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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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!
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!
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.
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
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.