The Khmer Empire reached the zenith of its power, influence, and creativity from the 9th to the 13th centuries, when Angkor, the seat of the Khmer kings, was one of the largest capitals in Southeast Asia. Starting in the 15th century, the temples of Angkor's heyday were abandoned until their "discovery" in the early 1860s by French naturalist Henri Mouhot (the Cambodians living there sure knew about them). In all, there are some 300 monuments reflecting Hindu and Buddhist influence scattered throughout the jungle, but only the largest have been excavated and only a few of those reconstructed. Most of these lie within a few miles of each other and can be seen in one day, though two or three days will allow you to better appreciate them.
Although the centuries have taken their toll on the temples—some of which still hide their beauty beneath a tangle of undergrowth—they miraculously survived the ravages of the Khmer Rouge years. Many of the monks living in the temples at this
time were massacred, however. The Khmer Rouge mined the area, but the mines have been removed, and the temples are now perfectly safe to visit.
Most people visit the temples of Bayon and Baphuon, which face east, in the morning—the earlier you arrive, the better the light and the smaller the crowd—and west-facing Angkor Wat in the late afternoon, though this most famous of the temples can also be a stunning sight at sunrise. The woodland-surrounded Ta Prohm can be visited any time, though it is best photographed when cloudy, whereas the distant Banteay Srei is prettiest in the late-afternoon light.
One of the oldest Angkor structures, dating to the 9th century, the hilltop Bakheng temple was built in the center of the first royal city site, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The temple, which resembles a five-tiered pyramid, was constructed from rock hewn from the hill and faced with sandstone. Phnom Bakheng is perhaps the most popular sunset destination for Angkor visitors, as the view from the top affords a fine look at Angkor Wat and the surrounding area. Climb the stairs or take an elephant ride up.
This was a city in its own right—the last Angkorean capital, built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. At the height of Angkor Thom's prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries, more than 1 million people lived within its walls, and it was the richest city in Southeast Asia. The Siamese destroyed the city in the 15th century, and it became an insignificant ghost town. The south gate, towering 65 feet and crowned by four characteristic Bodhisattva faces, is so monumental it appears to dominate the entire area.
A defensive wall and moat, 3 km long by 3 km wide (2 miles by 2 miles), surrounded the city, which was entered via bridges lined with massive stone guardians holding a mystical serpent. At its geographic center stands the 12th-century Bayon, a large, ornate Buddhist structure that rises into 54 small towers, most of which are topped with huge, strangely smiling faces. On the outer walls of the central sanctuary, and on some of the inner walls, are 1½ km (1 mile) of marvelous bas-relief murals depicting historic sea battles, scenes from daily life, and gods and mythical creatures performing legendary deeds.
Just to the north of the Bayon is the slightly older Baphuon, built in the mid-11th century by King Udayadityavarman II (a small settlement was here before King Jayavarman VII built up the area in the late 12th century). A fine example of poor planning, the temple was erected on a hill without proper supports, so that when the earth shifted in the 16th century it collapsed. Originally the temple was a Shiva sanctuary crowned with a copper-covered cupola. A magnificent reclining Buddha was added to the three-tiered temple pyramid in the 16th century. The temple is undergoing reconstruction, and is not open to the public; however, the exterior gate and elevated walkway are open.
Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King
Built at the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, the ornamental Elephant Terrace once formed the foundation of the royal audience hall. The gilded wooden palace that once stood here has long since disappeared. Stone-carved elephants and garuda, or giant eagle-people, adorn the 2-meter (6½-foot) -tall wall of the terrace, which abuts an empty field where troops used to parade before the Khmer monarchs. At the north end of the Elephant Terrace is the Terrace of the Leper King, named after a stone statue found here (and now housed in the National Museum). Precisely who the Leper King was and why he was so named remains uncertain, though several legends offer speculation.
Built in 1186 by the prolific King Jayavarman VII to honor his mother, Ta Prohm is a large Buddhist monastery of five enclosures that has been only partially restored. The eerie temple looks more or less as it did when western adventurers and explorers rediscovered Angkor in the 19th century; many buildings have been reduced to piles of stone blocks, and giant tropical fig and silk-cotton trees grow on top of the walls. Stone inscriptions reveal that the complex originally had 566 stone dwellings, including 39 major sanctuaries, and was attended by 13 high priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants, and 615 dancers, who were supported by 3,140 villages. Today you're likely to share it with a couple of hundred camera-toting tourists. Still, it's a gorgeous, magical spot, with thick knotted tree roots sprawled over half-tumbled walls, and flocks of parrots squawking in the branches high above.
The most impressive and best preserved of the Khmer temples is the one that gave the whole complex its name: Angkor Wat, the beautiful apotheosis of Khmer architecture, and the world's largest religious monument. It was built at the beginning of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II (reigned 1112–52), who dedicated it to the Hindu god Vishnu, making sure that its dimensions were suitably grand for the divine patron. Those dimensions are staggering: the temple compound covers an area of 1,500 by 1,300 meters (4,920 by 4,265 feet). The surrounding moat is 180 meters (590 feet) wide. A causeway leading to the huge western entrance is flanked by balustrades of giant serpents believed to represent cosmic fertility.
The centerpiece of the complex is the giant lotus bud formed by the five familiar beehivelike towers, which alone took 30 years to complete. Three of the towers appear in the white silhouette of Angkor Wat that is the central emblem of the Cambodian national flag, signifying the triple motto of nation, religion, and king.
Like all the other major monuments at Angkor, the 65.5-meter (215-foot) -high complex represents the Hindu/Buddhist universe. The central shrines symbolize Mt. Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods, and the moats represent the seven oceans that surround Mt. Meru. The three-tiered central pyramid itself rises in four concentric enclosures opening to the west, with terraces decorated with images of Hindu deities, many of which have lost their heads to looters. More impressive than the statues, towers, and the sheer size of the temple is the extensive bas-relief work that covers its walls, especially the scenes on its outer front wall depicting epic battles of Hindu mythology, an audience given by the king, and the creation of the world. On top of that, there are nearly 2,000 apsara—celestial female dancers—scattered throughout the temple complex. Two libraries flank the ancient Hindu temple.
This former royal retreat was built in 1191 by King Jayavarman VII for his father, but it later became a Buddhist institution with more than 1,000 monks. The moated temple, near the north gate of Angkor Thom, is similar to Ta Prohm, but has only four enclosures. The temple houses a hall decorated with a bas-relief of heavenly apsara dancers, a two-story columnar building to keep the "sacred sword" (an important part of the royal regalia) of the kingdom, and a large lingam, or phallic symbol, representing Shiva. In the eastern part of the complex is a baray, one of the five huge reservoirs built to supply the growing Angkor Thom and irrigate its fields and plantations. The water was channeled from the Tonle Sap lake in an amazing feat of engineering.
Sitting on an island in the middle of one of Angkor's barays, or water reservoirs, the temple of Neak Pean ("entwined serpent") is one of King Jayavarman VII's most unusual creations. He intended to create his own version of the sacred lake Anavatapta in the Himalayas, venerated for its healing powers. From a large square reservoir, gargoyles channel water into four smaller square basin sanctuaries. The temple's central tower is dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, depicted riding the fabulous horse Balaha along with people escaping a disastrous pestilence and seeking the healing waters of Anavatapta.
The temple of East Mebon was built on a baray island by King Rajendravarman in the 10th century and now sits high and dry in the empty reservoir known as the Eastern Baray. The pyramid-shape temple, dedicated to Shiva, has all the characteristics of the temple mount construction so favored by the Khmer kings: in brick and laterite, with a 10-foot-high platform carrying five imposing towers arranged in a quincunx (one at each corner and one in the center of the ensemble). The sandstone lintels have been superbly carved and preserved, and monolithic elephants stand at the four corners of each enclosure.
This grander version of the East Mebon temple is thought to have once been the center of the royal city of King Rajendravarman, who ordered its construction in 961. The five upper brick towers are adorned with fine stucco moldings. From the top of the highest platform there are sweeping views of the palm-studded countryside. If you want to avoid the crowds that gather at Angkor Wat and Phnom Bakheng at sunset but you still want a good view, this is the place to come.
If you have the time, extend your tour of Angkor to include the Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women), 38 km (24 miles) northeast of Siem Reap. The temple resembles a small fortress and it's dedicated to the Hindu goddess Sri (the Khmer version of this name was Srei, meaning "women"). This small but magnificent 10th-century temple contains fine sculptures of pink sandstone illustrating scenes from the Indian Reamker legend and gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon; they're surprisingly well preserved, having survived the war years. The temple achieved fame when the former French government minister and noted author and philosopher Andre Malraux was accused of plundering it during reconstruction work in the 1930s. Admission is included in the Angkor ticket, but a tuk-tuk driver may charge an extra $20 to get here. The temple closes at 5 pm.
About 12 km (7½ miles) east of Siem Reap on Highway 6 is a group of three temples—Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei—all built in the 9th century, the formative period of the Khmer Empire. The capital at that time was called Hariharalaya, when the two gods Shiva and Vishnu were both venerated; the temples were erected in their honor. A large water reservoir was fed from the Tonle Sap lake, via the Roluos River, and Lolei was then on an island. Admission to the site is included in the Angkor ticket.
There are stories of visitors who arrive in Siem Reap with the intention of seeing Angkor Wat, only to leave soon after in dismay after discovering that the wat is just one of many temples in an area covering several square miles.
Forget any idea of strolling casually from temple to temple—even a bicycle tour of the vast site is exhausting. There are two recommended circuits to gain an overview of the temples, the shortest 17 km (11 miles) and the longest 26 km (16 miles). If you have just one day, stick to the short circuit, which takes in Phnom Bakheng, the south gate of Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon, the Elephant Terrace and the Terrace of the Leper King, and Ta Prohm, and ends with a visit to Angkor Wat itself to catch the sunset. If you have two days, take the longer route—do the shorter circuit on the first day, then tackle Preah Khan, Neak Pean, East Mebon, and Pre Rup (at sunset) on Day 2.
Bring a passport photo—you'll need one for your entrance ticket. Transportation within the vast complex is a necessity, and most independent travelers hire a car and driver ($20–$25 per day) or tuk-tuk ($8–$12 per day). Bicycles ($3–$4 per day) are an option for those who can stand the heat and the effort, and electric bicycles and motorbikes ($7–$10) are available for those who can't. (The latter have caused a bit of a ruckus among tuk-tuk drivers of late: so many tourists are opting for electric bikes that it's taking business away from the local drivers.) Consider hiring a guide to interpret the site and greatly enhance your visit; the tourism office on Pokambor Avenue (across from the Raffles Grand Hotel d'Angkor) has a list of English-speaking guides.