The ancient city of Angkor was the center of the Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th centuries. It’s estimated the capital city had up to 1 million citizens during its peak, making it the largest city in the world until the industrial revolution.
Today, all that remains of this once mighty empire are the ruins of the Angkor Temples. After the city was abandoned by the Khmer Empire, the jungle reclaimed the site for centuries. In 1860, a French naturalist named Henri Mouhot rediscovered Angkor while on an exploration of Cambodia. Now, Angkor is one of the most important historical sites in the world.
Although the main city has been lost to time, there are over 50 amazing temples in various states of repair located in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Some other ruins, like the Roulous group of temples are outside the park but not too far from the town of Siem Reap.
Touring the temples of Angkor is an unbelievable experience. You can take in several centuries’ worth of history within a few days of exploring. You will find grand structures displaying ornate carvings, Hindu, Brahmanism, and Buddhist religious iconography, and amazing architecture. It is easy to lose track of time while taking in the wonders of this ancient city.
While some temples have been fully restored, many still look like they were just discovered yesterday. Some of the temples are covered in giant banyan trees, still fighting against nature to regain the former glory of the empire. Angkor is one of the most popular destinations in South East Asia welcoming millions of tourists every year.
Angkor Wat is the iconic temple of the Archaeological Park and the image most people associate with the ruins. It is the best preserved and largest temple on the grounds. Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu.
The entire walls on the first floor of the temple are carved with bas-reliefs describing the Hindu epics, most notably the “Churning of the Milk”. There are thousands of carvings in the structure, many depicting the Apsara dancers of the Khmer. After its conversion to a Buddhist temple it continues to be a holy place for Buddhism to this day.
The Cambodians take such great pride in this temple that Angkor Wat is the center piece of the Cambodian flag.
Located inside the city of Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple is one of the most popular places to visit in Angkor. Adorned with over 2000 carved smiling stone faces on 54 towers, some believe them to represent Buddha or King Jayavarman VII, the temples creator.
There are several bas-reliefs on the temple which tell the story of historical events in amazing detail. You’ll find tales of the Khmer army, scenes or city life, a naval battle, and many more stories carved in stone throughout the temple grounds.
Ta Prohm, also known as the “Tomb Raider temple” thanks to its feature in the movie of the same name, has become one of the most popular places to visit. It’s location in a serene jungle setting and being left in an almost unaltered natural state puts this temple at the top of the list of temples to see in Angkor. The moss covered buildings with large banyan trees growing out of and on top of the structures makes it feel like you are discovering the temple for the first time.
Prasat Ta Som is a small but beautiful temple best known for the fig trees growing on the faces of the entrance tower in some older photograhs of Angkor. Although those trees have been removed to preserve the structure of the main gate, the entrance gate at the far end of the park has been left untouched, fully engulfed by the roots of the trees.
The Beng Meala temple is another favorite for those who like to see the Angkor Temples in their natural state. Built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, the temple was originally built as a Hindu temple, but more modern Buddhist icons can be found throughout. The temple has many crumbling buildings partially engulfed by the jungle.
Fully restored and reopened in 2011, the Baphuon is a very large temple located inside Angkor Thom. Its key feature is a giant (30 ft. high by 230 ft. long) reclining Buddha sculpture that sits along one wall of the building. It is a three-tiered temple mountain, placed on a high base, symbolizing Mont Meru from Hindu legends.
A giant three-tiered temple located inside of Angkor Thom, Phimeanakas was built in the 10th century by King Suryavarman I. Legend has it that in an effort to thwart bad luck for his people, the King spent every night up in the tower of the temple with a different woman who was supposed to represent the spirit of the Naga, and ancient serpent deity.
Angkor Thom Gates
While the ancient city of Angkor Thom no longer exists, the gates of the walls surrounding the old city do and they are spectacular. You’ll find Giant gates topped by carved faces and the south gate has a pathway decorated with large figures depicting The Churning of the Milk story from Hindu religion.
The East Mebon is a large temple set on a man-made island, once surrounded by water in what is called the East Baray. The moat has long since dried up, but the temple remains. Dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, the temple has many intricate carvings as well as large sculptures of elephants placed at the corners of the building.
Preah Khan was built in the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his father. It is a large complex surrounded by a moat and walls fixed with many Garuda figures. The name literally means the sacred sword and the temple was built on the grounds where the king defeated his enemies, the Chams.
Located a short drive from Siem Reap and the other Angkor temples, Banteay Srei is extremely popular due to the unique pink sandstone used in its construction. The temple walls are extensively decorated with carvings and historic scenes. The monkey carvings are another popular and distinct feature of the temple. It is commonly called ‘the lady temple’, most likely derived from the actual translation of the name which means “Citadel of Women”.
Pre Rup is a 10th century temple dedicated to the god Shiva. It was believed this temple was associated with funeral rights and it served as a crematorium, however later research revealed it to be the state temple of King Rajendravarman II. It has beautiful artistic carvings and is very similar in architecture to East Mebon.
With a distinctive Angkor Wat styled look, Banteay Samre was built around the same time as the larger temple. Banteay Samre is well preserved and has a large number of carvings throughout the structure. This temple is usually combined with a trip to Banteay Srei as they are both a little farther out from the archaeological park.
Banteay Kdei is a wonderful Buddhist monastic temple complex that is still in its original state. The temple grounds are a delight for those that enjoy visiting Angkor Temples in their natural state. Though deteriorated from the ravages of time, a restoration effort is currently underway. Built by King Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century, it is enclosed by three walls and a moat. There are many galleries and carvings to enjoy while touring the temple.
Ta Keo temple was built under three separate kings, Jayavarman V, Jayaviraman, and Suryavarman I. It is similar in construction to Pre Rup, another tiered pyramid depicting Mount Meru and is a called “the mountain of the golden summits.” Legend surrounds the construction. An inscription on the temple tells of lightning hitting the unfinished temple, which was a bad omen and forced the construction to a halt. This might account for the lack of elaborate decorations like those found in other temples.