Angkor What? – Our pick of temples to visit
We wrote about the magnificent night-life in Siem Reap in our last post. But we all come to Siem Reap for a reason. And that is to marvel at the ancient temples that were built at the height of the Khmer Empire sprawling all over the Angkor Complex and beyond. The spiritual history of the Khmer Empire is somewhat confused. Mahayana Buddhism which originated in 1st Century BCE spread to several South Asian countries including Cambodia. Centuries later Hinduism became the mainstay of Cambodia and reached its peak during the reign of King Suryavarman II who was heavily influenced by it during his travels to India. He erected the Angkor Wat in early 12th century as a tribute to Vishnu who is considered to be the omnipotent god of Hinduism. At the end of the 12th century Buddhism had made a comeback during the rule of King Jayavarman VII who built the city of Angkor Thom (The Great City). Today, you can see several temples which have a mix of Hindu and Buddhist influences.
While there are literally hundreds of temples in and around the Angkor complex, you need a plan to make the most effective use of your time. Though several temples are in ruins (and still littered with historic tales!), there are many which are quite beautifully restored. Here is our pick of the temples to visit while you are in Siem Reap (in the order in which we visited them):
This needs no introduction. It is the most visited temple in Siem Reap and rightly so. Angkor Wat was the centre of Khmer Empire from the 9th to 15th century. Angkor Wat was constructed during the early 12th century as a temple for Vishnu and the state capital during the reign of King Suryavarman II. The temple is spread over 200 hectares and built over three levels. A similar construction is found across many of the other temples in the Angkor Complex, resembling the sacred and mythical Mount Meru (considered to be the centre of physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes in Hinduism). Angkor Wat at dawn is a beautiful sight. The five domes represent the five peaks of Mount Meru.
As you enter Angkor Wat, the first level has magnificent bas-reliefs depicting stories from Hindu mythology. There are episodes from Ramayana and Mahabharata engraved along the two long hall-ways.
While walking around Angkor Wat you can see the monks worshipping and at times there are ceremonies being performed which fill the air with chants and positive vibration.
Several statues of Narayana (an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu) are seen in the halls of Angkor Wat. Some are still adorned and worshipped while others were broken during the several religious flip-flops in the history of Cambodia.
As you reach the third level you find the central tower called Bakan which has a steep staircase that represents the difficulty in ascending Mount Meru. A limited number of tourists are allowed per day in this section.
Angkor Thom which literally translates into Great City was the new state capital and city after the fall of Suryavarman II. At its height, the city accommodated one million people and was one of the largest cities in the world. It was constructed by King Jayavarman VII as his seat of power after he consolidated the Khmer empire and was its last capital. The entrance to the city from the south gate is lined with Devas (gods) on one side and Asuras (demons) on the other side depicting Sagarmanthan or Churning of the Great Ocean to produce the nectar of immortal life.
Bayon has 216 stone faces of Buddha constructed such that they look in all directions as if watching over the Khmer empire. It was constructed in the late 12th century as the official state capital of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII.
Ta Sohm was the temple built by King Jayavarman VII as a dedication to his father. A section of the temple is now reclaimed by a large fig tree.
Preah Khan was also built by King Jayavarman VII to honour his father. This temple was partially consumed by nature!
Banteay Srei is located 25 km north east of the Angkor Complex and it literally means Citadel of Women. It is so named because of the intricate carvings which are said to have been created by women artisans. The red coloured sandstones give it a different colour and hence is quite different when compared to the rest of the Khmer temples.
- Weather: The best time of the year as per most travel websites is between November to February – but that is also when you will find it the most crowded. We found that late May and most of June are great months to visit, if you can bear the tropical summer. Guides are easy to find, hotels are cheap and overall you will have a much better time!
- Do you need a guide?: Without question, yes! This was my second trip to Angkor Wat and I have tried it both ways. While you can read through the displayed information (which is very little, to be honest), getting a guide will take your experience to a whole new level. We paid about $70 for the guide and it was completely worth it. Phirom was an excellent guide, spoke good English and was very knowledgeable. You can find a list of tour guides on the website of Khmer Angkor Tour Guide Association
- Transportation: Depending on the number of people, you can choose to hire a Tuk-Tuk, a car or a mini-van. If you are going in the summer months, our recommendation is to go for the car. It will also allow you to easily go to far off temples such as Banteay Srei which is about 25 Km from the Angkor complex.
- Tickets and Entry: There are three ticket options available for 1, 3 and 7 days which cost $20, $40 and $60 respectively. We found that the 3 day pass is most suitable for travellers like us who do not want a rushed peek into the city of ruins.
- What to wear?: Please be mindful of the culture and traditions while visiting the temples. It is recommended that women have their hands and legs fully covered and men do not wear shorts. While, there were tourists flouting these rules, there are places where you can be refused entry! For example the entry to Bakan in Angkor Wat and a few tourists were not allowed to enter. Only covering yourself in a shawl temporarily is also not allowed. It is a small price to pay for visiting these magnificent structures and frankly it is always advisable to follow the local customs!
- Remember to stay hydrated, especially in the summer months, you will easily run through 1.5 to 2 litres of water each day of your temple run. It also helps that there are coconut water vendors outside nearly all temples. Like all things in Siem Reap they also cost $1!