Exploring the temples of Angkor
The best temples at Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia
There is no doubt that the region of Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. For more than 500 years it was the centre of the Khmer empire and still today it is the spiritual heart of Cambodia. That the national flag has the main temple Angkor Wat in its design speaks volumes.
The whole area stretches out over 400 square kilometres and has more than a thousand temples (in various states of disrepair). Shortly I’ll let you know what I think the best temples to visit around Siem Reap are. Preservation and restoration have become a priority at Angkor and it was only in 2004 that the site was removed from the ‘in danger’ section of UNESCO’s World Heritage List. But, as with many sites of this notoriety, the threat to its conservation is now coming from booming tourist numbers. There are now more than two million visitors to the Angkor site each year.
(If you’re after something a bit quieter, you should check out Beng Mealea temple.)
I remember coming here in my younger backpacking days – maybe seven or eight years ago – and the tourist hub of Siem Reap, which services Angkor, was a sleepy little town. Angelina Jolie had just finished filming Tomb Raider and the bar she occasionally went to was the most exciting (and probably only decent) place to go in the evenings. Finding a good guesthouse for the night wasn’t a problem – finding any guesthouse was the challenge. But along the main roads into town you could see construction of hotels every few hundred metres. The boom was about to hit.
The biggest difference I notice on this visit, though, is at the temples. What were once undiscovered treasures have become standard stops on the tour bus circle. I remember previously going to some of the bigger sites and scrambling up steep ancient staircases to explore isolated nooks or empty crannies. Now those staircases are closed off and people queue to be allowed into the busiest parts – especially at the best temples.
This is not a bad thing, though. There needs to be a management plan in place to protect these ancient wonders. They should be shared with the world but done in a sustainable way that doesn’t damage the buildings that hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people spent centuries to build with such an astounding mix of grandeur and tiny intricate details.
If you only have one day to explore the Angkor site, there is a pretty standard list of temples you should see. They’re the most famous for a reason and are not worth missing. Any extra days you have can be used to explore some more outlying options.
A great way to see all of the best temples is with one of the local tour guides. They know where to go and they’ve got a wealth of information. If you’re interested, I would suggest checking out this option:
If you’re still keen to go by yourself, don’t worry. I’ve out together a bit of background information for you. Here are Angkor’s best temples.
The biggest and most spectacular of all the temples at Angkor. It’s also said to be the largest religious monument in the world. It has a moat and an outer wall that stretches for 3.6 kilometres. Within the walls there is a large area of empty space with a long path to the main temple. Along the sides of the temple are detailed bas reliefs mainly showing epic Hindu stories. You can climb to the top of the central towers and look out over the whole site from there.
The Bayon is best known for the massive stone faces carved into the sides of its towers. Although it’s unclear exactly how many there once were, it’s estimated there were about 200 of these faces. Although not nearly as large as Angkor Wat, this temple is much more condensed and you’ll need to walk through some dark and tight passages to see it all. At time it feels like you might get lost on the lower levels before you find stairs to the top.
There’s no so much the need for exploring at The Baphuon as there is the need for climbing. It’s a tall temple with steep staircases on each side (although you can’t access them all). The Baphuon has been the subject of many years of restoration work but is now in a fairly good condition. From the top you get a great view over the ancient city of Angkor Thom, of which The Baphuon is a part.
Phimeanakas is quite close to The Baphuon and is also a part of Angkor Thom. It’s not as large as The Baphuon but has a similar design. And once again there’s a steep staircase to climb if you want to go to the top. This is a temple that can be enjoyed from the ground, though. It was built at the end of the 10th century and would once have had a tall tower at the top.
This is a small temple that you can see in about ten minutes or so. The most important features are not the overall design but the carved decorations. They are in a relatively good condition and give you a sense of how things would have looked at some of the less-preserved sites.
Chau Say Tevoda
Right across the road from Thommanon is Chau Say Tevoda. It is a similar size and has a similar design. A lot of restoration work has gone into improving Chau Say Tevoda and it’s easy to access and doesn’t take too long to see. It’s best to consider both these temples together, to understand their position in the ancient city.
This is one of the oldest temples at Angkor and is believed to be the first built entirely of sandstone. It’s a five-tiered pyramid with steep staircases on each side. There are no decorations, which makes it seem slightly large than it is. It would once have had a large moat around it but that no longer exists.
Ta Prohm is one of the most popular temples for tourists in the Angkor region because of the atmosphere created by the trees and plants which have been left to grow in it. Unlike many of the other large sites, which have been restored, this has been largely left to show the effects of time. It was used as a set for the Tomb Raider movie and that’s only increased its popularity. There’s no climbing involved but it’s easy to get lost amongst the trees and piles of rubble.
Banteay Kdei has a similar design to Ta Prohm but is smaller and is being restored to remove most of the trees and rebuild the collapsed parts of the structure. It’s easy to walk through and not lose your way – you can pretty much just go in a straight line. It gives a good sense of how these single story but complex temples were laid out.
Where should you stay in Siem Reap?
If you’re looking for a budget option, I would suggest the Onederz Hostel which is clean and modern.
For something affordable but comfortable, Central Privilege Hotel is a great place.
For good value luxury, you should try the Moon Residence and Spa with a pool and large rooms.
And if you want to really splurge for somewhere incredible, have a look at Phum Baitang.