The Angkor Temples, led by the renowned Angkor Wat, are the most important heritage site in Cambodia and the biggest tourist draw as well. They are located in Angkor, former capital of the Khmer empire in the modern-day province of Siem Reap. The site comprises over a thousand temples built over the centuries, dedicated to Hinduism and Buddhism, featuring classical Khmer architecture.
Once you enter the site, you will first pass through the iconic Angkor Wat complex followed by Angkor Thom, which was the last capital of the Khmer empire. On either sides of Angkor Thom, lie the Western and Eastern Barays, which are artificial water bodies surrounded by numerous temples. This entire complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is collectively called the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Angkor Wat, renowned worldwide as the largest religious monument, is the highlight of the Angkor Archaeological Park and Cambodia itself. The massive complex was built in the 12th-century by King Suryavarman II to represent Mount Meru, the celestial abode of Hindu Gods and mainly dedicated to Lord Vishnu. It spans over 400 acres and the sheer size of the complex and the towering temples are enough to make your jaw drop.
Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat that is more than 5 km long and rectangular walls which run for almost 4 km. From the centre of the temple rises a colossal tower that is 65 m high and is surrounded by four other smaller towers. These five towers together represent the five peaks of Mount Meru. The temple is three-tiered and on each level is an extensive rectangular gallery displaying elaborate carvings of scenes from Hindu mythology like the Churning of the Ocean, Ramayana, Mahabharata and over 2000 figures of apsaras (celestial dancers).
An interesting feature of the temple is its orientation towards the west which is strange for a Hindu temple as west is often associated with death. It was later believed that the reason was because Angkor Wat was also intended as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II.
The hilltop Hindu temple, Phnom Bakheng, dedicated to Lord Shiva, dates back to the 9th century. Phnom Bakheng was once the central structure of the second Khmer capital Yasodharapura. The temple once had over 100 towers surrounding the main structure out of which only a few remain today. It is a popular spot for watching the sunset and from here one can marvel at the towers of the Angkor temples which are accentuated by the last rays of sunshine before being enveloped by night.
After the Angkor Wat lies Angkor Thom, the fortified capital city surrounded by high walls and a moat. It was built by King Jayavarman II in the 12th-century. The complex can be accessed by gates from all the four cardinal directions and an additional victory gate on the eastern side. The most popular sight here is the sculpture representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk from Hindu mythology in which 54 Gods and 54 demons engage in a legendary tug of war.
Within Angkor Thom, you will find the popular Bayon temple, the Royal enclosure, the three-tiered Phimeanakas temple and the Terrace of Elephants which was used as a viewing platform by the King.
The famous 12th-century Bayon temple stands exactly in the middle of the royal city, Angkor Thom. It was built by King Jayavarman VII while he was expanding his capital. Here you will find over 200 huge faces of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, smiling at you.The temple has three levels and the walls of the first two are covered with carved panels representing scenes from Hindu mythology, Cambodian history and daily life. From the third level rise 54 towers where you will find the iconic smiling faces.
The ruins of Ta Prohm are a sight to behold and are one of the most photographed temples in the site. The walls and towers are engulfed by massive tree roots and it seems like the temple is a part of the jungle. As you walk through this temple, you will feel like an explorer yourself, navigating the maze of corridors and gazing at the intricate bas-reliefs (sculptures carved on stone panels). An inscription regarding the history of the temple was also found here and it stated that the temple was dedicated to King Jayavarman VII’s mother.
Banteay Kdei is located somewhere between Ta Prohm and Pre Rup and contains the ruins of a 12th-century Buddhist monastery. However, you can still make out the fine carvings on the walls, sculptures and bas reliefs. The bas reliefs of the apsaras are particularly impressive. The temple is enclosed by four concentric walls and has entrances from all four directions.
Pre Rup is located in the eastern baray and was built by King Rajendravarman II in the 10th-century. This Hindu temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and features a temple mountain structure made of sandstone and brick. It is believed that the temple was also used for funeral rituals. Compared to other temples in the complex, Pre Rup has lost most of its wall carvings and sculptures to time as the grey sandstone that was used is not as durable. However, you can still make out a few images and admire the lion statues and lotus towers of this crumbling temple.
Preah Khan, located north of Angkor Wat, is the male counterpart to Ta Prohm and King Jayavarman VII dedicated this massive temple to his father. This is one of the largest temples on site and is surrounded by a rectangular wall and a moat with four ceremonial walkways leading to the temple. An interesting aspect of this temple is that while the eastern entrance is dedicated to Buddhism, the other three entrances are dedicated to the Hindu Trimurti – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Preah Khan is truly one of the finest examples of a Hindu and Buddhist fusion temple and you will find bas reliefs everywhere in the complex that allude to both the religions.
Banteay Srei is a 10th-century Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva and it stands around 30 km away from the main cluster of temples. However, a visit here is completely worth it and you would regret missing this ancient pink sandstone marvel. The walls of the temple feature some of the most elaborate and intricate stone carvings in the Angkor Complex and they represent scenes from the Ramayana, floral patterns and divine figures.
If you are making a bucket list of must visit places, then the Angkor temples deserve one of the top spots. These temples have stood tall for centuries, a stunning masterpiece from the ancient world that will forever remain as Cambodia’s most legendary heritage site.
Running your fingers through the elaborate stone carvings, admiring the brilliant patterns and symmetry displayed by classic Khmer architecture, feeling dwarfed by the colossal towers and surrendering yourself to the sight of the imposing Angkor Wat, are a truly unique and surreal experience that every traveller must experience.
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