In the year 802 CE, Khmer ruler Jayavarman II moved his Capitol and court to the new city of Angkor and declared himself to be a god-king. A few decades later, in 889, Yasovarman I ascended to the throne and undertook one of the most massive building projects of the pre-industrial world. Over the next three hundred years, Angkor would become home to a population estimated at over a million, by far the biggest city in the world, and to more than seventy major temple complexes. After the city’s abandonment in the 15th century, nearly all of Angkor and her temples was lost to the Cambodian jungles, before being rediscovered at the end of the 19th century.
Today, Siem Reap, Cambodia is a bustling metropolis, one of the biggest in the country. Though while the world’s population has grown exponentially, the region has only now reached the same million residents as Angkor had at its peak, despite occupying pretty much the same area. Visitors from around the world, myself included, flock to Siem Reap to see ruins of the uncovered temple complexes, and its gem, Angkor Wat. But while Angkor Wat gets all of the fame, and rightfully so, there are so many amazing temples to see, as lovely and varied as the Cambodian people, heirs to the Khmer empire and a tortured recent history. Both come into play as we explore the area and its highlights.
It is worth noting a couple things here. First, private guides in Siem Reap are fairly inexpensive, and I’d strongly recommend hiring a guide and driver for the duration of your trip, both for transportation purposes (the city of Angkor was as large as modern Paris and sites are spread out) as well as for logistical reasons (they can handle the various elements of entrance fees and the like), not to mention the extra knowledge gained by the experience. Second, Cambodia is made of tropical jungle. It is hot and humid. Make sure to dress accordingly, to drink plenty of water, and to wear comfortable shoes for climbing the various monuments over uneven stone. Finally, being tropical and having lots of standing water, mosquitos are a huge problem. Make sure to lather on the bug spray in addition to your sunscreen.
Any discussion of Siem Reap has to begin with Angkor Wat, literally meaning Temple of Angkor. After all, the complex appears on the Cambodian flag! The largest religious complex in the world by area, it was built in the early 12th century as a Hindu temple, though has been Buddhist since the conversion of the empire at the end of the 12th century. It is also the only temple complex of ancient Angkor to have been continually used, hence its status as the best preserved in addition to the largest.
The site itself is a huge square, more than three miles in its perimeter, surrounded by a huge moat. However, the main temple complex is more contained, oriented to the west, and accessed by a bridge. It consists of three galleries rising to a central tower more than 140 feet tall. Yes, it can be climbed, and is worth doing for the view over the complex.
The view from the central tower over the Angkor Wat complex
Perhaps the highlight of Angkor Wat is the incredibly ornate carved decorations lining many of the walls of the galleries. The carvings depict, as is standard in such ancient scenes, military victories and noble processionals, as well as mythological stories. The complex, like much of the ancient city, is made of sandstone quarried and transported from more than twenty miles away, itself a huge feat in construction, and it is this sandstone that allows for such detailed decorative features.
Just a few of the amazing carvings. You can tell where it has been restored and what is original.
Angkor Wat gets crowded. Very crowded. It is the principal tourist site in all of Cambodia, an important center for Buddhist pilgrimage, and one of the new wonders of the world. Plan accordingly, allowing yourself plenty of time to wander, moving slowly with the throngs of visitors.
Also called the jungle temple, Ta Prohm has been featured in such films as Tomb Raider. It is a perfect representation of how the jungle reclaimed so much that people built, and would reclaim it again if left unchecked. Trees grow out between crumbling buildings covered in vines. It is eerily beautiful, a melting pot of history and nature.
The jungle reclaims the temple of Ta Prohm, making this a unique visit
Ta Prohm is a flat complex, unlike many in Angkor that are built in levels. It consists of numerous buildings, and requires a fairly circuitous one-way loop given the encroachment of the jungle. It also is crowded, pretty much a theme here in Siem Reap.
For me, one of the most striking features had nothing to do with the temple at all. Beggars are common in Siem Reap, ranging from children selling postcards (the government asks you to not give in to your natural sympathy as they should be in school) to, in the case of Ta Prohm on the day I was there, musical groups made entirely of members who had lost limbs from land mines. It is a stark reminder of the cruelty of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, and while I won’t be discussing that period in depth here, it is a haunting image that will stick with me forever.
Full disclosure: this was my favorite of the temples in Siem Reap. Constructed in the late 12th or early 13th century to be the state temple of Jayavarman VII, it seems like a pyramid, but broken. It is compact, and its highest point reaches a height of more than 120 feet. Bayon sits at the exact center of Angkor Thom, the old city of Angkor (literally Great City as Angkor can be translated to city), making it, while not as large as Angkor Wat, arguably the most important temple complex to the later Khmer empire.
Bayon as seen from the base
Walking Bayon consists of narrow passageways – crowded, as always – and staircases, if one wishes to see the upper galleries. And one does, as the most awesome feature of the temple is its 216 carved faces. While many are eroded nearly to bare stone, others have been well-preserved or restored. These faces are thought to be of Lokesvara, the representation of the compassion of Buddha, although another hypothesis says that they are of the Hindu god Brahma. Given the conversion of the state from Hinduism to Buddhism, it is possible both are actually true.
Three faces are visible in this shot!
Like basically every site other than Angkor Wat, modern conservancy of Bayon is a shared effort between the Cambodian government and a foreign sponsor, in this case Japan. Signage all around the various temples pays tribute to the help foreign countries have given to make sure these temples are protected and restored responsibly.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t remember the name of this temple either now or five years ago when I was actually there. I just called it the Pink Temple, as most do. Banteay Srei is small by Cambodian temple standards, and was completed much earlier than the enormous Angkor Wat or Bayon complexes (10th century), but is perhaps the most beautiful. It is built almost entirely of red/pink sandstone, from which it gets its nickname.
The entire temple of Banteay Srei is made of pink sandstone!
As with Angkor Wat, the sandstone construction allows for intricate carvings, but something about them seems even more magical in pink. Scenes are almost entirely of Hindu mythology, unsurprising given the early date of the temple’s completion, centuries before conversion to Buddhism. The entire site at Banteay Srei is almost dainty, standing in stark contrast to the scale and majesty of some of the others, making it a must-visit.
Another early temple, completed in 962, Pre Rup differs from the other “main” temples of Siem Reap in that it is made entirely of exposed brick. It is fairly small, consisting of a few outbuildings and a central pyramid rising just over 100 feet. (Yes, you can climb it.)
Pre Rup isn’t actually an important site, but makes for another nice contrast to the other temples, and that alone makes it worth a visit. After all, after merely a couple of days in Siem Reap, most of the temples begin to blur together, just as churches do on a European trip. Adding what I have deemed the Brick Temple to your itinerary gives one more that is a bit unique.
I spent basically two full days (two half days and one full) exploring the temples of Siem Reap with my guide Ho Samnang (use him if you can; he is amazing) and driver. Could I have spent more time? Absolutely. Am I glad I didn’t? Also yes. We saw about ten temples, and only these five really stood out in my mind. The others run together in my memories, impressive but not unique. Any additional complexes likely would have ended in that same melting pot memory of generic temple.
In the end, I learned about a civilization whose building projects rivaled those of any in the world, one that we don’t learn of in American schools. For lovers of history, religion, or architecture, a visit to the temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia is an essential pilgrimage, and one I look forward to making again.
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