What’s to become of an empire when it falls? Was it to be forgotten and left in time or to be rebuilt for glory to be reclaimed? The Khmer empire rose on the 9th century and fell on the 15th. Once it was guarded by Khmers who swore to protect the sacred grounds that represented Mt. Meru, heaven on earth and home of the gods, and as complete silence eventually filled the temple walls, the forest claimed guardianship.
It wasn’t until centuries passed that the ancient temples of Angkor were rediscovered and reconstructed to rebuild the national pride of the Khmers. Back at the care of the Khmer people, the temples now serve as their pilgrimage and its grandeur now shared to the world. Let the temples transport you to its glorious years as you walk through the hallways intricately carved with stories of history, myths, and legends of the great Khmer empire.
Welcome to Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Before you start your temple journey, make sure to purchase an Angkor Pass from the main entrance of Angkor Wat. Choose between a 1-day pass for $20, 3-day pass for $40 (good for a week), and 7-day pass for $60 (good for a month). Once you have your personalised pass, off you go to explore as many temples as you can! Make sure to carry the Angkor pass with you at all times as it is checked by temple guards upon entry of every temple.
Having only 3 days to explore Siem Reap with my friend, Bernardo, we purchased the 3-day Angkor pass which should be enough time to visit the most important temples.
Here are 10 Angkor temples that you have to see when in Siem Reap.
The harmonious sounds of strings and percussions welcome you as you enter the Banteay Kdei temple grounds, setting the Khmer mood for your first temple experience. It might have been a stroke of luck that there weren’t much tourists around at 10 am that wandering around the corridors of this almost empty and deteriorated Citadel of Chambers made for an eerie and soul-stirring experience even at daytime. Oh, I’m already hooked and we just got started.
In the root-cloaked ruins of the Ta Prohm temple grows numerous Banyan trees that shade over the hauntingly beautiful crumbling temple walls. Deserted and neglected for centuries, Ta Prohm was discovered to be almost one with the jungle and it has since then been left as it had been found. It is in the balance of man’s creation and nature’s disruption where Ta Prohm gets its picturesque charm. A temple built for the mother, I should say—dedicated to a king’s mother and a surrendered to mother nature. It is no surprise how this UNESCO world heritage site has gained much popularity to locals and tourists alike.
The mountain with golden summits. This 5-level pyramid temple was the first temple of the child-king Jayavarman at age 17 and the first to be built using only sandstones. What stood out the most in this temple is the long and steep staircase in the center that you can climb on (oh so carefully) if you want to see the temple grounds from above. Temple stairs are usually steep and uneven so take extra precaution when ascending the temples. There are two theories as to why the temple was never finished— One, when a lightning struck the temple, a high priest claimed it to be a bad omen and two, the child-king’s death halted the construction. Whichever the real reason is, it lived on nonetheless to stand for centuries.
CHAU SAY THEVADA
Right across Ta Keo is this 12th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. Though Vishnu has sculptures around the four towers of Chau Say Thevada, the main diety remains to be Shiva. You also might take notice of disfigured Buddha sculptures in the premises as well — I’m thinking, it has something to do with the Khmer Rouge era where Budhhism was not allowed to be practiced in Cambodia. We stumbled upon a Cambodian student who shared a little bit of history with us, saying that there was indeed a time when Buddhas were decapitated.
The grandest of them all and the symbol of Cambodia’s pride! It is the only temple that can cause traffic in Siem Reap at 5 AM. Just before dawn breaks, a sea of people flock to the left-side lake of Angkor Wat and ready their cameras and tripods for one of the most spectacular views that has placed Siem Reap high on everyone’s bucket list — The sunrise at Angkor Wat.
In the classic case of expectation versus reality, you expect to capture the pure beauty of the colourful sunrise enveloping the silhouette of the largest religious monument in the world in a serene environment but in reality, you’re squeezing yourself in the thick crowd to get that photo and it will probably take you a lot of clicks before you get that winning shot — the one without someone’s head, hand, or tripod in it. It is when the sun rises that you realize, it is all worth it.
A city of temples, as it is also called, this is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is the best-preserved temple among all. Whether you’re looking at Angkor Wat on a grand scale or in close-up, every corner shows intricate and incredible details of bas-relief carvings depicting historical events and mythological stories.
It is said that Angkor Wat is the earthly representation of Mt. Meru, the “Mount Olympus” of Cambodia’s ancient gods, and it is dedicated to Vishnu. Time and again, people have wondered why Angkor Wat faces west, the direction of the dead—is it a tomb or is it because of Vishnu’s association with the west? One thing I know for sure is that the sun also sets in the west and this is a perfect spot to also catch the last light of the day!
My personal favourite. Being surrounded by lots of serene and smiling faces carved on the towers and walls somehow uplifts your feeling when exploring Bayon temple. “It is just so beautiful!”, says me, again and again, as I walked around every corner and stopped in front of almost every smiling face.
Bayon is the last state temple built at Angkor and the only temple dedicated to Buddha. It makes sense then how walking in this temple makes one feel light and at ease—we know Buddha is all about inner peace plus when hasn’t a smile been contagious? Veering slightly away from the usual themes of the bas-relief carvings, this temple shows sets of how everyday life was for the Angkorian Khmer with a mix of Cambodian myths and history.
PRASAT PREAH KHAN
This temple, also known as the holy sword temple, was built by King Jayavarman VII to honour his father in the same way that he built Ta Prohm to honor his mother. There is a feeling of endlessness when walking through the parallel “doorways” inside this temple. In this long stretch, each doorway’s height starts getting shorter and shorter, making you appear to be bowing down as you near the temple’s center. Being a tall woman whose eyes constantly wander left and right, I’m not even sure how many times I almost bumped by forehead while walking—thankfully, I did not.
On my last day in Siem Reap, Bernardo took me out of town to check out the jewel of Khmer art, the Banteay Srei Temple. One hour on a tuktuk ride and 25 kilometres past the Angkor temples, we were welcomed by green pastures and the fresh Cambodian air.
A temple dedicated to Shiva, this is the only one that was built for the gods, not the kings. There’s a particularly different touch to Banteay Srei when you take a closer look at the details. The touch of a woman, perhaps? They say that the carvings are so delicate that it could only have been carved by a woman’s hand; hence, it became known as the Citadel of Women.
Past the temple, you are brought to a pathway surrounded and shaded by numerous trees. Take a leisure stroll, feel the breeze, and stop over the many viewing decks of Banteay Srei’s park. It is the perfect breather from the temples as you gaze at green grass, a wall of trees, and mountains in a distance.
Another temple that was built in honor of a king’s parents is the East Mebon temple, built during the reign on King Rajendravarman. We stumbled upon this temple on the way back to town and it was quite a surprise seeing less people here but it certainly does not mean that it is less beautiful.
Just in time for sunset, Bernardo and I make our final temple stop at Pre Rup. Amazing how this pyramid-shaped temple-mountain turns gold when the sun sets.
This is another temple that requires you to climb a steep staircase because the best view is on top.
Pre Rup is also known as “turn the body”. Believe it or not, this temple was an early royal crematorium and ashes were ritually rotated in different directions hence the name. There was absolutely no haunting feeling knowing that you’re walking on ashes that were spread centuries ago — I was more enamoured by this temple, making it the perfect ending to my temple escapade.
As my time in Siem Reap came to an end, we spared a little more time to view the gorgeous sunset slowly sinking behind the silhouette of lush trees and mirrored by the golden water.
Glory was never lost in Cambodia, only forgotten for a time and once again found. An empire fell but the Khmer spirit stayed strong especially when these temples once again uplifted their national pride. Centuries has passed and for centuries more I hope the temples will stand tall. This is a world wonder everyone should breathe in and experience at least once in your life. Truly an unforgettable destination.
If you have more time to explore Siem Reap, take a breather from the temples and check out these 7 activities you can try around the city.