Which temples to visit in Angkor, Cambodia?

When most people think of travelling to Cambodia, the first thing that often comes to mind is the Angkor Wat!

The Angkor Wat, as viewed from the northern lotus pond


It is indeed the largest temple in the world!

It was built in the late 12th century as a state temple by King Suryavarman II, in honour of the Hindu God Vishnu. Despite standing through eight centuries, this prodigious structure has survived with minimal damage. And, the Cambodian government has been working relentlessly to maintain the good condition of the temple. The temple has multiple levels of enclosures and three main towers. The west facing temple has an artificial pond on either side of its entrance, with libraries on the outer corners of the ponds. It is almost impossible to not be overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of the monument! 

Even today, its not uncommon to find a monk sitting inside one of the temple's many corridors. They go about their worship and rituals despite hundreds of visitors walking around the courtyards and queuing up on stairs to the enter the higher enclosures.


The pathway to the sanctum on the third tier


It is easy to spend hours admiring the Angkor Wat, so its best to start early in the morning. That way, you can also catch the famous sunrise behind the temple. For the best pictures, the popular spot is the northern pond, but it can get extremely crowded at sunrise. Just after sunrise, it gets deserted within minutes and you can comfortably capture the temple in all its glory!


The Angkor Wat is only one of the many temples in the city of Angkor. It is estimated that there are over 1000 temples in the area. Of course, only a few are actually famous on the tourist circuits. Most hotels and operators stick to a specific plan, and offer tours covering the small circuit, big circuit and the grand circuit of the Angkor Temples. But these plans may not always work to your advantage when you are interested in spending more time at specific temples. Or even if they do, how do you know which temples you MUST visit? Here's a list that you can keep in mind, whilst planning for your Temple Run!




1. Ta Som:


Ta Som is a small jungle temple, about 12 kms from Angkor Wat. It had been unrestored and neglected for a long period of time, until the late 90s when it was finally decided to make it safe for visitors. 

The entrance arch of the Prasat Ta Som


The entrance arch itself is quite mesmerising, and is followed by a walkway into the Sanctum, with parts of the temple scattered as rubble and covered in vegetation. The balusters lend a reminder of the effort that went into design each window so intricately.

You could expect to spend a minimum of a half hour here. And its worth it!




2. Ta Prohm:


If you have watched the movie 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider', you will know what we are talking about! The towering fig tree growing out of the decrepit walls and the lush forests all around are enough to turn the clock backwards into a lost era. This temple has remained mostly in the same state as it was discovered. 

Prasat Ta Prohm, a large jungle Temple


For the last couple of years, the Archaeological Survey of India has been working to restore the dilapidated parts of the temple making it much safer for visitors to explore it. Devote atleast two hours to explore the ruins comfortably.




3. Preah Khan: 


Meaning “holy sword”, Preah Khan is a very mystical temple, with the enormous tree hugging the stone walls, the moss growing on the roof and pillars, and the faded red sandstone walls inside the temple. There is also a big linga (a phallic structure) inside the sanctorum. The temple was built in honour of Gods Vishnu and Shiva, and later became a Buddhist shrine. 

Prasat Preah Khan is quite large


The best way is to enter the site from one side (east or west) and walk into the temple and walk out the other side, and have your tuktuk driver meet you there. You could spend atleast an hour here, lost in admiration.  


4. Neak Pean:

In the vicinity of the Preah Khan Temple is an artificial island created by the Khmer dynasty. Called as Neak Pean (“The entwined serpents”), it includes a small Buddhist temple built within a small pond on the island. The walk from the main entrance to the small island is enjoyable, the pathway is no more than 3 feet wide with shallow waters of the lake on both sides stretching far beyond.


The island temple of Neak Pean


You might also hear some soft, traditional Khmer music being played by the survivors of land mines sitting in a little tent over the water! A half hour of your time is good here, but it is often skipped if you do not have enough time for other, more interesting temples.

5. East Mebon:

The legendary East Mebon, just a couple of kilometres away, is another must-visit. It is very close to the much larger Pre Rup temple and the design is also quite similar. Built in honor of Lord Shiva, it was once surrounded by a vast expanse of water. The red sandstone temple which is set at the top-centre of the three-tiered complex is still open for worship. There is a beautiful idol of Buddha inside, with incense sticks burning gently all day long.


The doorway to the Sanctum of East Mebon


The East Mebon isn't in the best condition, when compared with other temples, but its definitely worth visiting. Expect to spend an hour here.




6. Angkor Thom:

The Angkor Thom is the last capital city built by the Khmer empire. And you should NOT miss this! 


The massive arch at the entrance to the walled city of Angkor Thom


The entrance to the city is a tower with the face of the guardian entities, with a moat on either side. Once past the entrance, the lush green vegetation comes into view and in the midst of all this are the Bayon, Baphoun temples and other Royal buildings




7. Bayon:

The carvings of the Bayon deity on the 57 stone towers are beyond marvellous, for it is very hard to believe that something so detailed has stood for nearly a millennium! Each tower has four faces, each in one direction. The temple is chaotic, charming and very mystical.

There are many steep flights of stairs leading down to different corridors and chambers, so its best to devote atleast two hours to exploring the Bayon. It is one of the most crowded temples after the Angkor Wat, yet, we would not suggest that you skip this for any reason!



8. Baphoun:

Just next door to the Bayon, is the Baphuon temple. There is a pathway between an ancient pond leading to the main temple complex. It is a much taller temple, with multiple levels and a steep, long stairway to get to the top, but is definitely worth climbing. Comprising three tiers (levels), the temple was built in honour of Lord Shiva, but later converted into a Buddhist shrine.

The three tiered Prasat Baphoun

You can also check out the Phimeanakas ("celestial temple") inside the royal palace, the Terrace of the Leper King and the Terrace of the Elephants around the Baphoun.

After visiting the Bayon temple, it is best to take a small break before going into the Baphoun, since it can get tiring. But since the Baphoun has far fewer visitors, it can be explored more comfortably. It normally takes atleast two hours to explore the temples, the palace and the terraces. 




9. Phnom Bakheng:

Phnom Bakheng is a small temple located on top of a hill, just outside the city of Angkor Thom. It is believed to be older than most other Angkor temples, and is often visited for its commanding views over the entire region (from where Angkor Wat and Tonle Sap are visible), and for the sunset. It normally takes a good twenty minutes to hike to the top of the hill (you can see some ruined temples lost in the forest while climbing up – wow!) and another twenty minutes to get through the queue, since only a restricted number of visitors are allowed to climb to the top of the temple. Since the site is open for a little longer than most other sites, you can comfortably visit Phnom Bakheng in the evening on any day.

There are many bargain street-stalls to buy from, at the base of the hill. 



10. Bakong:

This temple is further down south, closer to the modern town of Siem Reap. It is far less crowded than most Angkor temples. When we visited, there was a lot of restoration work underway, but nevertheless, it was just as enchanting as the other temples. The multiple levels of the temples represent the structure of a hill and is reminiscent of the concept of hill temples that was prominent under Khmer rule.

The perfect symmetry at the Angkor Temples is thought provoking


You could spend a half hour here before heading back into town.




11. Banteay Srei:

The legendary Banteay Srei is about 40 kilometres away from the town, through the serene countryside.

The temple walls were built with red sandstone originally. Over time, the elements of nature have softened the colour to more delicate hues of amber and pink. Its intricate carvings depict many stories from the era of the Mahabharata. Just like the Bayon, it is hard to believe that the sharp designs of every carving have withstood harsh effects of wind and rain. 


The intricate carvings of Banteay Srei


It is observably smaller than the other Angkor temples, but it is often praised as the "Jewel of Khmer Art” and you can see why. This temple should definitely be on your list, even though it is outside the regular Angkor circuit. Spare atleast an hour to explore the temple, which can get a tad crowded sometimes. It takes about 30 mins to reach the temple from the town.




12. Beng Mealea:


 We saved the best and most legendary temple for last!


A 60 km drive in the beautiful Cambodian countryside took us to the north-eastern Prasat Beng Mealea. It was mostly inaccessible for many years, until recently when a road was laid through the cleared jungles. It has far less visitors even now, and you can admire the ruins for countless hours! 

The interiors of Beng Mealea, reclaimed from man by nature

The lush green forests, the heaps of the rubble lying all around, and the thick moss growing over the walls will take you to a whole other era. Using the wooden walkways, ducking under branches, going into dark tunnel-like corridors and exploring the ruined stone paths - this is where the Indiana Jones in you comes out to play!

The whole trip will easily take a half day, and so its best to plan your visit to Beng Mealea on a separate day, preferably in the morning half. There is a separate ticket to enter this site, and it is not covered by the Angkor Temple Pass. 



Read more about how to budget for a visit to Cambodia here. (coming soon!)


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