Just outside Siem Reap, this complex of temples is Cambodia’s biggest attraction. Although Angkor Wat is undoubtedly the centrepiece, there are over 100 other temples and much more to explore in this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Siem Reap province was once the heart of the Khmer Empire, which reigned from the beginning of the 9th century and had come to an end by the mid-15th century.
At its most powerful, the Empire controlled the land from Bagan in Myanmar and the northern region of Laos, across to Vietnam and down to the Malaysian Peninsula, with a population of around one million.
Each temple was built by new rulers in an effort to outdo the last, hence the impressive scale and intricacy of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple, the two most notable temples.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire, the temples became lost in the jungle, known only to passing Buddhist monks and the occasional European traveller, but in 1860 the French explorer Henri Mouhot made the temples world-famous. In 1908, the French began to restore the ancient city and today the site is fully protected by UNESCO.
Angkor Wat is arguably the most famous temple in the world. People travel from far and wide to watch the sun rise from behind Angkor Wat, an iconic scene well worth the journey. It’s one of the best preserved temples in the Angkor complex, the ‘face’ of the temples, and of Cambodia itself.
The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and was built by King Suryavarman II over an estimated 30-year period during the 12th century. The temple represents Hindu cosmology and symbolises the mythical Mount Meru, a golden mountain said to stand at the centre of the universe.
After the capital moved to Phnom Penh, Buddhist monks took over care of Angkor Wat.
Explore this vast and impressive temple during the quiet lunchtime hours, immediately after sunrise, or right at the end of the day.
TEMPLE TIP: Everyone will be at Angkor Wat for sunrise, so why not head to another temple to watch dawn break? When we visited recently, we had an entire temple to ourselves whilst hundreds crowded in front of Angkor Wat.
Angkor Thom and the Bayon Temple
Angkor Thom (meaning ‘Great City’) was a fortified city where the Empire’s administration, military and priest lived.
At the heart of Angkor Thom is the Bayon Temple, dedicated to Buddha (after a shift away from Hinduism), and known for the numerous faces that are carved into the rock pillars. Some have speculated that the faces are that of Jayavarman VII, who built the fortress-like Angkor Thom after the sacking of Angkor at the hands of the Chams.
The Bayon Temple is so grand that its scale was never challenged by the rulers who followed Jayavarman VII.
TEMPLE TIP: A private guide is a great way to get the most out of your exploration of these ancient temples. What is quite a tiring day (or three) can be much more enjoyable with someone to teach you about the temples’ history.
Ta Prohm has been left deliberately unrestored, and this is a big part of its charm: thick, gnarled tree roots twist through the stone walls of the temple and spill down to the ground where they have anchored themselves over hundreds of years, creating a wild appeal that makes this temple one of the most photogenic. In fact, you might recognise it from the film Tomb Raider, hence the reason it is often referred to as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’, and the hundreds of tourists you’ll find posing with ‘gun-hands’.
This temple was built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, like the Bayon, and is also a Buddhist temple. It is best visited during the early morning, when it’s quiet and cool.
TEMPLE TIP: Pace yourself when visiting the temples. This is a huge complex with lots to see and it’s impossible to do everything in one or two days without becoming completely ‘templed out’. If you don’t have very long, pick the highlights and enjoy those; if time is on your side, break up temple visits with the other activities and sights in and around Siem Reap.
Famed for its intricate carvings, Banteay Srei is a small temple made of rose-pink sandstone. Its size is a welcome change from the colossal structures you’ll undoubtedly have visited before arriving at this little gem.
It’s older than the aforementioned temples, built in the 10th century, and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Despite its age, its false doors, floral motifs and engraved scenes from Ramayana (an epic Hindu poem) have been wonderfully preserved.
TEMPLE TIP: Banteay Srei closes at 5pm, an hour before the rest of the park, so don’t make this temple your last afternoon stop.
Need to know
Season: High season is between November and March, but late October is the perfect time to visit as you benefit from the pleasant weather, but with slightly less fellow travellers.
Passes: There are passes for one-day, three-day and seven-day access. You must use them on consecutive days.
Timing: The opening hours are 5am until 6pm. The early morning is the best time to explore the temples. Get there as early as you can and make the most of this quieter and cooler time when everyone else is still having breakfast; have your breakfast later and then head out again at lunchtime when there is another lull in the crowds.
Ethics: Don’t buy anything from the kids selling their wares (even though you might be justifiably impressed by their ability to count to ten in any language under the sun): it just encourages them to continue working rather than going to school. If you want to help out, donate money through an NGO (most hotels work with charities).
Angkor Alternatives: There’s more to the province of Siem Reap than just the temples. Check out our Insider Guide to Siem Reap to find out more.