Temples of Siem Reap in Angkor Archeological Park are one of the biggest heritage sites of UNESCO. When I planned my trip to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, I did enough research. But when I reached there and started exploring I realized there are so many temples and every temple is special in its own way. Though some of the temples of Angkor Wat looks similar still they are different in certain aspects. I knew it is a grand temple complex but seeing it in real and experiencing its grandeur amazed me. No words can describe the splendor of the temple complex.
I was not able to explore the whole complex because to see everything you need weeks or maybe months. It is not possible to explore all temples for regular travelers like me, so I am suggesting some of the must-visit temples of Siem Reap in Angkor Archeological Park to get the essence and feel of this unique complex.
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What is Angkor Wat
The Angkor temple complex around Siem Reap is the largest religious monument in the world. The most important area with most of the temples is spread in 24 Km. This is known as Angkor Archeological Park along with Kbal Spean which is 48 Km from Angkor.
There are magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. There are 72 main temples or other structures in this area with several hundred small structures spread in around.
A brief history of Angkor Wat temples and discovery
There is no doubt that Angkor temples around Siem Reap are one of the most important archaeological sites in the world. The Khmer period of Angkor started in 802 AD when Hindu Khmer monarch Jayavarman II declared himself the Chakravartin (Universal Monarch).
The king Yasovarman was crowned in 889. He was a great king, an accomplished builder, a scholar, a great warrior and also known as Lion King for his powers. He started the work of temples and reservoirs in Angkor. For the next 300 years between 900 to 1200, the kingdom flourished and produced some magnificent architectural masterpiece.
The Khmer ruled here between the 9th to 15th centuries and the empire collapsed in 1431 AD by Ayutthaya. Afterward, the population of Angkor migrated to Longvek and Angkor remain hidden amid forests & farmland for more than 500 years.
Angkor remained the center of Khmer empire for more than 500 years and even today it is the spiritual heart of Cambodia. The Cambodian national flag has the main temple Angkor Wat in its design.
In 2007 an international team of researchers using Modern techniques and satellite photographs concluded that Angkor had been the largest pre-industrial city in the world. This research shed light on an elaborate infrastructure system connecting at least 1,000 square km.
Angkor had a complicated water management network, it was used for systematically stabilizing, storing, and dispersing water throughout the Khmer empire. Angkor was considered to be a “hydraulic city” because the water management of the city was well organized and water stored in the reservoir was used for irrigation in case of the unpredictable monsoon season.
It is believed that the Angkor had a population of approximately one million people at one point in time. At its peak, Angkor was a bustling city with beautiful monuments and temples. The reservoir in Angkor is still in good condition and remain filled with water.
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The Angkor remained hidden by the forest until the end of the 19th century. The archeologists Louis Delaporte and ethnologists Adolf Bastian discovered the area and popularise the Angkor in Europe.
French organization EFEO did a lot of work in this area between 1907 to 1970 to restore the temples in this area. They cleared the forests & restored many monuments. The work on Angkor stopped during the Cambodian civil war and for a few years everyone almost forgot about it.
Angkor Archaeological Park
The Angkor Archeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. In 1993 work again started after the end of civil war. India, Germany, Japan, and UNESCO jointly started work on the monuments. They made a local body APSARA, which is now responsible for the management of Angkor Archeological Park. Even today the work is in progress on some temples to reassembled them stone by stone.
The tourism started in Cambodia after the end of the civil war but growth was slow and then the movie Lara Croft released in 2001. A part of the movie was filmed in temples of Angkor and people fell in love with the mysterious vine-clad temple used in the film. The Ta Prohm suddenly became famous and even today is one of the most popular temples of Angkor. This movie suddenly brought the Angkor in limelight and it had a great impact on Cambodia’s tourism and its popularity as a destination.
In 2016, 5 million people visited Angkor Archeological Park.
Tickets for Angkor Archeological Park
There are 3 types of tickets :
* 1 Day ticket for 37 USD and is valid only on the date of purchase.
** 3 Day ticket for 62 USD and is valid on any 3 of the 10 days after purchase.
*** 7 Days ticket for 72 USD and is valid for 1 month after the date of purchase. You can choose any 7 days within a month after purchase of the ticket.
Tips for buying tickets for Angkor Archeological Park
* You have to pay in cash to purchase the ticket.
** Payment should be done in USD.
* There are many ATM machine in the ticket buying area for cash withdrawal.
** If you are planning to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat than buy the ticket a day before after 5.30 PM.
* The main entry gate of Angkor Wat is 10-15 minutes driving distance from the ticket counter.
** You have to personally go to buy the ticket because they print your photograph on the ticket.
* Keep the ticket handy at the safe place because they may check ticket at different temples randomly.
How to travel from Siem Reap to Angor Archeological Park and between temples
* The most cost-effective is to hire a tuk-tuk. For 6 to 8 hours they generally charge between 15-18 USD depending upon your negotiating skills.
* For Sunrise to Sunset (Between 5.00 AM to 6.00 PM), it’s almost double and would cost anywhere between 30-35 USD.
* It’s hot and humid in Angkor and Siem Reap, so if you want to hire a taxi then it will cost you double to Tuk-Tuk. But I personally find it useless because to see temples you have to move in open so no point spending money for 10-20 minutes drive between temples.
* Travel time between Siem Reap to Angkor can vary between 35-45 minutes depending upon where you are staying.
*A bike can be rented at 5-7 USD for a day.
So the most important question is “there’s so many of them, where do you start”?
It’s impossible to see all the big and small temples of Siem Reap in a short visit of 3 to 5 days.
My one-day itinerary for temples of Siem Reap in Angkor Archeological Park
Angkor Wat, The Bayon, The Baphuon, Ta Prohm, and Pre Rup.
My two days itinerary for temples of Siem Reap in Angkor Archeological Park
Day 1 – Sunrise at Angkor Wat but don’t explore the temple, The Bayon, The Baphuon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Ta Som, and Pre Rup.
Day 2 – Go to Banteay Srei in the morning and explore Angkor Wat in the afternoon when the crowd is lesser.
Must-visit best temples of Siem Reap in Angkor Archeological Park
Angkor Wat Temple
This is the biggest and most spectacular of all the temples at Angkor Archeological Park. Angkor Wat is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu gods and moat around it is believed to represent the Sheersagar (mythological oceans).
The outer wall and moat around the temple stretch for 3.6 Km. There are large grounds around the temple and a long path leads to the main temple.
The king Suryavarman built and dedicated this temple to the Hindu god Vishnu. The main shrine was originally occupied by a statue of Vishnu and it was open on sides. Later on, it was converted to Buddhist temple in the 14th century and walled on sides.
There are long corridors and galleries around the temples. These galleries have very detailed and beautiful bas-reliefs depicting epic Hindu stories.
On the eastern gallery is most celebrated scenes from Hindu epic – the Churning of the Sea of Milk, showing 92 Asuras and 88 Devas using the serpent king Vasuki to churn the sea under Vishnu’s direction.
After this is a depiction of Vishnu defeating asuras but local people believe it is mightly king Suryavarman defeating his enemies.
At the back of the temple, I climbed to the top of the central towers and saw the surrounding areas.
The Angkor Wat temple is one of the most visited temples of Angkor. I am sure that all 5 million tourists, who visited Angkor must have visited the main Angkor Wat temple.
The Bayon Temple
This temple is in the center of the ancient kingdom of Angkor Thom. The temple is known for the massive smiling stone faces carved on its towers.
Bayon was initially made as Mahayana Buddhist temple by King Jayavarman VII. Later on, it was modified as a Hindu temple, then again into Buddist temple by subsequent kings. According to their belief before it was abandoned & lost in the forest.
There is a beautiful depiction of historic events and day to day life on the outer galleries of the temple on the lower floor of the temple.
These depictions are done in bas-reliefs style same like Angkor Wat. The main subject of decoration in these galleries is the depiction of horsemen, marching army, elephants, musicians, Angkorian houses, cooking, Chinese merchants, apsara, lingam, and other Hindu gods.
The stairs leading to the upper levels are slightly confusing to locate because they are slightly hidden and narrow from outside.
The upper terrace is where the famous “face towers” of the Bayon. Each tower has two, three or most commonly four gigantic smiling faces.
The smaller towers are located along the inner gallery. These towers are built around the central tower which rises 43 meters above the ground. Initially, the temple has 49 towers but now only 37 remain.
There are approximately 200 faces but only some are preserved and due to this, there can be no definitive count. Bayon temple is built in the much smaller area in comparison to Angkor Wat. Bayon temple is maintained and restored by the Japnese government.
It’s a tall temple with steep staircases on each side but is closed for climbing. There is not much for exploring at The Baphuon. Most parts of the temple destroyed due to neglect.
The restoration work stopped during the civil war of Cambodia and in 1995 restoration work again started and finally, the temple was opened in 2001. The restoration work of the Baphuon temple took 51 years. From the top, you get an overview of the ancient city of Angkor Thom.
It is one of the most popular temples in the Angkor Archeological Park. The large trees and plants have created a mystic atmosphere.
When the restorations work started, historians decided that the trees should be left to grow because they felt “it is one of the most imposing temples and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it”.
Ta Prohm has been largely left to show the effects of time. This temple is maintained and restored by Archaeological Survey of India. They have worked to stabilize the ruins, to permit access, and to maintain the ruins with tree climbing effects.
Ta Prohm was built as a Buddhist monastery and university. The temple’s stele records that Ta Prohm and the enclosed area around the temple were home for more than 12,500 people including 18 high priests and 615 dancers.
It is a flat temple unlike other mountain temples of Khmer culture. The stele in the temple also notes that Ta Prohn amassed a large amount of wealth including gold, pearls, and silks.
Ta Prohm was used as a set for the movie Tomb Raider movie and this increased its popularity. This temple is also known as Tomb Raider temple. Though other temples were also shown in this movie still the strong visual of Ta Prohm made it popular.
It was easy to get lost in this temple among trees, walls, and piles of rubble.
Preah Khan like the nearby Ta Prohm has been left largely unrestored with trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins. It was built in the 12th century as a Buddhist temple. Preah Khan is also a flat temple and its endless doorways lead into its depths.
The endless doorways, hallways, and rooms make this temple mysterious. While roaming around Preah Khan made me feel that I am discovering a lost temple.
This tall temple is dedicated to Hindu god Shiva and believe to be the site of the Shivaite ashram. The meaning of Pre Rup is “turn the body”. According to local belief, this temple has been the place where funerals were conducted at Angkor and ashes of the body being ritually rotated in different directions.
The different layers of the temple can be explored by climbing the temple and is one of the best places to overview all of Angkor. This temple is also a popular place to watch sunset between its two of the towers.
The temple gets crowded around sunset. The stairs are steep, keep that in mind because you have to climb down after sunset.
Ta Som Temple
Another 12th-century temple, Ta Som was built by King Jayavarman VII in dedication to his father. This is a small temple in comparison to Ta Prohm and Preah Khan. It is also overtaken by jungle, the temple is left as is after restoration to stop further decay.
The back exit of the temple has been enveloped by a Banyon tree and which makes the gateway interesting.
Baksei Cham Krong Temple
This is the only pyramid-shaped temple in the entire complex. This temple is dedicated to Hindu god Shiv. This is least visited temple in the Angkor Thom.
Picturesque Face topped Entrance of Angkor Archaeological Park
Another interesting and one of my favorite is the picturesque face topped entrance to enter Angkor Thom.
There are long queues of faces on both sides of the road on the moat and after entering the gate Angkor Thom starts. Most of the temples are inside this gate.
This temple is a 25 km from the other temples of Angkor Archeological Park. It is made of distinct pinkish red color sandstone.
The color of the temple makes it different from other temples of the Khmer empire. Due to its location, you need a half day to visit this temple. The temple is dedicated to Hindu god Shiva.
This temple is very immaculately carved and also known as ‘Citadel of Women’ because of delicately sculptured design considered to be made by women hands. It is small in size compared to the other Angkor temples. It is not clear why this temple was made with different stone color.
Tourists are not permitted inside the temple, you can walk inside the wall of the temple but the interior is roped off. This temple is very well preserved and the restriction of entry is one of the main reason.
Other temples to visit in Angkor Archeological Park are Ta Keo, Banteay Kdei, Prasat Kravan, Neak Poan, and East Mebon.
I personally feel if you want to understand the sculptures, and design of temples as a regular tourist then it is enough to explore the temples I mentioned in details.
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Tips for visiting temples of Siem Reap in Angkor Archeological Park
* Tour guides and tuk-tuk drivers will drive in a clockwise direction to show the temple, it means you end at the same temple with other tourists. Take the tour in reverse direction.
** Angkor Wat is facing West and not East contrary to most of the Angkorian temples in Siem Reap.
* Sunrises from the back of temple and temple look like a dark shadow.
** Don’t go back to the hotel for breakfast or lunch because you will waste approximately 2 hours traveling in heat.
* These are religious sites and temples, Cambodian people regard them as sacred sites. Cover your shoulders and knees when visiting temples otherwise, they will not allow you inside the temple.
** It is hot and humid in Siem Reap temples area. Don’t forget to carry a cap, a sunblock, a water bottle, and a hand fan if you can find one.
* Wear comfortable footwear because you have to walk a lot on an uneven surface and climb the stairs.