Exploring Angkor’s Temples: Our Top Five

Thoughts on Visiting Angkor

Angkor Wat and the surrounding historic city of Angkor is both an impressive monument to ancient Khmer civilization and a fascinating adventure movie set. If you’d like to appreciate either aspect fully, imagination must be used.

In other ancient cities like the Roman Forum, Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza, you must both imagine the site in its original glory along with the people who lived in it – their dress, language and way of life.

For the adventure movie you must imagine other aspects of the scene – the dry ice being used to make the mist, the streaming beams of light coming from lighting kits just off set, the mounting beat of the background music or the clever villain in the jungle with the ever arching plot line looming overhead.

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft – a more mysterious version of Ta Prohm.
Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft – a more mysterious version of Ta Prohm.

So in real life, no matter how impressive a site may be, more work must be done to experience it in the fullest. For us this involved doing research, going to a museum to understand the site and hiring a guide. We did not hire a villain to chase us through the jungle or a crew to create special effects, we just rewatched the relevant clips of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

Gate to Angkor, Churning of the Ocean Into Milk Hindu Mythology
New Heads Part of Restoration, Gate to Angkor

Getting to Angkor

The best place to fly into is Siem Reap, where the park is located. You can either purchase a tourist visa online ahead of time or one can be provided at the airport for a fee. The airport is a few miles outside of town, so plan transportation accordingly. When some hotels in the area say they will provide transportation from the airport they mean via tuk tuk, so if you have a lot of bags you may want to obtain your own taxi. Otherwise, our ride in via tuk tuk only added to the adventure.

Don’t be surprised if the local hotel transportation provided is a tuk tuk. Our ride into town.

There are many hotels of every level available in the city, if you are looking for creature comforts you might want to choose a western one. We chose a local one which looked great online but didn’t really deliver in person with a bed that felt like a wooden plank, a  lack of air conditioning in common areas and poor coordination or our breakfast for the early day at the park. We were repeatedly tempted to transfer to the Courtyard Marriott or the Sofitel in town but this one was already purchased. Live and learn.

The City

Siem Reap will be a stimulating mixture of noise, smells and local merchants trying to sell their wares. You will be accosted by sales pitches on every walk, whether it be for t-shirts, tours or tuk tuk rides. If you are seeking such an environment stay near the pub street where you will be able to walk around in the evenings, if not, choose a hotel off on its own. In most cases you will need a ride to the archaeological park as it is a few miles outside of town.

Siem Reap life a blur from the back of a tuk tuk.

Since 90 percent of Cambodians work on farms, tourism to Angkor is a major source of revenue for citizens here that they would not have otherwise. Tourism is seen as a good thing, you are helping the locals tremendously. When the guide we chose is not working as a guide he works on his family’s rice farm outside of town. A short drive into the provinces will reveal the local life here. You will understand the constant sales pitch, not just in town but by local women and village children at each of the Angkor sites.

A rice farmer hard at work in Thailand.
Typical rural farmhouse on stilts outside Siem Reap.

Amazingly, US dollars are the preferred form of currency in town which is ironic because US tourists are not even in the top 5 visitor groups to the area – it is mostly people from Asia and Europe. You can even obtain US dollars directly from bank machines in Siem Reap. I am told this is not the case in the rest of Cambodia.

Tours

Every tuk tuk rider you hire would like to be your tour guide for the entire time you are there. They usually try to extend their service. The rates are reasonable at $15 a day and they bring you to the best spots. If you’ve done your prep work by researching the park ahead of time this is a great option. We chose this on our first day but already had a 2-day tour booked for the rest of our trip.

Angkor National Museum

To fully understand the archaeological park, you should visit the Angkor National Museum first. Here you will have the ancient city and its customs explained through  exhibits, models and movies. You will see temples, kings, Buddhism, Hinduism, architecture, carvings and statues. In one room you will see the temple of 1,000 Buddhas reconstructed to imagine the former glory of the upstairs chambers of Angkor Wat. Going through the museum will take a couple of hours but it is time well spent before entering the park.

Tickets to the Archaeological Park

Once you are finished you can buy 1-day, 3-day or 7-day passes to the park at the main sales center a few miles away. For most, 3 days will suffice. Angkor is very serious about these tickets, they will include your photo and be checked every time you enter the park entrance or one of its temples. There are more than 80 temples in the area, we will focus on our top five.

Our Top 5 Temples of Angkor

Map of the Angkor Archaeological Park from Our Tour Guide.

1.Angkor Wat or City Temple

This temple is the most widely known set of buildings in the city, and the name by which most refer to the entire area, but the historic city of Angkor is more than just its iconic temple. It’s a large metropolis of ruins, 400 square kilometers in size which includes palaces, terraces, civic areas and other temples. As a historic ruin it is in good condition, not too much damage was incurred by war, weather has been a more consistent opponent. This was the main or city temple of Angkor.Originally created as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat was later converted to a Buddhist temple, the state religion. It is considered a mountain temple, meant to symbolize Mount Meru, with 5 temples at the top floor. It is a very steep climb to the third floor which looks out over the entrance of the park.

Angkor Wat Up Close with Original Staircases
Steep modern stairs leading up to the top floor of Angkor Wat.
Looking out over the entrance of Angkor Wat from the top floor.

The intricate carvings of Angkor Wat are impressive whether it be the dancing apsara women, the panels or the large mural of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. This legend comes from Hindu mythology where good and evil work to turn the ocean into milk to find the elixir of immortality. This is an often repeated theme in Angkor and the in tact elaborate carvings are unusual.

Churning of the Ocean Into Milk Mural Carving, Angkor Wat
Apsara carving, Angkor Wat
Apsara or female nymphs.
Panel carving at Angkor Wat

Photos of Angkor Wat
Popular tourist activities start at sunrise. It is common to wake up at 4:00 a.m. to take photos of the sunrise. The temple faces west so the sun rises behind it. You will see this digital pilgrimage take place twice each day – the same thing happens at sunset when the temple is best lit, and these are the most sought after photos of the site. One popular place to stand is the reflecting pool with lotus flowers – this was not as crowded while we were there as it was off season and dry season so the water was low. The other favorite spot is outside the moat which offers plenty of water for reflective purposes.

Sunset at the Reflecting Pool, Angkor Wat
Sunrise from across the moat, Angkor Wat.

2. The Bayon Temple at Angkor Thom

The Bayon Temple or Temple of Faces was one of our favorites. There are over 200 large faces that Jayavarman VII built in Angkor Thom, the capital city which means “great city.” This was the last large temple built by a king in Angkor and it was dedicated to Buddha. It is thought that the growth of Theravada Buddhism ended the building of more large temples here. 59 towers had these unusual faces on them with many having them on 4 sides of the tower and they are thought to represent Lokeshvara.

The Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom
Tourists riding elephants at Bayon Temple.
The Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom
The Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom
Tim, exiting the Bayon Temple, Angkor.
What the Bayon Temple is thought to have looked like originally.
The Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom
The Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom

3. Ta Prohm or “Tomb Raider” Temple

The next 3 temples are known as “jungle” temples because they are being overtaken by the jungle. Built in 1186 by King Jayvaraman VII to honor his mother, Ta Prohm, which means Ancestor of Brahma, is known in popular culture as being the location used in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. While you are wandering around inside of it, you will often hear Asian languages interrupted with the words: tomb raider.

It is known the world over for this movie and tourists spend extra time taking selfies here because of it. It is also known because of the jungle trees which are invading the buildings. This gives it a mysterious and beautiful feel. India is contributing money to help restore this amazing temple but care is made to keep it looking untouched as it did when French explorers first discovered it in the 19th century.

Entrance, Ta Prohm, Angkor
Entrance, Ta Prohm, Angkor
Front, Ta Prohm, Angkor
One of the shot locations for Tomb Raider
Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm
Vertical panorama of large tree in temple.

4. Preah Khan

Preah Khan is another jungle temple, accessible by a long shady path with similar features as Ta Prohm. This temple was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII to honor his father. It is named after the sacred sword of King Jayavarman II and once functioned as a monastery. The temple has had a lot of restoration and rebuilding work done and has trees invading it similar to Ta Prohm.

Approaching Preah Khan from Entrance, Angkor
Preah Khan Doorways, Angkor
Preah Khan Doorways, Angkor
Carving, Preah Khan, Angor
Carving, Preah Khan, Angor
Doorway Carving, Preah Khan, Angor
A lion guards the entrance to Preah Khan, Angkor
Tim and Guide, Preah Khan, Angor
Back of Preah Khan, Angor

5. Ta Som

Built by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th Century, some say for his father, others for his teacher and still others for his ancestors. This is a small temple which has faces similar to the Bayon Temple mentioned above. It’s another jungle temple set in the woods with invading trees.

Entrance to Ta Som, Angkor
Ta Som, Angkor
Ta Som, Angkor
A strangler fig taking over Ta Som, Angkor

There were other temples which we toured but these were by far the most interesting, beautiful and photogenic. The added benefit of shade in the jungle temples made the hot weather a little more bearable as well. It is important to schedule a few days in Siem Reap to be able to see more than just Angkor Wat. The size and impact of the buildings in the archaeological park can not be overstated. It is truly worth a visit on your UNESCO World Heritage tour.

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