The Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage listed site, sprawls over some 400-square km in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Once the seat of the Khmer Empire that ruled over most of South-East Asia from the 9th to the 15th centuries, this archaeological site houses dozens of Hindu-Buddhist temple complexes encompassing hundreds of temples and smaller structures. The sheer size of these magnificent architectural showpieces with incredibly detailed artistry are nothing short of breathtaking. Reduced to semi-ruins by nature and time, these monuments now carry a whole new appeal, one of mystery and romance, amidst the great swathes of forest and smothering roots.
Temples to Explore
Visiting all the temples in a day can be a daunting task. It’s better to pick the temples you’d like to see and plan your trip accordingly. However, if you have no plan in mind, most tuk-tuk and moto drivers will have an itinerary ready. For ease of planning, the temples can be broadly categorized into 5 groups:
- Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom
- The Grand Circuit (Le Grand Circuit)
- The Small Circuit (Le Petit Circuit)
- The Roulos Group
- Outlying Temples
Angkor Wat, the monumental 12th Century Hindu Temple, is, by far, the biggest and grandest attraction of the Angkor Archaeological Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Cultural site is the largest religious monument in the world.
The Angkor Thom complex, once the massive, ancient City of Angkor Thom, is believed to have accommodated 1 million people in its heyday. Temples within the Angkor Thom complex are:
- Bayon – this unique 13th century Buddhist temple has more than 200 intriguing stone faces carved onto its towers.
- Baphuon – built as a representation of the Hindu sacred mountain, Mount Meru. A giant reclining Buddha statue was later added to it after Buddhism became the main religion in the 16th century.
- The Elephant Terrace – stretching over 300 meters, this terrace has elephant heads protruding from the walls with the trunks as pillars.
- The Terrace of the Leper King – this terrace wall, carved with nagas, demons and other mythological figure was named so due to its extensive discoloration that resembled a person with leprosy.
- Phnom Bakheng – a 9th century temple mountain dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva. Located atop a hill makes it an ideal location to view sunsets.
Taking in major sites to the East of Angkor Thom, the small circuit plies a route 17 km long and includes some of the following temples:
- Ta Prohm – another popular temple with visitors, this temple is hauntingly beautiful due to its location amidst the jungle and the huge tree roots that have intertwined with the structure.
- Banteay Kdei – a 13th century Buddhist monastery meaning ‘Citadel of Chambers’. Its exquisite carvings bear evidence of two different art periods, the Angkor Wat and Bayon.
- Sras Srang – is an embarkation terrace leading to a ‘baray’ or pond, believed to be an ablution pool, a pond used for ritual washing. Flanking either side of the terrace are 2 huge stone lions.
- Prasat Kravan – a 10th century temple with five red symmetrical red towers, dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Remarkable carvings depicting Lord Vishnu and his consort Lakshmi can be found on the walls.
This circuit, covering 26 km, is an extension of the small circuit and allows visitors to see major temples to the north and further out east of Angkor Thom, consisting of the following temples:
- Preah Khan – the first capital of the Khmer empire before Angkor Wat was completed, this large and atmospheric temple bears testimony to the excellent wall carvings during that period.
- Ta Som – a small temple built in the 12th century that has a moat and is enclosed by 3 laterite walls. Built as a dedication to the King’s ancestors, the outer enclosure features large faces similar to the Bayon.
- East Mebon – standing on what used to be an island, this 10th century Hindu temple has exceptional sculptures, including huge stone elephant at the corners of the first and second tiers.
- Pre Rup – one of the most popular spots for viewing sunsets, this 10th century Hindu temple was believed to have served as an early royal crematorium.