Angkor is the most popular and most visited area of Cambodia and is truly an absolute must-see. The temples date from the Khmer Empire, building bigger and beautiful copies each time. Ultimately, this led to a huge complex of 400 km2 and Angkor is the largest religious complex in the world.
Angkor is a striking melting pot of cultures, but most of all, it is the uncrowned remnant of the once so powerful Khmer Empire, which is famous for its rich decorations. The main temple, Angkor Wat, is the largest religious building in the world and it is surrounded by even more temples of the kings. It is idyllically located in the heart of the Cambodian jungle near the town of Siem Reap.
There is some confusion about the name. Angkor is officially the site and Angkor Wat the biggest temple. And its the absolute highlight of Cambodia. The temple was built during the Khmer Empire and construction lasted from 800 until 1450 A.D. It was custom for the kings to build new temples for the King God during their reign. Around the temples, new cities were erected, often in places where the agricultural soil was very fertile. This also applied to king Suryavarman II, who chose a location by the river Siem Reap; the place currently known as Angkor.
The entire property of Angkor covers about 100 km2. Angkor Wat is filled with detailed sculptures and in itself, it covers over 1 km2. Scientists believe it to have been built between 1113 and 1150, during the reign of Suryavarman II. Scientists also say that thousands of people must have worked on the temple, where elephants were used to move the massive stone blocks.
The measurements of this temple are impressive. It was built in layers. The bottom layer is 187 by 215 meters and is 3.2 meters tall. The middle layer measures 100 by 115 meters, with a height of 6.4 meters. The top layer is 75 by 73 meters and 12.8 meters tall. Because of the 42 meter-high main tower, the highest point of the temple stands at 65 meters.
A canal of 200 meters wide encircles the temple, with steps leading into the water. Around this lies the ancient city of Angkor, once the central point of the Khmer Empire. Recent NASA images show that this city must have been 1,000 km2 at one time. An enormous irrigation system also became visible.
The city and everything around it has disappeared, however, as most of the houses and other buildings were made of wood. The temples were supposed to stand the test of time and were therefore made of sandstone.
In the years that followed many other kings also built temples around Angkor Wat. There is much less known Angkor Thom, built by Jayavarman VII (1181-1201). He had the Bayon erected at its centre, the most complex and most mysterious structure of Angkor. This temple mountain arose at the beginning of the 13th century, but the building was often renovated and adapted, which resulted in a mass of towers.
Angkor eventually met its downfall. Scientists have different theories about the cause, one being the continuous plundering by the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which is now known as Thailand. Halfway through the 15th century, the situation had become too dangerous and the population moved to the area around the current Phnom-Penh. Angkor fell into oblivion, just a few monks remained and gradually nature conquered the area again; the temples slowly became overgrown by the jungle.
Another theory is that the city fell victim to overcrowding, which caused the food supply to run out. Agriculture could not keep up with the rapid increase of mouths to feed, so many people moved away and the city eventually lost its status.
Despite the many stories about Angkor that reached the West, it wasn’t until 1900 that an expedition led by French naturalist Henri Mouhot stumbled onto the complex, while he was searching for unknown animals. Subsequently, archeologists worked for decades to research its significance.
Still, the exact purpose of Angkor Wat is not clear. Most scientists and followers believe the temple was eventually intended as a mausoleum for Suryavarman. The building lies facing west, this is most often the case with mausoleums. The decorations clearly show that Suryavarman II dedicated the building to the god Vishnu, who is often linked to the western wind direction.
However, not all scientists are convinced that Angkor was a temple. There are theories claiming Angkor possibly served as an astronomic observatory, or some kind of portrayal of the universe, or an image of one of the four time cycles of Hinduism.
The now generally accepted idea behind Angkor Wat is rather complicated and has a Hindu background. A holy mountain arises from an ancient sea, symbolizing the center of the universe. To make things even more difficult, the wide canal around the structure is the cosmic mountain rising up out of the ancient sea. These water reservoirs were built to irrigate the rice fields.
The other temples of Angkor boast a striking mixture of Hindu and Buddhist decorations; a sign of the assimilation of cultures which started as far back as the beginning of the Christian calendar. The Brahmana, members of the priesthood of India, traveled deep into Indo-China, later to be followed by Buddhist missionaries.
Angkor Thom is the ancient capital of Angkor. Khmer King Jayavarman VII built the new capital after his takeover in 1177. Among others to celebrate his victory over Champa Empire. The city is also the last major city of the Khmer Empire.
At both the North and South Gate you can see imposing images of gods and demons called the Strait of the Giants. The gates are famous because of the faces that can be seen in the building. They look at all wind directions. The city is 100 meters wide, including the canal, Angkor Thom is almost 9 km2.
Ta Prohm has become known by films like Tomb Raider. The ancient stones and nature balance here between destruction and conservation. Some parts of the temple complex are impermeable and other parts are accessible only through narrow passages. Flashlight and compass are very handy in this adventure, but you can of course also get a guide.
The Bayon Temple is located in the heart of Angkor Thom. This temple was built especially for Jayavarman VII. It is a mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism; inside you will find sculptures of both religions. Unlike most sanctuaries in Angkor, the Bayon is around. It is remarkable that it is not surrounded by a wall, but by open columns. Restoration rebuilt nearly 40 towers. Experts think that the building once had 49 or 54 towers. Due to its exuberant sculpture, this temple is considered to be one of Angkor’s most important. On the towers, for example, 200 faces of Amoghapasha Lokeshvara are shrouded, a god of Buddhism.
The Baphuon Temple is located in the northwest of Angkor Thom. This temple was built around 1150 AD. and has three terraces. King Udayadityavarman II raised the temple to Hindu god Shiva. In the 20th century a large part of the temple collapsed. In 1960 a first attempt was made to restore, but the Khmer regime did not allow further construction. In 1996 a second attempt was made. As archaeologists do not have the exact location of all the stones, some parts simply can not be restored.
The unfinished Ta Keo Temple is one of the great mysteries in Angkor. It was built around the year 1000 by Jayavarman V. The temple in Angkor Thom counts various ornaments, but most of them unfinished. Scientists do not know why the creators did not finish their work. This pyramid-shaped temple is made of sandstone and has five floors. Ta Keo is 22 meters high.
The Phimeanakas Temple in Angkor Thom was built around 962 by King Rajendravarman in the relatively unknown Khleang style. In due time, this temple was rebuilt by Suryavarman II, but in Hindu style. Part of the temple has fallen forever. According to archaeologists, a tower was still on the pyramid-like building.
The impressive Elephant Terrace was built by Jayavarman VII. It is 350 meters long and 14 meters wide. From here, the royal family once saw the processions, parades and games. The terrace is decorated with both statues and relics of elephants (and their mahouts), as well as lions and garuda’s (mythical bird).
Terrace of the Lepra king
This 7 m high striking terrace dates back to the 12th century. Due to erosion the image was severely affected, which may be an explanation for the name. Nowadays, experts know that it is Yama, the god who speaks of the dead. The current statue is a copy, the original is in the Phnom Penh Museum. The terrace was built by Jayavarman VII, around 1200 after Chr.
Lake Tonlé Sap
Lake Tonlé Sap is probably the reason why Angkor originated here. In the dry season, it’s about 2590 square kilometers, but in the rainy season it’s almost ten times as big. It is the largest freshwater lake in south-eastern Asia. During the rainy season, it forms a spawning ground for countless kinds of fish. As the dry season takes off, fish will fall literally from the sky as they get stuck in the trees when the water starts drawing back. Archaeologists believe that the rich fishing grounds made mankind to establish here. This applies to both the Chenla Empire and the Khmer Empire.
Preah Khan Temple
The Preah Khan Temple is far from the tourist trails. King Jayavarman VII built this Buddhist temple in 1191 for his father Dharanindra. It is one of the few temples at Angkor that still exist as it was found. That’s why Preah Khan looks almost the same as in 1860 when Frenchman Henri Mouhot discovered it. The entire complex is 800 by 700 meters, making it actually a city. There are still 72 garuda’s (mythical birds) and other intact scultpures.
Banteay Kdei Temple
The Banteay Kdei Temple was also built in Buddhist style by Jayavarman VII. It is still unknown to whom the temple has been dedicated to as there are no inscriptions. The Banteay Kdei is located east of Angkor Thom and was built at the end of the 12th century. At the entrance there are garuda’s (mythical birds). According to archaeologists, the artificial lake towards the Banteay Kdei was used by the royal family for ritual baths.
Banteay Samre Temple
The Banteay Samre Temple was built by Suryavarman II in the 12th century. It is a Hindu temple showing the typical Angkor Wat style. The temple is especially famous for Vishnoe’s sculptures as the creator of the world. The name comes from the Samre, a people of unknown origin. They lived at the foot of the nearby Kulen hills. The temple complex has a central temple and has two libraries. Especially the southern part is well preserved. The Banteay Samre is surrounded by two concentric walls. The temple is about 20 kilometers from Angkor Wat and is quieter than many others.
The Banteay Srei Temple is famous for its wall decorations, which are considered to be the best examples of classical Khmer architecture. It is remarkable that this is the only temple not made by a king but by a servant named Yajnavaraha. This temple is 25 kilometers from Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, but due to its relics and location it is very special.
Kobal Spien is relatively unknown, but had a sacred meaning for the inhabitants at the time. Only recently, satellite imagery has revealed that water management was essential for anyone living in and around Angkor. In Kobal Spien, in the middle of the jungle, many cultivated stones are seen in the river, made for the gods Shiva and Rama. Here are also various Buddha images in the rocks. Many faces of the images are muted or deleted. According to local people, Pol Pot’s followers are responsible for this.
Chong Kneas and Kompong Phluk
The floating fishing villages in Tonlé Sap Lake have been popular with tourists for decades. Tourists go here to see what daily life looks like for local fishermen. Chong Kneas is often full of tourists. Anyone looking for a more authentic village can go 25 miles further to Kompong Phluk.
Watch the colors fade at sunset
The Angkor complex has many places where you can properly watch the sunset. The most popular spot (and busiest) is in front of the Angkor Wat canals, but Angkor Thom is a close second. Another place is the Phnom Bakheng hill. If you go for more than one day, you can try out the different spots. You may want to take a snack and a beverage with you, to add to your enjoyment.
Cycle underneath temple arches
The temple complex of Angkor is enormous. A good way to explore it is by bike. You can ride underneath the temple arches and get to places that many tourists will not visit. This is also how many locals move around. You can rent bikes at several of the larger hotels. Make sure to check if the brakes are in order.
See the sunrise at Angkor and Angkor Thom
You will need to get up early, but what you get in return is really worth it. As the sun rises over the horizon, the silhouettes of Angkor become increasingly visible. Especially if you take up a good position. Like from where the sun appears from behind the buildings and Angkor Wat serves as a most imposing shadow, towering high above the rain forest.
You can also go to Angkor Thom to capture the soft light of the sun as it rises. If you use this time of day to take photos, you will make wallpaper pictures.
Float over the temples in a hot air balloon
The flight is notably short (about 10 minutes) and the balloon will carry about 30 people, but this is still an absolute highlight for many travelers. While floating, you will have a unique view of the temples, as the wind blows through your hair. You will see the grandness and you will be able to take photos that few others can.
Fly over the temples in a helicopter
Actually, the grandeur of the area only becomes apparent from the air. Therefore, a flight by helicopter is an excellent way to take in this temple complex. Also, in a helicopter you will manage to avoid the crowds of tourists. Another advantage is that you will be able to get the best photographs, especially at the end of the day. Make reservations in advance to prevent disappointment.
Experience the Angkor temples at night
Since late 2007, it is also possible to visit the temples at night, or at least see it in artificial lighting. The major parts of the temple will be brightly illuminated. Not everybody agrees with this way of lighting, but you can decide for yourself. Ask about the possibilities during your visit.
Visit a floating village on Tonle Sap
Many people live around lake Tonle Sap. They do so in floating villages on the banks of the lake and you will find them in big numbers. Chong Khneas is one of the best known villages and it has been attracting travelers for decades. So there are many tourists and many stands with many knickknacks. If you want to see a more authentic village, it would be better to travel on a further 25 kilometers to Kompong Phluk.
Shop at night at the Siem Reap market
Mind you, this market has been developed especially for tourists. The Siem Reap market is set in the heart of the town and offers a lot of handcrafted souvenirs. It is also fun to go for drinks or a bite to eat, as this market is a major artery of the town, once the night sets in. It is the perfect place to spend time, after a couple of hours of exploring the temples.
See the dance of the Khmer
Bij diverse monumenten worden geregeld shows opgevoerd in traditionele kledij.Kris Martis
In Angkor and in some of the hotels there are colorful dance shows regularly. The locals try to maintain the dance of the Khmer this way: it has been around for centuries. The dances display mythical tales, but also stories about daily life as it once was in Angkor. Go and have a look, it is an interesting way to spend an evening. And good for photos.
The dry season starts in November and ends in February. This is a relatively cool and dry period, but it is also very busy.
Between March and May, the heat is barely tolerable.
From April until October is the low season, a time of regular rain showers, when humidity will be higher than during the rest of the year, causing the air to feel rather muggy. But less tourists.
Some parts of Angkor have not been won back from the jungle yet; others are yet to be restored and in a state of dilapidation. This may cause hazardous situations.
There are stories going around that there are still landmines in the far-off parts of the temple complex, so it is recommended to remain on the footpaths.
On weekends and during holidays, Angkor Wat will be swarming with tourists and Cambodians alike. It can become very hot and climbing some of the stairs may pose a real challenge.
How do I get there?
Siem Reap is the point of departure for most tourists. The city is at approximately 6 kilometers from Angkor. Siem Reap has an international airport, also with direct flights to and from the capital of Phnom Penh.