The sweet smell of incense, monks in bright orange colored robes strolling along ancient carved walkways, monkeys darting in and out of stone passages, and hundreds of stone faces staring down at you from all directions. Tourists meander along dusty streets on bikes, while tuk tuk drivers lounge in the jungle shade, eating their jackfruit and bananas.
These are just a few of the many sights and scenes in Cambodia’s Angkor Archeological Park, a must-see when in Southeastern Asia.
With over 40 major temple complexes in the Park, it will be difficult to see them all. I’ve made your trip planning easier by compiling a list of my top 5 sites in the park.
1. Angkor Wat
The largest religious monument in the world, this 12th century Hindu temple complex is the largest and best preserved in the Park. Interestingly, the complex faces West (also known to be the direction of death). Our first glimpse of Angkor Wat was at sunrise, entering from the West through the outer wall. Originally a temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, this temple is decorated in the Khmer style and is decorated with hundreds of beautiful bas-relief carvings and over 2000 apsaras (heavenly nymphs) sporting over 37 different hairstyles. The central structure has 5 towers, and if you are willing to wait in line, you can walk around the second level and access the fifth, largest tower. It was also in Angkor Wat that Jeff and I received a blessing from a Buddhist monk.
Located just outside of Angkor Wat in the Angkor Thom complex, this 12th century Buddhist temple features 54 gothic towers and 216 smiling faces, each constructed out of many smaller stone bricks. Unlike Angkor Wat, Bayon faces East, making morning and late afternoon the best time to come for photos. You’re also likely to see monkeys running along the stone walls, bravely approaching visitors carrying food. This was easily my favorite site and I could have stayed here all day.
3. Banteay Sei
Located 16 miles away from the central Angkor Wat temples, this magnificent temple dates back to the 10th century and was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Banteay Srei (meaning citadel of the women) is comprised mostly of red sandstone, in which many intricate and elaborate stone wall carvings are found. This is a beautiful example of the Khmer artwork also found at Angkor Wat. We visited during the golden hour and I got lots of great pictures. Also, the drive to Banteay Srei offered us a scenic drive through small villages and the chance to see herds of water buffalo in the nearby fields.
4. Ta Prohm
Placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992, Ta Phrom is one of the most popular temples. Of “Tomb Raider” fame, this 12th century monastery complex is built in the Bayon style, and is unique for the surrounding jungle growth and trees growing into and through the ruins. One enormous tree had an opening in its trunk so large that I could walk into it. An ideal Instagram destination, we saw several couple taking their wedding photos here. Keep an eye out for small details and carvings swallowed up and peering through the branches.
5. Pre Rup
As one of the climbable ruins, I enjoyed racing up the giant stones to see the vista overlooking all of Angkor and the jungle. Newly restored (with crews working daily), this site is a great place to take a break and soak in the marvel of these ancient ruins and ponder the mysteries of it all. Sadly, I have no personal photos of this site, as I left it on the charger in the van…. sometimes a good thing 🙂
Tickets to Angkor Archeological Park may be purchased at the Tourist office, and are available for 1, 3, and 7 days ($37/$62/$72). US dollars are the preferred currency in Siem Reap. Rent a bike, hire a, open-aired tuk tuk/moto driver, or (as we did) hire a friendly local Cambodian driver to take you around the park in his air-conditioned SUV that will keep an eye on your possessions. Make sure to explore the colorful Angkor Night Market for Khmer food (try the juice drinks and amok fish, and for the more adventurous: snakes on a stick).
Have you visited Angkor Archeological Park? What were your favorite temples? Please share in the comments below.