• Painting Memories • Past & Present • For the Future •
The Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
The Angkor Archaeological Park is a 400 square kilometers area in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which holds many of the majestic temples (many of which functioned as capital cities at that time) during the era of the powerful Khmer Empire. Angkor means ‘capital’ in Khmer. A common misconception among people who has never been to Angkor would think that Angkor Wat is the name used to refer to the whole area, which is far from the truth. Many other temples, each with its own uniqueness in terms of architecture and beauty.
Don’t miss the last section of this post as I will share about our strategies for temple visits in order to avoid the menacing tourist crowd and the hot sun! Please remember that this article only mentions the temples that my friends and I visited. Don’t forget there are actually many many many many many more temples there, which might or might not appeal to you. The temples that we visited was chosen based on prior researching which we felt we would like to see. It is quite impossible to cover so many temples in a day, unless you’re just walking into one then walking straight back out. It’s quite pointless to do so, there’s so many things you might miss!
Also, if you missed my first part of this 3-part article which tells covers The Scenes of Siem Reap, you can read it here.
Or if you prefer to read about the Food of Siem Reap, the restaurants and cafes, you can read it here.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
First things first, in order to be able to visit the temples, you will need to get an ‘Angkor Pass’. This pass can be purchased from the Ticketing Office which is located along the main road to Angkor Wat, you will not miss it. This pass is available in several durations: 1 day (USD20), 3 days (USD40) and 7 days (USD60). TIP: If you purchase this ticket after 5pm, you are allowed to enter the temples for free (without taking a day away from your pass)!
A TASTE OF WHAT IS TO COME: PRE RUP
Right after getting our Angkor Pass, we asked Shafie our ever-so-enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver (his website here) to recommend to us the best spot for a nice sunset. He said he knew just the place and into the Angkor Archaeological Park we went. After riding the straight road, we turned right riding east along a long river (unbeknown by us at that time, that was the moat of Angkor Wat stretching more than 5 km!).
Picture: (left) The figures carved on the walls of the west towers are feminine like, it’s not really clear anymore due to the wear but I suspect it might be the Apsara, the female spirit of cloud and water in the Hindu Buddhist mythology. (right) The doors on the upper most level are made of sandstone and has plant motifs inscribed on it.
DAY 1 : ANGKOR WAT
The most famous temple among them is none other than Angkor Wat, which is unofficially the 8th Wonder of the World and is the largest religious monument in the world. Wat means ‘temple’ in Khmer.
The normal practice to visit Angkor Wat would be to arrive there in time for the sunrise. Angkor Wat is the only temple in Angkor that is built oriented to the west. That is why the sunrise of Angkor Wat appears behind the complex hence the many postcards of Angkor Wat’s silhouette against the sunrise.
Shafie suggested to us that we should leave our hotel by 5.30 am in the morning which we did. It takes around 30 minutes tuk-tuk drive from the town center to Angkor Wat. Driving through the Angkor Archeological grounds that early in the morning was really freezing. I was glad that I brought my arm sleeves which I originally meant to use against the sun.
Meanwhile, many other activities are on-going around the basin. From people just sitting down on the grass just indulging in the moment, to people just walking along the causeway, to people taking out their brushes to sketch the view into their canvas.
Children from the nearby stalls would sell their souvenirs to the tourist, all of which are very soft spoken and polite unlike child touts of other countries who can get quite persistent. They are such good charmers that most tourist would not mind to get something from them.
NOTE: A few things advice from me after having been in Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat can be walked through within an hour if you are one to just walk from one end to the other end. However, if you want to appreciate the beauty, charm and complexity of Angkor Wat, I suggest you bring along a guidebook on Angkor Wat which details out all the galleries of bas-relied, carvings, architecture and layout of the whole place. It would be IMPOSSIBLE to read up on all these details before hand and expect to remember them by-heart, there are just too many! And if you should decide to do this, allocate yourself at least one whole day in Angkor Wat to be able to trace and find all the details mentioned in the guidebook. However, if you are just like us who just wants to go in there and see Angkor Wat with our own eyes and capture its splendor with our cameras, then more or less 4 hours should be more than enough to complete this.
DAY 2 : ANGKOR THOM & TA PHROM
On our second day, we got up at 6 am, again because we wanted to be there before all the tourist arrive. Our steadfast tuk-tuk driver Shafie, as usual, was at our hotel to pick us even before we were ready. Every single day!
We chose to do Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom together since Ta Phrom is very close to where Angkor Thom is. One thing to note is that Angkor Thom is not just a temple, but a collection of many other temple and buildings within one boundary, the most well-known being Bayon, the temple of many faces. Angkor Thom is the last capital of the Khmer Empire, holding the residences of priest, the palace , the military and various structures for the kingdom’s officials. Oh by the way, Thom means ‘large’ in Khmer, so its no surprise that Angkor Thom is also know as ‘The Great City’’.
Along the causeway of South Gate is the 54 stone figures depicting the story of ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. On the left side are the devas (guardian gods) and the right side the asuras (demon gods), all pulling the naga’s tail (serpent with 7 heads) telling of the eternal flight between good and evil.
Bayon temple is situated in the middle of the Angkor Thom intersected by the roads leading to all four gates. Like a lot of the other mountain temples, it is considered to represent Mount Meru, the cosmic mountain in the mythology of Buddhism.
Picture: (Left) An Apsara themed carving on one of the pillars of the temple. (Right) Another Apsara themed carving, this time with a group of three apsaras dancing on a bed of lotuses.
Picture: (Left) Althought I have no idea what this is, I suspect that once upon a time, a statue of Buddha was placed on this ‘throne’, probably representing the lotus flower where he sat once sat on. (Right) A statue of Buddha clothed in gold sits in the middle of the walkway towards the center tower.
Picture: (left) The narrow passageway makes it seem as if you’re in a labyrinth. (right) A cat came out of nowhere and rested on the window craving for our attention. How in the world did a cat get all the way into the temple and then up here to the upper most level? God-sent maybe?
NOTE: It was in Bayon that we encountered a tout. We were the first to arrive at Bayon, and there was already a person in plain clothes waiting at the entrance. While we passed the entrance, he followed us and started talking to us and explaining and showing to us some of the interesting things to see in Bayon. Don’t get me wrong, I use the word ‘tout’ but he was extremely friendly and polite. Since he was not dressed in the usual peach-coloured uniform that the official guides usually wear, I knew this was just a guide-wannabe trying to earn a quick buck. If you ever encounter this yourself, just thank him politely and explain to him you would prefer to explore the temple alone.
Not far from Bayon, just a few steps to the north is Baphuon temple. Prior to reaching Baphuon, don’t miss the statue of Buddha located between Bayon and Baphuon. I didn’t capture a picture of it as the statue had scaffoldings around it at that time. I assume they were preparing the statue for the coming Khmer New Year.
PHIMEANAKAS (THE ROYAL PALACE)
Phimeanakas is located inside the compound of what used to be the Royal Palace during those times. The word Phimeanakas comes from a combination of the Sanskrit word ‘vimana’ and ‘akasha’ which means ‘celestial palace of the gods’. However, even with such a grand name, the temple itself is quite modest; not really big and not really high.
TERRACE OF THE ELEPHANTS
The Terrace of the Elephants I s part of the walls of the Royal Palace. It is a 360-meter long sandstone wall and runs from north to south.
TERRACE OF THE LEPER KING
The Terrace of the Leper King is located just north at the end of the Terrace of the Elephants. This terrace is named after a statue of the Leper King that originally stood at the center, which is no more there as the statue has been moved to the National Museum of Phnom Penh.
Ta Phrom is located just a short distance on the east of Angkor Thom. It is known as the ‘jungle temple’ and was made famous by the movie ‘The Tomb Raider’. The banyan and kapok trees has spread their gigantic roots over the temples, sliding and pushing the walls apart establishing a firm hold on the roof. One has to appreciate its natural beauty as it is a temple which has been left in the same condition in which it was found!
Carvings of dancers that is still well preserved which can be found at the Hall of the Dancers.
NOTE: If you are a keen photographer, Ta Phrom is best visited during midday (or close to midday) when the sun is higher allowing it to shine it rains into the canopy of leaves and branches provided by the banyan and kapok trees which engulfs the temple. Do remember that this is one of the most visited temples so if you want to get a clean shot of the money shots, you need to be very patient! One technique that worked for me; everyone will automatically queue, waiting for their turn to have their pictures taken at the picturesque spot by their companions, so when it comes to your group’s turn, get your friend to pose for you while you take the shot, and then right after, just kindly request the next person in line to give you a few seconds to take the shot without anyone in it! And bingo, you get the clean shot that you want. Do also take note that you need wide angled lens to be able to capture most of the dramatic spots in the temple as it is quite narrow!
DAY 3: BANTEAY SREI, EAST MEBON & TA SOM
The third and final day of our ‘temple run’. The first two day has been very rewarding and eye-opening for me. I couldn’t wait to see more! For this last day, we planned for three other temples that are unique to the others, Banteay Srei, East Mebon and Ta Som. Banteay Srei is one of the furthest temple, needing to travel an extra 23 km from the where the main temples are. That translates to around a 1-hour tuk-tuk drive from Siem Reap town. Please do not confuse this temple with another temple that is named Banteay Samre. Banteay Samre and Banteay Srei are two different temples.
Banteay means ‘citadel’ and Srei means ‘Woman’ that is why it is also known as ‘The Citadel of Women’. This temple is known for the temple with the finest and most beautiful wall carvings carvings that many believed could only be the mastery of a women. Another very unique identity to this temple is the red sandstone is it built from.
The towers within the central sanctuary are all of the same delicate and beautiful designs.
Kneeling statues of yaksha (male guardian spirits of natural treasures) and devatas (female deities) are placed in front of each of the tower in pairs.
Other carvings of Durga and Naga that can be found on the walls of the central sanctuary.
NOTE: The Banteay Srei compound is very different from all the other temples. It is quite well organized with many tourist stalls and eating stalls located at the parking area. We tried our first local Cambodian noodles at this eating stall for only USD 1! Other than that, there is also a baray (river) filled with lotus plant and flower where visitors can opt to have a short boat trip.
We headed back to the main Angkor Archaeological site headed to East Mebon temple which is located just north of Pre Rup. East Mebon’s uniqueness is with the statues of elephants which stands guard at the four corners of the temple. It is interesting to note that East Mebon used to be an island around a large body of water (East Baray) which has dried up for centuries.
Ta som is located close to East Mebon, towards the north. The easiest way to describe Ta Som is that it is like a mini Ta Phrom (the jungle temple with the banyan and kapok trees growing on them).
Picture: (left) A restored carving depicting Lokeshvara. (right) More devata carvings seen on the walls of the gopura (entrances).
Phew! That must have been a lot of Khmer names and terms to take in! Don’t worry too much about memorizing the all the terms and the mythologies. Just remember to enjoy yourself and stand in awe when in the presence of the mystical Angkor temples.
Let me try to summarize our whole trip so that it may be of help to you:
We did all our temple runs in the morning. We used the afternoon for food hunt and café hopping. The normal tourist will usually start their temple visits after breakfast, so expect bus loads of them to come in around 8 am or so. So if you want to get clean photographs without them, you have to arrive early. There is also of course the lack of sunlight if you shoot that early.
If you get your Angkor Pass after 5 pm on that day, you get a free visit into the temples that evening. They will only start to ‘deduct’ your pass days the next day (by punching a hole on the dates printed on the pass).
We arranged our temple runs in the order that was mentioned mainly because of the location convenience (less travelling time). The exception being Banteay Srei.
If you are the person who would want to know about the stories behind each of the galleries of carvings and reliefs, the design, the architecture and the layout at each temple, bring along a Angkor Temple guidebook which explains all that which should also include on directional tips. And if you are going to do this, you should expect to spend hours in just one temple itself. For example, if you were to follow every single one, then expect to spend a whole day in just Angkor Wat itself.
You can also choose to hire an official temple guide, which you can easily hire at the entrance of Angkor Wat. They are identifiable by their cream-coloured uniforms with the Angkor emblem on their sleeves. The guides are extremely good and can speak chinese, french and malay. I know this for sure because while we were going around the temples, we would meet many of them bringing their group of visitors and admittedly, there were a few occasions I just stood near them to ‘listen in’ on the guide’s explanations.
Ladies, please remember to wear decent clothings. All the temples do not allow entry if you are not ‘covered up’. By covered up, I mean that your knees should not be visible and no sleeveless. Using a shawl, scarf, towel to cover it up does not work. The guards will insist on proper dress code.
Always, always, always remember to bring along your Angkor Pass. No pass, no entry! Shafie our tuk-tuk driver ALWAYS checks to make sure we brought our passes prior to leaving our hotel for the day.
Don’t miss also, Thanis’ account on our travel. You can read his take of the story here.
However, you do need to remember the temple names! Here are the uniqueness of each temple and why we chose to do these temples within our 3-days pass:
Angkor Wat; the largest single temple compared to all the others and obviously the most famous among all others.
Angkor Thom; it has the most collection of temples within one area. e.g. Bayon, Baphuon, Phimeanakas, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King.
Ta Phrom; the jungle temple overgrown with banyan and kapot trees, also known as the famous Tomb Raider temple.
Banteay Srei; the Citadel of Women with its very intricate and delicate carvings and use of red sandstone.
East Mebon; the temple that has elephant statues!
Ta Som; a mini Ta Phrom with less tourist!
Pre Rup; a small but high temple which is nice to enjoy the sunset
And if you asked me, will I ever go back to Cambodia again. Well a big YES to that! Our 4 days in Siem Reap whooshed by us like a breeze. There are still so many temples left for me to discovered, and when I have the chance, I would like to visit these temples:
Beng Mealea; a real jungle temple that is isolated deep faraway and deep in the jungle. The timetravelturtle has more information together with some very nice pictures here. By the way, it is around 75 km from the city!
Phnom Kulen; it is by itself a National Park which is located near to the mountain range. The attractions in here includes a river which has sandstone carvings by the riverbed, a colossal reclining Buddha statue and a waterfall! More about Phnom Kulen here.
There’s just so much that Angkor has to offer. I’m already missing the mystical atmosphere in the temples and the friendliness atmosphere of the people. Siem Reap has really touched deep into my heart and I can’t wait for my next chance to visit there again. The people that I met, the faces that I saw… I miss them all. Godspeed and take care my friends, until we can meet each other again.