Visiting the Temples of Angkor was the main reason for our trip to Siem Reap and we got to it straight away. Through our hotel, we booked a tuk-tuk and a personal guide for a 7:30am departure and prepared fora full day of visiting the Temples of Angkor.
We made no special requests or itinerary demands; we left the Lonely Planet at home and let our local guide formulate the plan for what we would see at the UNESCO World Heritage Angkor Archaeological Park.
Visiting the Temples of Angkor: Angkor Thom South Gate
On the short drive from Siem Reap we got our first glimpse of Angkor Wat, but bypassed it (for now) for the less crowded Angkor Thom to start our day. Located on 10 square kilometers and surrounded by both a wall and a moat, there are many sights to see at Angkor Thom. We started at the South Gate (which has been heavily restored) and walked across the bridge through the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ with 54 demons on our right and 54 gods or deities on our left and under a high tower with four imposing faces looking down on us.
Visiting the Temples of Angkor: Bayon Temple
Once inside, we headed for Bayon temple, best known for its 54 towers and 216 faces that stare out from the tower walls. Before we wandered around inside, we were told the stories of the bas-reliefs on the exterior walls. Religious stories, fables and history were etched and carved in detail into the walls and most have surprisingly survived over the centuries.
Visiting the Temples of Angkor: Baphuon
From Bayon Temple, it is just a short walk to Baphuon, completed sometime around 1060, and is entered by a long causeway. Steep stairs lead to the upper tiers of the five-level pyramid, giving us access to (and views from) all but the top tier. A 60 meter long ‘reclining Buddha’ was built into the western side of the temple in the 15th or 16th century and can be difficult to pick out, almost like an optical illusion, but is another example of the architectural brilliance involved in the construction of the temples.
Visiting the Temples of Angkor: Phimeanakas
We took a short nature walk to Phimeanakas, which stands in the middle of the royal enclosure (where the palace was located) and believed to have had a golden spire or dome at one time. Not nearly as opulent as it was in the past, surrounded by forest it seemed quaint and almost charming.
Visiting the Temples of Angkor: Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King
Outside the royal enclosure are two terraces: The Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. The Terrace of the Elephants was used during ceremonies as a seat for the king. Three-headed elephants and a large lotus flower top the platform. The adjacent Terrace of the Leper King has a bit of a grimmer story: It was used to cremate the remains of the royal family. The outside walls are covered in carvings and on the top of the platform is a statue of Yama, the god of Death (a replica as the original is in a museum in Phnom Penh).
Visiting the Temples of Angkor: Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm was different than the other temples we had visited in that it had ingrained itself with the forest, or rather the forest had ingrained itself into Ta Prohm. Built in 1186 and dedicated to the mother of King Jayavarman VII, it had nearly 80,000 people looking after it, including more than 600 dancers. Now, trees grow on top of the stone buildings, wrapping and digging their roots around and through the rocks. Canopies of leaves shade the area and moss clings to stones, enveloping the entire place in a hue of green.
Visiting the Temples of Angkor: Angkor Wat
It was finally time to visit Ankgor Wat, the grand-daddy of all temples: Angkor Wat. Even our approach was grand as we traveled along the expansive moat (650 feet wide) to the long bridge at the entrance. Taking less than 40 years to build (1113-1150) but more than 300,000 workers, it is truly a sight that is better seen than described.
From the outside, we could see the five towers of the temple and a single walkway led from the entrance, through the gate, past the libraries and past the pools to the temple. Immediately inside the gate is a statue of Vishnu, to whom the temple was dedicated.
The long, exterior walls (800 meters) of the temple are covered from ceiling to floor in bas-reliefs, telling stories of life, the king and the gods. One entire wall depicted heaven and hell and showed what a person could expect if they sinned: bodies shackled and pounded with nails and others fed to the animals were just a few of the punishments shown.
Heading into the interior, we ascended the steep stairs (it is a long way to heaven, they say) to the towers that are visible from so far away. The center tower now houses several Buddhas – as it has been converted into a Buddhist sanctuary – some standing, others reclining. The courtyards between the towers are a peaceful place to unwind from the whirlwind of temple touring and offer a chance to contemplate the history of places we saw.
To sum it up simply: the structure is massive, the intricate carvings intense and the longevity is nothing short of amazing. It’s a place we could visit time and time again and always find or learn something new….which is excellent news since we bought the three day pass!
We want to know: Are you interested in visiting the Temples of Angkor? Tell us why – or why not – in the comments!