Everyone has heard about the incredible temples of Angkor in Cambodia and for good reason. With countless Khmer stone temples covered in a staggering display of carvings, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must see.
Built over hundreds of years, the vast complex that is now Angkor houses hundreds of temples, shrines and palace buildings. More than just the famous Angkor Wat, there are so many architectural wonders to see. It’s a very large site with acres of open land and villages between. Hiring a private driver or joining a tour is necessary. The tuk-tuk driver that picked us up at the airport was very friendly and helpful, so we hired him for the next 2 days to take us to the different sites in Angkor. He suggested we leave Angkor Wat to the second day so that the smaller sites wouldn’t be a disappointment. This turned out to be great advice. So, saving Angkor Wat to the end, here is a glimpse of some of the outstanding places in Angkor.
We began on the first day by exploring the temples of the large circuit. The early temples of Angkor were built by Hindu kings and have many statues and carvings of Hindu deities and legends. By the 1200s, the ruling king converted to Buddhism so he built Buddhist Temples. Today, many of the temples in Angkor have both Hindu and Buddhist symbols.
The temple of Preah Khan has been over-run by the jungle. It’s a less visited site but certainly no less impressive. The strong roots of Strangler Figs and other jungle trees continue to grow, crashing through the walls, roofs and boundary walls of the temple grounds. Built in the 12th century it is a mix of Buddhism and Hinduism. Even with the damage, you can still see the impressive details in the carvings on the walls, both inside and outside, of the many buildings. Inside the buildings are long corridors with small shrines. We found a couple of areas that were designed to use the rays of the sun to create interesting lighting effects at different times of the day.
Another temple that is being destroyed by the jungle is Ta Som. It’s a small complex but the few walls that remain standing displaying impressive carvings. One doorway of the small temple is more root than stone making a dramatic picture.
Built in the 9th century, Bakong Wat was the state temple of Angkor. Surrounded by a moat, it has a large terrace with fantastic elephant statues on each corner and lion statues at the entrance and on the upper platform.
This small temple was built in the typical Khmer style. The ‘Temple Mountain’ shape represents Mount Meru, a sacred Hindu site. We visited Pre Rup at sunset where we saw an awesome red glow on the sandstone walls.
Built from pink sandstone, Bantreay Srei is the prettiest of all of the sites in Angkor. The outer walls are carved in such delicate detail that locals say it must have been carved by women. The carvings are of flowers, devatas (Hindu deities) and stories from the Hindu story Ramayana. We especially love the monkey guards. It’s 21 km away from Angkor Thom, but worth the trip.
On the second day we visited Angkor Wat at sunrise and the continued with the small circuit and the city of Angkor Thom.
Undoubtedly the most impressive complex in this area is Angkor Wat. Built to represent Mount Meru, a sacred Hindu mount, Angkor Wat is a symmetrical, architectural treasure. Surrounded by a huge moat, the most spectacular and popular time for photos is sunrise when the temple beautifully reflects on the still water.
Built in the 12th century, it was originally constructed as a Hindu temple but was transformed to Buddhist by the king who built Angkor Thom. The outer walls feature stone carvings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Inside is a large courtyard that surrounds the main, tall temple. The walls and doors of the courtyard are decorated with exceptional bas reliefs of nymphs and devatas (Hindu deities). Each of these figures, of which there are hundreds, has a unique dress, hairstyle and expression.
There’s usually a long line-up to get into the main temple. To control the large numbers of people that enter each day, there is a funny sign listing what not to do. Inside the temple are long, passageways with Buddhist shrines and large statures. The windows from the upper level provide great views of the vast temple complex.
In the 1200s the ruling king built the walled city of Angkor Thom. He was also the king who converted to Buddhism, making it the state religion rather than Hinduism. At the entrance to Angkor Thom is an old, stone bridge over a large moat. Each side of the bridge has a long row of mythical creatures holding Naga the serpent. The bridge leads to Gopuram (entrance gate) which gives a hint of the spectacular architecture that is inside the walls. Most of the royal buildings are in complete ruin but The Terrace of the Elephants gives a hint of what the royal complex may have looked like. The terrace is a stone platform edged with large statues of elephants. The king used to use the platform to watch ceremonies and parades.
One of the most bizarre temples in all of Angkor is in Angkor Thom. Bayon has 54 large towers that can be seen from a distance. Each tower has a massive face carved into all four sides. Eyes from these carvings are seemingly watching your every step in the temple. The king considered himself to be a god-king and historians believe it his face carved into the stone, ensuring that lowly pheasants would be awestruck and fearful of their god-king leader.
Built in the 12th century as a Buddhist Temple, Ta Prohm has since been taken over by the jungle. What was once a beautiful complex, now feels a little eerie. The vast towers and doorways were no match to the strength of the growing jungle. The grounds are filled with huge mounds of stones from the crumbling walls. What used to be elaborately carved walls are now dilapidated and covered in moss. Roots from the strangler figs and other jungle trees have resulted in most of the temple collapsing, but this adds to the mystery of the temple. This site is famous as it was a location for the Tomb Raider movie.
Coming up: Phnom Phen & Tonle Sap’s Stilt Village
For more pictures go to Gallery at Monkey’s Tale.
For more stories from our other adventures, go to Destinations.
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