five towers stand. The views from the terraces, in daylight, are gorgeous and well worth the effort to make it up there.
Trivia: an inscription, related by Angkor archaeologist G. Coedes, explains why Ta Keo was left unfinished: “It was struck by lightning before it was completed,” a sign of bad luck to the Angkorians.
Immediately south of Ta Keo comes another Angkor temple classic - the jungle-clad temple of Ta Prohm.
The stonework may be overrun by vegetation, but that may be Ta Prohm's saving grace. This temple is one of the most popular with Angkor's visitors, as it's one of the most evocative of the lot: its rugged good looks even got it a guest shot as a location in the first Tomb Raider movie.
Ta Prohm was built by King Jayavarman VII for his mother. In its entirety, the complex is composed of several low buildings enclosed by a wall (or what's left of it) encompassing an area 1,959 by 3,281 feet large. After its consecration in 1186, Ta Prohm became an active Buddhist monastery and university: a Sanskrit inscription on the site counts about 12,640 people as the complex's residents, including 13 high priests, 2,740 officials, 2,232 assistants, and 615 dancers.
When conservation efforts began in the early 20th century, it was decided that the trees and vegetation would be left largely in place. Today, trees have grown into (and in some cases, replaced) the temple's stone superstructure, shading visitors as they walk through the ruins of a great center for learning.
Trivia: Ta Prohm was intended to be a complement to the nearby Preah Khan temple complex, which was dedicated in turn to King Jayavarman VII's father.
Banteay Kdei, Temple of Two Styles
Many tourists might give the last temple on the Small Circuit a miss. Their loss: Banteay Kdei's spacious and tree-shaded grounds, combined with the relatively low traffic, makes Banteay Kdei a great place for visitors with time on their hands, all the better to stop and take in the atmosphere.
Banteay Kdei lies to the southeast of Ta Prohm, a semi-ruined complex of four enclosures with the largest one measuring 297 feet by 1,640 feet. The prolific King Jayavarman VII completed Banteay Kdei at the beginning of the 13th century. Two different art styles, Angkor and Bayon, are evident in the temple's design.
The temple itself is in a rather advanced state of decay: its soft sandstone structure has collapsed in certain places, and the outer enclosure has been reconstructed using re-used stones. And because of alterations made by later Hindu kings, Banteay Kdei lacks the symmetry of more popular temples like Angkor Wat.
Banteay Kdei is the last significant temple on the Small Circuit; from here, you'll head a further four miles southwest to loop back to Angkor Wat from where you came.
Trivia: Don't miss the rectangular courtyard to the east known as the "Hall of the Dancing Girls", which is named after the carved dancing girls on its exterior.
Start With Preah Khan on the Grand Circuit
You'll need to take at least a three-day pass if the Grand Circuit is on your radar. This 16-mile route diverges from the Small Circuit at Victory Square. Instead of heading east, you'll head north, only turning east after exiting Angkor Thom via the North Gate.
The first (and grandest) temple on the Grand Circuit, Preah Khan, bears a history closely tied to the Angkor kings. King Yasovarman II's palace used to stand here; King Jayavarman VII built Preah Khan here thirty years later, dedicating the temple to his father (making it the masculine counterpart of Ta Prohm, which was dedicated to his mother).
The temple eventually became a Buddhist monastery that was practically a city all unto its own. A thousand Buddhist monks lived here, and King Jayavarman VII himself stayed temporarily in Preah Khan while Angkor Thom was being completed.
Preah Khan looms on a massive scale relative to other temples in the Grand Circuit; the detailed carvings in the inner galleries include a well-preserved hall of Apsara dancers. If you have time only for one stop in the Grand Circuit, Preah Khan is the runaway winner.
For the rest of the Grand Circuit, you'll make the rounds of the following major temples:
- Neak Pean, due east of Preah Khan, is a series of artificial pools set on an island in the middle of a marshy lake, with a circular structure set in its very middle, marked by a pair of entwined stone snakes;
- East Mebon, a Shivaite temple formerly in the middle of a man-made lake (now dry) whose elaborately carved lintels are among the best you'll find in Angkor; and
- Pre Rup, a state temple built by Rajendravarman II and the biggest structure in Angkor that dates back to the 10th century.
If "temple fatigue" hasn't overtaken you yet and if you've got a few days left on your multi-day pass, then a visit to the outlying temples, located way outside the main Angkor Park complex, should be next on your agenda.
If you only have time for one out-of-the-way temple, Banteay Srei is the no-brainer's choice. Its location 18 miles northeast of Angkor Wat requires extra effort to get there, but you'll soon see it's worth the trouble.
For many tourists, Banteay Srei is Angkor's most beautiful temple, the "jewel of Khmer art". In a beautiful departure from Angkor's other structures, Banteay Srei is faced with finely-carved pink sandstone covered with beautifully detailed carvings; some of these illustrate scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The name Banteay Srei, which translates to "Temple of the Women", may be attributed to the temple's relatively small scale and the fineness of the artwork.
Visitors will cross a moat to enter the temple, and are allowed to enter as far as the first surrounding enclosure, but must go no further than the pathway that surrounds the temple itself. This measure prevents Banteay Srei from being swamped by visitors. It's a good thing, too: tourists would never have an unobstructed view of the temple otherwise, although this also means you'll never get to examine the exquisitely-detailed carvings up close.
Trivia: In a land where kings dictated the construction of temples, Banteay Srei is also an exception: the temple was completed in 967 by Yajnavaraha, an important court official under King Rajendravarman.