A Guide to Angkor

Posted by on Jan 12, 2012

Angkor Archaeological Park

Any visit to Cambodia will inevitably include a tour of Angkor archaeological park, the spiritual and cultural heart of Cambodia. However, with a plethora of temples stretching across an area of some 400km2 it can be quite daunting working out just where to begin. To help you make this decision, the following guide will provide a general layout of the temples along with the conventional routes for visitation. Simply click on the hyperlinks in the ensuing body of text to orientate yourself in the Google Earth window as you read along.


General Layout

The temples of Angkor archaeological park can be broadly grouped into the following geographic areas:

1. Angkor Wat
The centrepiece of any visit to Angkor archaeological park and usually either the starting or finishing point (or both) of a tour.

2. Angkor Thom
The ‘Great City’ highlighted by the enigmatic Bayon temple with its 216 giant stone faces.

3. Temples of the Small Circuit
The shorter and most popular of the two circuits, highlighted by Ta Prohm (aka the ‘tomb raider’ temple) a setting for the famous Hollywood movie.

4. Temples of the Grand Circuit
The larger of the two circuits, featuring the former Buddhist monastry of Preah Khan and the temple mountain of Pre Rup.

5. The Rolous Group
The earliest temples constructed at Angkor named for their close proximity to the small town of Rolous.

6. Beyond Angkor
A collection of temples and archaeological sites located on the peripherary of the main Angkor group.


1. Angkor Wat

Sunset at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat was constructed at the apex of the Khmer empire in 1113 by Suryavaraman II. Recognised as the largest religious structure in the world, Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu and served as Suryavaraman II’s state temple. It comprises of an extensive enclosure and a massive three-tiered pyramid (representing the sacred Mount Meru) crowned by five-lotus like towers measuring 65m high. The first level is adorned with visually impressive large scale bas-reliefs highlighting mythological stories such as the ‘Battle of Kuru’ and the ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’. A favourite starting location at sunrise, the Northern reflecting pool is the most popular vantage point as it provides a beautiful mirror image of a silhouetted Angkor Wat against an amber morning sky. Angkor Wat is equally an impressive location for winding down any tour at sunset.


2. Angkor Thom

The Bayon at Angkor Thom

Translating to ‘The Great City’ in Khmer, Angkor Thom served as the capital of King Jayavaram VII’s empire with construction starting in the late 12th century. Covering an area of approximately 9km squared, Angkor Thom is enclosed by a 100m wide moat and walls rising 8m high. Access to the Great City is enabled by 5 large gates, one each at the cardinal points with the additional ‘Victory Gates’ located along the Eastern wall. Any tour beginning with Angkor Wat at sunrise will frequently be followed by a visit to Angkor Thom, usually beginning at its Southern entrance.

Within the confines of Angkor Thom are 5 main attractions which are typically visited in the following order:

The first and unquestionably the most specatular is the Bayon, situated at the centre of the Great City. It contains 54 towers adorned with 216 giant stone faces. Striking similarities between these carvings to other statues of the King have led many scholars to debate whether the faces are in fact a representation of Jayavaraman VII or alternatively Avalokitesvara – the bodhisattva of compassion. As the former French conservator Maurice Glaize once wrote “wherever one wanders the faces follow and dominate with their multiple presence”.

Located to the North West of the Bayon is Baphuon, a temple mountain representation of the sacred Hindu Mount Meru. With the original restoration project being interrupted by the onset of the civil war and detailed records for reassembly subsequently destroyed, it is currently undergoing a painstakingly slow reconstruction process. Access to visitors was not possible at the time of writing.

North from Baphuon is Phimeanakas, a laterite and sandstone pyramid that is the tallest scalable temple within Angkor Thom. Legend has it that this temple was originally crowned with a golden pinnacle housing a serpent spirit. With staircases located at each of its cardinal points the easiest route for ascending is on the Western side which remains in the best condition.

Terrace of the Elephants
Slightly East of Phimeanakas is the Terrace of the Elephants. It is a 300m long wall decorated with elephant and garuda carvings, along with an impressive scene of warriors and dancers on its Northern Section.

Terrace of the Leper King
Adjacent to the Terrace of the Elephants is the Terrace of the Leper King, an equally impressive corridor of deeply carved nagas, demons and various other mythological creatures. Its name is derived from the ‘Leper King’ statue that sits above, and whose symbolic origins remain debateable.


Tour Circuits

After visiting the temples and attractions of Angkor Thom conventional tours will either proceed with the Small Circuit or the Grand Circuit.


3. Small Circuit

The Small Circuit is a 17km tour that encompasses the temples to the immediate East of Angkor Thom and departs from its Victory Gate.

A lone traveller standing at the entrance to Ta Keo

Ta Keo
The first temple on the Small Circuit and one of the largest in Angkor. Constructed from sandstone and rising over 21.6m high, development appears to have stopped early in the decoration phase of Ta Keo as artisan carvings can only be found around the base of the temple.

Ta Prohm
Popularly known as the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple due to its chosen setting in the Hollywood film, Ta Prohm is perhaps the most romantic of the Angkor sites. Restoration efforts have deliberately left much of the natural jungle encroachment intact. The result is a fusion of nature and architecture; large roots spill over temple ramparts cleaving massive stones in two, whilst the dense foliage above castes diffuse sunlight over this enigmatic site.

Banteay Kdei
Located on the Western shore of the man-made reservoir Sras Srang the name Banteay Kdei translates to ‘Citadel of the Cells’. It was originally built as a Buddhist monastic complex by Jayavaraman VII with mostly low quality sandstone being used in its construction. Unfortunately, as a result of poor craftsmanship much of Banteay Kdei remains in a deteriorated state.

Sras Srang
Located opposite Banteay Kdei, the ‘Royal Bathing Pool’ of Sras Srang is a terrace leading to one of the few reservoirs still retaining water.

Prasat Kravan
An unusual brick complex arranged into five inline towers on a single terrace. The principal decoration within Prasat Kravan illustrates Vishnu taking three steps to span the universe as depicted in the Rigveda. Since the complex faces east the best time for viewing the reliefs is in the morning when sunlight pierces through the doorways.

Phnom Bakheng
The first major temple to be constructed in this area in the late 9th century, Phnom Bakheng served as Yasovaraman I’s state temple. Bakheng’s hilltop location makes it the most popular sunset vantage point in the area, providing panoramas of the Angkor Wat and the Tonle Sap Lake. The temple is usually overcrowded at sunset, sometimes completely overrun by tourists. Elephant rides up and down the hill are available at a price late in the afternoon.


4. Grand Circuit

The Grand Circuit is a 26km tour that encompasses the temples to the North and far East of Angkor Thom and departs from its Northern Gate.

A tree encroaches upon the temple structure on the Eastern side of Preah Khan

Preah Khan
Translating to the ‘Sacred Sword’ in Khmer, Preah Khan was originally constructed as a Buddhist monastery in the latter half of the 12th century. The complex covers 56 hectares and was built by Jayavaraman VII at the alleged battle site where the King finally defeated the Chams.

Neak Pean
Neak Pean is a small island temple located in the middle of a baray. Its comprised of five swimming pools arranged in the shape of a lotus flower with the temple situated upon their central axis. Scholars believe that Neak Pean was a representation of Anavatapta, a mythical lake in the Himalayas whose waters cured all ailments. The best times for visiting this site are during the wet season when the pools are at capacity.

Ta Som
The most distant temple on the Grand Circuit, Ta Som is a small Bayon-like single tower complex surrounded by three enclosing walls. The Eastern gopura is a popular photographic location with a huge tree encroaching upon the structure.

East Mebon
Perched upon a small island in the middle of the Eastern Baray, East Mebon is a temple pyramid with receding terraces supporting numerous detached edifices. Once a large body of water and a major source for irrigation, the surrounding Eastern Baray is today no more than a plain of rice fields. The original majesty of this temple residing in the middle of an expansive water body rests now in the imagination of the visitor.

Pre Rup
Built around 961 by King Rajendravarman II as his state temple, Pre Rup is an architecturally impressive temple mountain. Constructed primarily from brick and laterite it is richly detailed and well preserved, with interesting carved false doors on the upper level. Providing excellent views of the surrounding countryside, Pre Rup is increasingly becoming a popular sunset alternative to the tourist magnate Phnom Bahkeng.


5. Rolous Group

A name derived from their relative proximity to the small town of Rolous, the temples of Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei which make up the Rolous Group were constructed by Indravarman I in the 9th century.  They are located approximately 13km East of Siem Reap in what was once known as the ancient capital of Hariharalaya.

Preah Ko – source: wikimedia commons

Preah Ko
Preah Ko was the first of the Rolous temples to be constructed and comprises of six towers built on a single sandstone platform.  Translating to ‘Sacred Ox’ its modern named is derived from the statues of Nandi located in front of the central towers, the bull who served as the mount of Shiva.

The most impressive of the Rolous Group of temples, Bakong was built as the state temple of Indravarman I.  Set amidst a picturesque moat and vegetated surrounds, Bakong was crafted in a pyramidal fashion consisting of five tiers corresponding to each of the five earthly realms.  It exhibits one of the earliest examples of Angkorian stone construction (as opposed to brick) and was subject to several additions by Kings to succeed  Indravarman I.

Originally situated on an island in the middle of a now barren baray, Lolei was the last major temple constructed at Rolous before Yasovaraman I relocated the capital to the Angkor area.  Featuring four brick towers and some lintels adorned with well crafted carvings, Lolei is somewhat less impressive than its two counterparts.  An active pagoda exists amongst its ruins.


6. Beyond Angkor


Cascades at Kbal Spean

Banteay Srei
Located 23km North of Angkor Wat and constructed in the 10th century, Banteay Srei was the only major temple that wasn’t purposely built for a King.  Adorned with some of the most impressive reliefs in all of the archaeological park, the name itself translates to “Citadel of Women” as the craftsmanship was so delicate it was believed it could only have been carved by the hand of a woman.  The temple itself is small in size but large in stature, earning the common epithet as the “jewel of Khmer art”.

Kbal Spean
Kbal Spean is an archaeological site located on the southwest slopes of the Kulen Hills.  Translating to “Bridge Head”, Kbal Spean is also commonly known as “The River of a Thousand Lingas” in reference to the series of sandstone phallic symbols carved into its river bed.  These symbols of fertility were crafted between the 11th and 13th centuries and were believed to fertilize the waters of the Siem Reap River.  Reaching Kbal Spean requires a moderate 45 minute uphill walk through the woods of the Kulen Hills and a visit here is usually combined with a journey to Banteay Srei.

Beng Melea
A sprawling mass of temple ruins partially devoured by the surrounding jungle, Beng Mealea imparts an atmosphere of discovery and adventure comparable to that of Ta Prohm.  Its location almost 2 hours from the main group at Angkor further serves to heighten this ‘lost world’ surrealism with tourist numbers to the site at a minimal.  Translating to the “Lotus Pond” in Khmer, Beng Mealea was constructed by Suryavarman II prior to Angkor Wat, and its many striking similarities have led scholars to contend that it possibly served as a prototype.


Angkor Archaeological Park Geowidget

If you would like to include a 3D map window of Angkor in your own website I have made available a geowidget. It is a compact version of the Google Earth window featured in this post and will allow users to zoom to all the main temples as well as play tours of the small and grand circuit. For simple instructions on how to embed and use in your site please feel free to contact me via the form on the ‘About’ page.

One Comment

  1. Couldn’t get visit a more suitable time. Wonderful blog post

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