The Temples of Angkor
A visit to the temples of Angkor is a profound experience, as few sights on earth can match the majesty of Angkor Wat, nature run amok at Ta Prohm or the mysterious faces of the Bayon. The temples of Angkor are situated in the northwest province of Siem Reap. There are more than 1000 temples, built between the 9th and 13th centuries, and these remaining structures are the sacred skeleton of what was once the social, religious and administrative centre of the Khmer Empire.
The immense building projects undertaken by successive Khmer kings were on a similar scale to the construction of the pyramids by the ancient Pharaohs of Egypt. Each new temple was made possible by the 1,000,000 people estimated to have lived at Angkor during the 12th and 13th centuries. This was when London had a population of barely 50,000.
Despite the scores of temples that remain today, there is little evidence of the inhabitants of what was one of the biggest cities on earth in its time. This is because the people - from slaves to the King himself - lived in wooden structures, all of which have long-since vanished. Buildings of stone were reserved for the Gods.
Portuguese travellers are believed to have been the first Europeans to gaze in wonder at the temples of Angkor while exploring the region during the 16th Century. However, most of the credit for the "discovery" of Angkor has fallen to French botanist Henri Mouhot, whose visit to Angkor in 1860 was posthumously documented in Paris in 1868. During the remainder of the 19th Century and into the 20th Century, several French expeditions visited the temples and work was carried out to clear the jungle, which had enveloped most of the monuments.
In 1907, Thailand returned control of Angkor to Cambodia and in the same year the first tourists arrived. In the early days of tourism, visitors to Angkor followed one of two circuits to see the temples, the Little (Petit) Circuit or the Big (Grand) Circuit. Tours were often undertaken on the back of an elephant. Today things are different, and air-conditioned vehicles make the experience faster and more comfortable. Visits range from day trips (not really recommended) around the principal monuments to one week itineraries that include lost temples in the jungle. See our Suggested Itineraries for ideas on planning your trip.
There are few places on earth to match the splendour of Angkor Wat. The temple is believed to be the world’s largest religious building and is truly one of the wonders of the world.
Believed to have been undertaken as a temple and mausoleum for King Suryavarman II at the peak of the Khmer empire in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat is the best-preserved of the Angkorian temples. The central monument represents the mythical Mount Meru, the holy mountain at the centre of the universe, which was home to the Hindu god Vishnu.
It is difficult to express in words the enormous size of Angkor Wat, but it can be hinted at in part by a look at the scale of the complex. The temple is surrounded by a moat which makes the one around the Tower of London, built at roughly the same time, look like little more than a water feature. At 190m wide and forming a rectangle 1.5km by 1.3km, the walls of the outer gallery are varved with intricate bas-reliefs. Stretching for almost one kilometre, these intricate carvings are a candidate for the world’s longest unbroken piece of art.
Following in the footsteps of the devout and the destructive before us, continue to the upper levels of the inner sanctuary. The final steps to the upper terrace of Angkor are the steepest of all, as pilgrims of old were to stoop on their pilgrimage to encounter the Gods. Finally the pinnacle, the sacred heart of Angkor Wat, a blend of spirituality and symmetry so perfect that few moments will measure up.
Dominating the flat landscape, this 10th Century mountain temple is the most popular spot in the area to watch a classic sunset over Angkor Wat and the surrounding forest. A winding path cuts through the jungle or there is the option of an elephant ride to the summit. This temple is the signature spot for sunset, so it can get very crowded. Please advise the guide if you want to experience sunset at a quieter location or would prefer to venture here for sunrise when the crowds are generally much lighter.
This huge walled complex was the centre of the world’s largest city in 1200. Following the occupation of Angkor by the Chams from 1177 to 1181, the King Jayavarman VII decided to build an impregnable fortress at the heart of his empire. The scale is simply staggering and we are immediately overwhelmed by the audacity of Jayavarman on arrival at the city’s gates. The causeway is lined by an intricate bridge depicting the Churning of the Ocean of Milk from Hindu mythology in which the devas (gods) and asuras (devils) play tug of war with a naga (seven-headed serpent) to obtain the elixir of immortality. Its vast walls, some 6m wide, 8m high and 13km in length contain many monuments.
Surrounded by faces on all sides, visitors never forget the enigmatic and enchanting temple of the Bayon. At the exact centre of Angkor Thom, this is an eccentric expression of the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s most celebrated king. Its 54 towers are each topped off with the four faces of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion), which bear more than a passing resemblance to the king himself. These colossal heads stare down from every side, exuding power and control with a hint of compassion, just the mix required to keep a hold on such a vast empire.
Unlike his predecessors who had worshipped the Hindu deities of Shiva and Vishnu, Jayavarman VII adopted Mahayana Buddhism as the fount of royal divinity. This sets the Bayon apart from many other Angkorian monuments. The bas-reliefs here depict intricate scenes of ancient battles against the Chams and offer a wonderful snapshot of daily life during the Angkor period.
This perfect pyramidal temple, built by Udayadityarvarman II, has been coined the ‘world’s largest jigsaw puzzle’. Dismantled by the EFEO for restoration in the 1960s, the Khmer Rouge destroyed the architectural records in the 1970s. When French teams returned in the 1990s, they had to work out where the 300,000 pieces of sandstone were supposed to be placed. From the remaining ruins, it is possible to see how imposing was in its heyday. This temple mount was dedicated to Shiva, but in its reliefs many motives from Vishnu’s life can be seen. The Baphuon has been preserved as a partial ruin, complete with a huge reclining Buddha, added in the 16th Century.
Terrace of Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King
The first terrace owes its name to the outstanding depiction of elephants, and was used as a viewing gallery at royal events. The second terrace takes its name from the magnificent sculpture of King Yasovarman, popularly known as the Leper King. The original of this statue is now in the National Museum and is now believed to be Yama, the god of death, as it is believed this site served as the royal crematorium.
This temple is perhaps the most atmospheric of all Angkor’s treasures. The temple was a monastery built by Jayavarman VII as a residence for his mother. Ta Prohm has been left to the destructive power of nature by archaeologists to demonstrate the awesome power of nature.
It has been largely consumed by the jungle and as you climb through the dilapidated stone structures you see many giant trees growing out of the top of the temple itself. At every turn you expect to see Indiana Jones or Lara Croft step out from behind a fallen pillar. It is one of the most regularly visited temples, with visitors often arriving during the middle of the day to take advantage of the protective forest canopy above the ruined temple. Ta Prohm looks as many of the monuments did when European explorers first laid eyes on them. We recommend a dawn visit to soak up the unique atmosphere without the crowds.
Built in the same style as Ta Prohm, Preah Khan is a much better state of preservation. Meaning The Sacred Sword, this temple was also built by Jayavarman VII and is famous for its immensely long cruciform corridors and delicate carvings, including the spectacular hall of dancers. Look out for the curious two-storey structure that is almost Grecian in inspiration. This is one of the few temples originally dedicated to both Buddhism and Hinduism. The original eastern entrance was for Mahayana Buddhists, while the other cardinal points represented the Hindu trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.
King Suryavarman I commissioned this temple in the 10th Century, but it was never completed so has no elaborate decoration like its contemporaries. It is a pyramid on 5 levels and is dedicated to Shiva. Some scholars contend this was due to an inauspicious lightning strike during construction. Others have suggested the high quality sandstone was simply too hard to carve in detail.
This temple was the first great Buddhist monastery in Cambodia, constructed by Jayavarman VII during the 12th and 13th centuries. Its system of galleries and vestibules that were added after the construction of the main towers makes it look like a cloister. It was built in sandstone, which has deteriorated quite badly. However, there remain some very beautiful lintels and pediments. Although it is in a ruinous state, it often receives far fewer visitors than nearby Ta Prohm, giving it a serene atmosphere.
No bath will ever be quite the same again when you have set eyes on this vast pool, once for the exclusive use of the king and his concubines. Originally lined with sandstone steps, we climb up on to the western terrace and meet friendly local children jumping in the water.
This temple was built in the 10th Century by Rajendravarman. Pre Rup means turning the body and the Khmers believe this temple was used for cremations. This is a popular sunset spot for views over the Cambodian countryside.
The large brick and stone temple of Eastern Mebon was originally located on an island in the centre of the now dry Eastern Baray (reservoir). A low pyramid, this temple has large guardian elephants on each corner. This is one of the few temples where we can understand the construction techniques of the ancient Khmers, as there are still large soil ramps on each side of the temple, showing us how they moved these heavy stones into place.
This temple is a delicate highlight of Khmer art. Built by Jayavarman VII, this temple is the perfect representation of the heavens on earth. It has been said that this monument was consecrated to Buddha who attained Nirvana, and the ornamental lakes surrounding it were meant as places where pilgrims could wash and purify themselves before reaching perfection. In the centre of these ornamental lakes there is a small temple surrounded by two nagas.
The 12th century temple of Banteay Samre was built by King Suryavarman II, the genius behind Angkor Wat, and has been extensively restored. The temple is unique in that over-quarrying of sandstone led to the use of laterite for the roofed corridors. The pediments above the inner doors here include some of the most accomplished carving from the Angkor period.
This jewel of Angkor was built by a Brahman in the 10th Century and dedicated to Shiva. The famous pink sandstone structure bears a series of exquisite sculptures, lintels and friezes. These, it is said, must have been carved by women as the detail is too fine for the hands of a man. This gives the origin of the Khmer name, Fortress of the Women. While it may be a small temple complex, the beauty of Banteay Srei is found not in the scale, but the detail. Many believe the intricate carving is the best example of Khmer classical art in existence.
Built by Yasovarman I in the 10th century, this temple sits atop a hill overlooking the Tonle Sap Lake. The temple is in very poor condition, but its ruins are worth visiting for views. This is the place for a quiet sunset.
The East and West Barays are two enormous reservoirs, both dug by hand. They were central to the health and vigour of Khmer civilisation. The East Baray is empty, while the Western one is half full, measuring an incredible 8km in length.
Roluos was one of the earliest Angkor capitals, built by King Indravarman and originally called Hariharalaya. Today there are three Hindu sanctuaries: Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei. Lolei was originally set on an island in the centre of the Indratataka baray (reservoir). This temple has some well preserved sandstone carvings and the vast stone doors are carved from a single piece of stone. Preah Ko (sacred cow), named in honour of Shiva’s mount, Nandin. This temple owes more to the pre-Angkorian brick sanctuaries of Cambodia’s earlier Chenla empire than the sandstone behemoths that came later. Originally coated in stucco and painted, there is still some of the ancient plaster visible on the rear towers. Bakong was the earliest of the temple mountains, which later were to become the signature of Khmer kings. It is a giant pyramid, its cardinal points marked by giant elephants. We climb to the summit for views over the surrounding countryside. All three temples are well preserved and worth a visit to offer the visitor a chronological perspective on the development of Angkor.
The original ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, Kbal Spean is an intricately carved riverbed deep in the foothills of the Cambodian jungle. The river flows down to the Tonlé Sap lake, and in ancient times its holy waters breathed life into the rice fields of the empire via the most complex irrigation system the world had ever seen. The Khmers venerated its limestone bed with a riot of carvings, including the delicate deities Vishnu and Shiva with their consorts. Lingams are phallic representations sacred to Hindus as fertility symbols and hundreds, perhaps thousands, are carved into the bedrock here. The carvings were only rediscovered in 1969 when French researcher Jean Boulbet was shown the river by a local hermit.
A trip to Kbal Spean is one of the easiest ways to experience a short jungle trek in the Angkor area, as it is a steady but scenic climb to reach the river carvings. The path winds its way through knotted vines and big boulder formations and occasionally offers big views over the surrounding jungle. And there is a small waterfall below the carved riverbed, perfect for cooling off after the hot climb.
Phnom Kulen is considered by Khmer people to be the most sacred mountain in Cambodia and is a popular place of pilgrimage. It played a significant role in the history of the Khmer empire as it was from here in 802 AD that Jayarvarman II proclaimed independence from Java, giving birth to modern Cambodia. On the plateau, there is a large reclining Buddha carved into a sandstone boulder and beautiful views across the jungle. Nearby is a major waterfall and some riverbed carvings of the sort seen at Kbal Spean. For more adventurous visitors, there are many old temples scattered across the mountain, but these are tough to reach. Phnom Kulen is about 55km north-east of Siem Reap.
The lost temple of Beng Mealea is the titanic of temples, a slumbering giant lost for centuries in the forests of Cambodia. It is the most accessible of Angkor’s lost temples, a mirror image of Angkor Wat, but utterly consumed by the voracious appetite of nature. Constructed by Suryavarman II (1113-1150), the builder of Angkor Wat, the forest has run riot here and it is hard to get a sense of the monument’s shape amid the daunting ruins.
Here it is possible to enjoy an Indiana Jones experience clambering about the vast ruin. For those who want a more gentle adventure, there is also a sturdy wooden walkway running right into the heart of the temple. It is also possible to visit a nearby Angkor-era quarry from where stone was cut to build these massive monuments.
This imposing mountain-top temple guards the border between Cambodia and Thailand. It sits 600m, above the Cambodian plains below, and many consider its location the most dramatic of all the Angkorian temples. The snaking road up the mountain is very steep in places and we eventually emerge at the second enclosure of this king of the mountain temples. The final level of the temple clings to a cliff face in the Dangrek Mountains, towering hundreds of metres above lowland Cambodia below. The views from this most mountainous of temple mountains are breathtaking, the foundation stones of the temple stretching to the edge of the cliff as it plunges precipitously away to the plains of Preah Vihear province below.
The history of Cambodia is riven with dynastic spats and political intrigue and one of the most memorable came in the 10th century when Jayavarman IV (928-942) fell out with his family, stormed off to the northwest and established the rival capital of Koh Ker. Although the capital for just 15 years, Jayavarman IV was determined to legitimise his rule through a prolific building programme that left a legacy of 30 major temples. Prasat Thom is a seven-storey step pyramid, more Mayan than Khmer, with commanding views over the surrounding forest. Nearby is Prasat Krahom or Red Temple, named after the pinkish stone from which it is built. Prasat Bram has some incredible strangler figs smothering the stonework, offering a great photo opportunity.
Famous for its signature faces of Jayavarman VII, the temple of Banteay Chhmar is an atmospheric place to explore. It is home to the magnificent carvings of Lokesvara with 32 arms, nicknamed lok sam-pee (Mr 32) by Khmers, as well as the beautiful Hall of Dancers, similar to the famous Preah Khan. It is worth exploring the outer complex, including the gate of Ta Prohm, like a smaller cousin of the impressive Angkor Thom gates and protected by a moat. It is also possible to visit the enigmatic temple of Banteay Top. Here the central tower has collapsed, only to be rebuilt and resembles a precarious tower of building blocks.