1. Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat, which literally means ‘City Temple’, is a Hindu temple complex built to replicate the heavens on earth. Constructed for King Suryavarman II in the early twelfth century, it is the best-preserved temple and is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation. The temple is the epitome of the high classical style of Khmer architecture.
2. Banteay Srei
Consecrated in 967 A.D, Banteay Srei was speculated to have been known earlier as Banteay Serai, which literally means the Citadel of Victory. This was the only major temple at Angkor not built by a monarch; its construction is credited to a courtier named Yajnavaraha, who was a scholar and philanthropist and a counselor to king Rajendravarman. He was known to have helped those who suffered from illness, injustice or poverty.
3. Ta Prohm
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.
4. Angkor Thom
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.
5. The Bayon
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.
6. 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.
7. Kbal Spean
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 Tonle 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.
8. Banteay Samre
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.
9. Sras Srang
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.
10. Beng Mealea
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.
Private driver and vehicle: $100 for 4WD, $85 for air-con 15 seats van, $85 for SUV, $75 for Camry car and $50 for Tuk Tuk.
11. Koh Ker
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.
12. Neak Poan
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.
13. Phnom Bakheng
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.
14. The Baphuon
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.
15. Preah Khan
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.
16. Ta Keo
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.
17. Pre Rup
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.
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.
19. Kulen Mountain National Park
The Kulen Mountain or Phnom Kulen is declared as a National Park. It is an isolated mountain massif located in Svay Leu District and some 48km from Siem Reap. Its highest point is 487 meters. This is widely regarded as the birthplace of the ancient Khmer Empire. During the constructional period of the ancient temples in the nineth century, sand stones were brought from this sacred mountain to Angkor. It was here at Phnom Kulen that King Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java in 802 A.D.
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.
21. Phnom Krom
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.
22. East Mebon
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.
23. Preah Vihear
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.
24. Banteay Chhmar
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.
25. Banteay Kdei
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.
26. Ta Som
This temple was built at the end of the 12th century for King Jayavarman VII. It is located north east of Angkor Thom and just east of Neak Pean. The King dedicated the temple to his father Dharanindravarman II (Paramanishkalapada) who was King of the Khmer Empire from 1150 to 1160. The temple consists of a single shrine located on one level and surrounded by enclosure laterite walls. Like the nearby Preah Khan and Ta Prohm the temple was left largely unrestored, with numerous trees and other vegetation growing among the ruins. In 1998, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) added the temple to their restoration program and began work to stabilise the structure to make it safer for visitors
27. Sambor Prei Kuk
About 35km north of Kompong Thom, Sambor Prei Kuk served as the capital of Chenla during the 7th Century reign of Isanavarman. Also known as Isanapura, this was the first significant temple city constructed in Southeast Asia and represents the most impressive group of pre-Angkorian monuments found anywhere in Cambodia. The site consists of three main groups of monuments, mostly built of brick. Much of the origins of Angkor era architecture can be seen in these temples.