An Idiot’s Guide to the Temples of Angkor

Some people come to the Angkor Archaeological Park in Siem Reap simply to marvel at the architectural beauty and to take hundreds of photographs. That is perfectly fine, and is a very common option. However, while most people will not want to read long archaic texts before they travel, I think reading a paragraph of history on each of the main temples here is a great way to enlighten and educate yourself on what are undoubtedly some of the most amazing ruins we have in the world today. As such, I hope you find my following guide useful.

For a more in-depth guide to the Temples of Angkor, including many that I have not listed in my own guide below, please visit this site from Canby Publications.

Map of the Angkor Area (courtesy of Canby Publications)
Map of the Angkor Area (courtesy of Canby Publications). Click for larger version.

The first step for visiting Angkor is understanding which temples you want to see and why. This article will help you decide, and besides there is a wealth of information online elsewhere if you need more. However, as a brief overview, the three paragraphs below give you a headstart:

The main temples EVERYBODY MUST see are Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm. If you do not consider visiting even one of these, then I would question why bother coming to Siem Reap in the first place. All of them are equal to Machu Picchu in Peru and the Pyramids in Egypt, and you may only get this one chance to visit Cambodia in your lifetime, so DO NOT MISS OUT!

Other great temples in the area, but are not absolutely essential to visit, especially if you are short on time are Angkor Thom, and Preah Khan. Please bear in mind that Angkor Thom was considered a city, and as such has many other temples within its confines (such as Bayon), so it is intelligent to combine some of Angkor Thom’s other wonders while you are there already sightseeing at Bayon. Regarding Preah Khan, it is impressive, but if you only have time for one jungle ruin, then Ta Prohm is probably a better choice, if a little busier.

There are a couple of amazing Khmer temples at least an hour’s Tuktuk drive from the main area at Angkor, and these are known as Banteay Srei, and Beng Mealea. Banteay Srei in particular is extremely prestigious among travellers. Also, please note that Beng Mealea is the only temple mentioned this article that requires a separate admission from your Angkor Pass. This is why some people skip it.

The ticketing booth to obtain your Angkor Pass
The ticketing booth to obtain your Angkor Pass

Once you have chosen which temples interest you most, and designed yourself a loose itinerary, then the next step is to ask yourself what kind of ticket you need for your adventure. For entry into any temple with the Angkor Archaeological Park you will need what is known as an Angkor Pass. These passes can only be purchased at the ticketing centre on the main road heading into the complex. Your Tuktuk driver will stop off there for you on your way in, if it is your first time visiting the temples. As of summer 2014, the admission fees for this Angkor Pass are as follows: One-Day Pass ($20), Three-Day Pass ($40), and Seven-Day Pass ($60). These passes are payable only in USD and can only be used on consecutive days. You will have your photo taken once you hand over your cash and this photo is printed on to your Angkor Pass, so nobody else can use it apart from you. All Angkor Passes are checked before entering each temple. I would not recommend visiting Angkor in a day, and as such the Three-Day Pass should be sufficient for most travellers’ needs.

Your Angkor Guide will look like this, with official documentation and multi-lingual
Your Angkor Guide will look like this, with official documentation and multi-lingual

The third step, once you have decided which temples to see and which Angkor Pass best suits your needs, is to think about whether you need a guide to help you around the temples. In Cambodia, the guides’ services are cheap by western standards, although you need to consider if your background reading is enough to enlighten you, and whether you actually want someone following you around for the whole time, regardless of how helpful and friendly they may be. Guides are available in a multitude of languages.

Be respectful of Monks at work (or at play)! Photo courtesy of FlashpackerHQ
Be respectful of Monks at work (or at play)! Photo courtesy of FlashpackerHQ

Next, remember to dress appropriately. Some temples, including Angkor Wat, is still a working religious temple, where Buddhist Monks of all ages practice their worship regularly. If you are lucky, you may see them. However, because of the religious prominence of these temples, you must be respectful in what you wear. No short shorts, no skimpy skirts, and no vests, are three golden rules that should not broken. Normal-length shorts and t-shirts are fine – you do NOT have to wear trousers! Some parts of the temples are not actively religious, so dress code is unimportant in those areas, anyway. Yet in certain areas, only correctly-dressed visitors can proceed, such as up the central towers at Angkor Wat (which is a highlight of the whole park to some people), so it’s best to come dressed accordingly.

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The towers up closer
The towers up closer
Amazing experience!
Amazing experience!

As the largest religious monument in the entire world, Angkor Wat began as a Hindu temple (notice the architectural similarities to Candi Prambanan in Indonesia?), but has since been converted to a Buddhist temple. Built by the old Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and dedicated to Vishnu, Angkor Wat serves as a symbol of both old and modern day Cambodia – even appearing on its national flag! Until invasion by the Cham people in 1177, Angkor Wat was the capital city of the Angkor Empire. However, in the aftermath of this invasion, ruling King Jayavarman VII moved the capital city northwards to nearby Angkor Thom. The temple is made primarily from sandstone, and the design of the temple’s towers represent the formation of a quincunx: that means a cross within a square (think of a 5 side of a dice).

My personal experience at Angkor Wat: The Theatre of Dreams.

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Deep in the jungle - careful overhead!
Deep in the jungle – careful overhead!
Ta Prohm has a lot of history
Ta Prohm has a lot of history

Ta Prohm is the main jungle ruins temple in Cambodia. It is so famous that it inspired the Tomb Raider video game franchise, and it is easy to imagine Lara Croft swinging around from ruin to ruin on the hanging vines overhead. Ta Prohm is quite possibly Cambodia’s best temple. Despite being in the same area as Angkor Wat and Bayon, and being relatively close to Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm holds its own against its more famous cousins. It was built in 1186 and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. There is a long dirt road from the car park into the actual temple, and you can hear the aggressive screeching of the crickets and cicadas in the jungle either side of you, which all adds to the atmosphere of the place. Not long after you enter the temple proper, you can see the famous overgrown trees that have captured the temple ruins. For the tourists, this is a major photo opportunity. Crowds of tourists can always be seen posing in front of these overgrown tree roots! Be careful of the hornet nests up in the jungle canopy high above the temple, as hornets react aggressively to excessive noise disturbances.

My own experience at Ta Prohm: Rumble in the Jungle.

Bayon is spectacular
Bayon is spectacular
Intricate carvings on display
Intricate carvings on display
Ruins all around!
Ruins all around!

Bayon is where you can marvel at the incredible faces that have been intricately carved out from the rock, around 3 or 4 of which dominate each of the 37 towers sporadically placed around the temple. These faces (and they number over 200) are claimed to be portraits of Lokesvara, who was a Bodhisattva who embodied the compassion of all Buddhists. Unlike many other temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, Bayon is not in a state of complete ruin, and as such it can be explored with you imagining as though it is almost in its full glory from the age of the Angkor Empire. A word of warning, though – monkeys patrol the area around Bayon (and throughout the entire old city of Angkor Thom, in fact) and get quite aggressive to tourists if they see food, so be wary, and keep your food well-hidden.

My own experience at Bayon: The Temple of Many Faces.

Carvings on The Terrace of the Leper King
Carvings on The Terrace of the Leper King
Standing atop the Terrace of the Elephants
Standing atop the Terrace of the Elephants
Phimeanakas

Angkor Thom (meaning ‘Big Angkor’) is the old royal city of Jayavarman VII, and was the last Angkorian capital of the Empire. It was once claimed by the Cham Empire from modern day Vietnam, but when King Jayavarman recaptured the city, he began building a wall and a moat around the most important structures within Angkor Thom, including Baphuon and Phimeanakas. In addition, he built the grandiose Bayon temple at the centre of the city, which was used as his state temple. Angkor Thom nowadays is perhaps best known for the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrance of the Leper King. Most visitors will enter the city of Angkor Thom through the South Gate, but there are four other entrances: North Gate, West Gate, East Gate, and the so-called Victory Gate.

For some more detailed information and lots more photos, check out my blog experience of Angkor Thom: The Ancient Khmer Capital!

On the way in to Preah Khan
On the way in to Preah Khan
Impressive ruins
Impressive ruins
Preah Khan also has one of those famous trees like at Ta Prohm!
Preah Khan also has one of those famous trees like at Ta Prohm!

A sprawling monastic complex, Preah Khan (meaning ‘Sacred Sword’) lends itself to the adventurous type of explorer, and if often compared to Ta Prohm. However, Preah Khan is much less touristy than its more famous cousin. Noted for its use of round columns, which is unusual from the Angkor Empire, it is full of passages and little nooks and crannies to explore within the jungle, with many ample photo opportunities along the way. Originally, Preah Khan was a Buddhist monastery, but during the reconstruction of Angkor Thom, King Jayavarman VII also used it as his place of residence. Interestingly, the King dedicated Preah Khan to his father, and the architecturally-similar Ta Prohm to his mother. Many of Preah Khan’s Buddhist representations were destroyed by Hindu invaders in later years, and as such Bodhisattvas are now carved over the original images of Buddha in the stone.

For much more detailed information on this temple, please check out my post on my adventures at Preah Khan!

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beng3

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Beng Mealea is only temple listed in this guide that is NOT covered by the traditional Angkor Archaeological Park Pass. It requires its own separate admission (just $5 per person), but if you can find the time to make the journey south east from Siem Reap and the general Angkor area, then it could be well worth the cost! Beng Mealea is a very overgrown temple, but it oozes class (if that’s the right word). It also is draped in history (as well as jungle foliage!) as Pol Pot, the demonic leader of the infamous Khmer Rouge, blew up much of the site to prevent it from being accessed by tourists long after he died. Remember this fact as you walk around taking photos of this lush green site…

To learn a bit more about the journey to this temple, and the atmosphere within, check out my experience at Beng Mealea!

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srei2

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The pretty in pink Banteay Srei (affectionately known as the ‘Citadel of Women’) is a 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. Built in a striking pink sandstone that draws tourists the 16 miles (1 hour in a Tuktuk) away from the other temples of Angkor, Banteay Srei remains best known for its amazingly intricate carvings all over the strangely small scale buildings – by Angkorian standards – within the temple complex.

Have a look at what I got up to during my trip to Banteay Srei.

A True Wonder of the World (photo courtesy of Paradise in The World).
A True Wonder of the World (photo: Paradise in The World).

So that concludes my Idiot’s Guide to the Temples of Angkor. I hope you’ve found it useful! For further reading on the Angkor Archaeological Park in general, please take a look at these four informative sites that I have hand-picked for you below:

TripQue – A good guide to how to make the most of your time at the Angkor Archaeological Park

Before I Sleep – An even more in-depth guide with some awesome photos

Single Woman Travel – Karen talks us through the experience of an Angkorian Sunrise

Experience Travel Group – The ethical dilemma apropos elephant riding at tourist sites such as Angkor Wat (plus My own thoughts on the ethics of riding elephants).

Thanks for reading and make sure you have a safe and happy time at Angkor Archaeological Park!

The featured image in this article is courtesy of Wandering Educators.

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29 thoughts on “An Idiot’s Guide to the Temples of Angkor

    1. 2 days would be pushing it a bit, I feel. I would advise that 4 days is the absolute minimum, if you want to experience all the main sights (and that doesn’t always include temples).

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  1. Lee, GREAT post! I’m really glad you stopped my blog so I could find this. You and I both seem to like writing to help other travelers learn about new places, but you write better and take far better pics! lol I didn’t see anything beyond The main Angkor Wat /Thom and the 2nd tour I wrote about, but I plan to do a few more days via Hong Kong in December (flight already booked). So I’ll take your advice here and see some of the road-lesser-traveled temples. Happy travels!

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    1. Thanks for popping by Mike! I love to advise other travellers in a small way, although mostly I seek advice from other such people like yourself in order to enhance my own travels! Before I went to Siem Reap I had only the briefest of research on the temples, it was only when I came back that I realised that I wanted to do more research! Now, if I ever get the chance again, I will spend more time at the temples and focus on things I missed first time round!

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      1. Yup. Ditto! The last trip was just to see it all. The next trip will be to take the time to see all the details I’ve read about in books SINCE I was there. One of the benefits of being a life-long traveler is that it’s not a one-time event!

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  2. Preah Khan certainly was something, but it was so densely built together the space in between was sometimes less than that of modern urban centres. Not necessarily a bad thing, but just different from any other temple in the area, I thought.

    I’m curious, how would you compare Bang Mealea with Ta Phrom? I loved Ta Phrom when I visited, but then was just blown away by the scale of Bang Mealea of the same kind of jungle ruins.

    Also, one thing you mention about the pass needing to be used on consecutive days isn’t wholly true. A 3 day pass can be used any 3 days in 1 week and a 7 day pass can be used any 7 days in 1 month.

    Very helpful post and thanks for writing it though. It was a fun read.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by! And thanks for the advice on the ticketing – I will amend the post accordingly! Beng Mealea was amazing! Quite far away from the other temples, and more so than Ta Prohm, but I enjoyed its relative isolation while I was there. I was surprised at how green it was, less rubble, more jungle – and that’s always a good thing! Anyway, I hope you found my humble little guide fun!

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  3. Ugh I wish I had read this post before going. Lotsa useful info here. You mentioned a couple of temples I haven’t been to. Mental note till my next visit.

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  4. Nice post with good info and pics 🙂 I loved how you captured the monks in one of the early pics. i just wish i would’ve read this before I attempted the temples! lol

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  5. Very good, informative post. It’s a helpful reference in remembering which temples I went to since I went last summer and I didn’t record some of the places clearly. Thanks for dropping by my blog.

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