Things to Do in Angkor Wat
Rising from the jungle as the star of the UNESCO-listed Angkor Archaeological Park, the Angkor Wat temple complex is a 12th-century engineering marvel that tops many adventure travelers’ bucket lists and justifies a trip to Southeast Asia all on its own. Every surface is covered in intricate carvings and details that don’t disappoint—nymphs dance on columns in shadowy hallways, serpent-topped balustrades line the moat, and huge, chiseled bas-reliefs wrap the outer walls, depicting Khmer Empire battles. The site’s colossal size reflects its ambition, intended as a microcosm of the universe. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to get lost here, with the complex arranged on three tiers.
The geographical and spiritual center of the ancient city of Angkor Thom, the Bayon is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the Khmer king Jayavarman VII. Around 200 giant faces look down from around 50 towers, while beautifully crafted reliefs depict everyday life in 12th-century Cambodia.
At the northern end of the Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Preah Khan is among the park’s most striking temples. The evocative ruins of the temple, built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, lie tangled amid the roots of silk-cotton trees, its perimeter guarded by 72 stone garudas (mythological bird creatures).
Explored by Angelina Jolie in 2001’s Lara Croft:Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm is ubiquitously known as “the Tomb Raider temple.” A 12th-century Buddhist monastery and temple complex enmeshed in a web of towering tree roots, it’s one of Angkor’s—and Cambodia’s—signature sights and stands as an eerie symbol of the transience of human endeavor.
The prolific King Jayavarman VII was behind the creation of numerous temples in Angkor, but Neak Pean is one of his most unusual. A bit off the trodden tourist path, the temple sits on a small island in a reservoir, flanked by four smaller ponds fed by carved gargoyles. Scholars believe that in building the temple, the king was trying to recreate the sacred Anavatapta Lake in the Himalayan Mountains, which is believed to be situated at the top of the universe.
At the time Neak Pean was built, devotees would come to the temple to bathe in the waters, which were believed to have healing powers. This site in particular is an interesting example of one of many “hospital” temples and structures Jayavarman was famous for building.
While the central temple itself is blocked off, a wooden platform takes visitors out toward it and makes for a beautiful stroll, especially in the evening when the light of the sunset reflects off the water.
Small but perfectly formed, the delicately carved rose pink temple of Banteay Srei is a masterpiece of Angkorian art. The name means “Citadel of the Women,” likely because of its many carvings of “apsara” nymphs. First built in 967 AD, long before Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom, it’s about an hour’s drive from the main archaeological area.
The sprawling temple complex of Angkor Thom, an ancient Khmer capital formerly ringed by a crocodile-infested moat, surpasses the world-famous Angkor Wat in both size and scale. Each of the site’s five gates are heralded by avenues lined with 108 deities that represent good and evil, which provide spectacular photo opportunities before you even step inside.
Located within the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom and part of the Angkor temples UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Terrace of the Elephants is renowned for its exquisite stone carvings. Built at the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, the temple takes its name from the depictions of parading elephants that adorn the terrace walls.
Known for its photogenic gateway (gopura) choked by the roots of a strangling fig tree, Ta Som is one of Angkor’s smaller temples. Jayavarman VII built the complex in the late 12th century, and it’s particularly scenic because it’s still overgrown. The inner sanctuary includes towers with faces like those at the more famous Bayon.
A favorite Angkor sunset spot, Pre Rup is a 3-tier mountain temple topped with five sanctuary towers. Built in 961 AD as a temple to the Hindu god Shiva, Pre Rup’s name means “turn the body,” and some believe it was used for cremations. Its warm brickwork and red laterite stone look beautiful at sunrise or sunset.
More Things to Do in Angkor Wat
Less visited than Siem Reap’s “big three” (Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm), Banteay Kdei is a 12th-century Buddhist monastery that lies conveniently close to Ta Prohm and Srah Srang. The towering trees that overgrow the site add atmosphere, while it’s easy to imagine ancient monks praying and sleeping in the tiny cells as you stroll.
A heavily restored 12th-century temple, Banteay Samré feels more like a citadel. The Khmer emperor Suryavarman II built the complex, which includes a hall, two libraries, a temple, a dry moat, and fringing walls. Though Banteay Samré is smaller than many other Angkor-era monuments, it boasts some impressive carvings.
Srah Srang is a baray, or reservoir, that is located south of the East Baray and east of Banteay Kde. Srah Srang was created by excavation in the mid-900s and, while there are several theories, it’s not clear whether the significance of this reservoir was religious, agricultural or a little bit of both. However, Srah Srang is best known as an ideal location for viewing the sunrise.
At present Srah Srang measures almost 2,300 feet (700 meters) by almost 1,200 feet (350 meters) and is still partially flooded. A basement was found in the middle of it, which suggests that there may have been a temple on an artificial island at some point in the past. The landing-stage is located opposite the entrance to Banteay Kdei and is bordered by naga balustrades, ending with the head of a serpent mounted by a garuda with unfurled wings; guardian lions watch over the steps that lead down to the water.
Just north of the Terrace of the Elephants in the 800-year-old city of Angkor Thom, the Terrace of the Leper King takes its name from the statue that stands atop it. Around 20 feet (6 meters) high, the grand platform stands out for the detailed carvings on its exterior and interior walls: kings, princesses, spirits, sacred snakes, and more.
With shaded pavilions and elaborately carved stone pieces, Baphuon is one of the most magical temples in Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set within the grounds of Angkor Thom, a huge 12th-century site that dwarfs even Angkor Wat in size, Baphuon attracts visitors with its reclining Buddha and dilapidated charm.
Built during the ninth century at what was the center of the royal city at the time, Phnom Bakheng (also known as the temple of Shiva) is one of the oldest temples in Angkor. The five-tiered pyramidal structure, built on top of a hill, and was originally surrounded by 108 towers, an auspicious number in many Eastern religions.
While the temple ruins of Phnom Bakheng are impressive, the reason most visitors come is to watch the sunset from the top or to attempt to snap the money shot of Angkor Wat rising up from the jungle in the distance (the site sits less than a mile from Phnom Bakheng). To avoid the crowds, consider coming at sunrise instead.
Set near the center of the Royal Enclosure in Angkor Thom, Phimeanakas served as the king’s personal temple during the 10th and 11th centuries, before Jayavarman VII constructed Angkor Thom around it. Historians believe the three-tiered temple was once topped with a gold-covered tower, but very little of it remains.
According to local legend, the king would visit the top of the temple each night to meet a woman with the head of a naga (a serpent deity), and that if he failed to show up for the tryst, disaster would strike his kingdom.
While many of the temple’s decorative elements have been removed over time, it’s still worth making the short but steep climb to the top, where you’ll be rewarded with excellent views of nearby Baphuon.
The 3 main temples that form the Roluos Group (Roluos Temples) stand apart from the main attractions around Siem Reap, lying to the west of the town rather than on the main northern axis. They’re also significantly older, dating from the 9th century when this area was known as Hariharalaya.
Preah Ko, the oldest, is arranged as two rows of three “prasats” (towers) each, and boasts stunning stone carvings and plasterwork. After that comes the intricate 5-tiered Bakong, and finally Lolei, which dates from 893. This last temple resembles Preah Ko but with 4 instead of 6 towers, once stood on its own island, and is noted for its fine examples of Khmer calligraphy.
Often overlooked by visitors exploring Angkor Archaeological Park, Bakong is a 5-tier temple with its own unique charm. One of the earliest temples in the region, Bakong was built within a strict geometric matrix, a style recognizable in the later Angkor Wat. The temple grounds, home to multiple freestanding satellite temples, provide a welcome break from the crowds of nearby Angkor Wat.
A 10th-century Hindu temple, Prasat Kravan bucks the Angkor trend: It’s built from brick, not stone. The five brick towers may seem unimpressive from the outside, but it’s the carvings within that are the draw. Brick bas-reliefs here include Vishnu riding his sacred bird, Garuda, and Lakshmi, his wife, holding lotus flowers.
The absence of carving shows that Ta Keo, a sandstone mountain temple that stands almost 164 feet (50 meters) tall, was never finished. Started by Jayavarman V during the 10th century, the vast structure, with four corner towers around a central turret, would have been one of Angkor’s most impressive. It still offers sweeping views.
Yasovarman I, who would found the first city at Angkor, built this small brick temple in the late ninth century. It’s one of the Roluos Group, a cluster of temples about 12 miles (19 kilometers) from Angkor Wat. With its four crumbling brick towers, Lolei is similar to, but smaller than, the group’s best-known temple, Preah Ko.
South of Siem Reap and the major Angkor temples, hilltop Phnom Krom Temple (Prasat Phnom Krom) was built during the reign of Yasovarman I, who moved the Khmer capital to Angkor. Three ruined towers and an active monastery stand atop a hill with sweeping views across Tonlé Sap lake and the West Baray reservoir. It’s a popular sunset spot.
One of the Roluos Group, a cluster of temples surrounding an early capital of the Khmer empire, Preah Ko is a small brick-built temple with six sanctuaries. Indravarman I built it in the late ninth century and originally dedicated it to Shiva. Its name means “sacred ox,” and you can still see statues of Nandi, the bull that Shiva rides.
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