Between the 9th and the 15th century, in the region that is now Cambodia, near the modern-day city of Siem Reap, Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire, flourished.
During those centuries, Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Kingdom and it grew to such a size that it is now considered the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
The ruins of Angkor are included in the Angkor Archaeological Park, which extends for about 400 km square kilometres (although the urban area of Angkor might have been over 1000 square kilometres), and it’s one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. The ruins include over a thousand temples, among which the most important are the incredible Angkor Wat, the Ta Prohm, the ancient city of Angkor Thom and its centrepiece, the Bayon, the less popular but still breathtaking Banteay Srei, Preah Khan, Prasat Bakong and a multitude of smaller temples of which many are now just a pile of bricks.
The best way to visit Angkor is by staying in Siem Reap and arrange transportation to the Archaeological Park from the city. Considering that over two million people visit the place annually, it’s definitely not a problem to find the type of organized or individual tour that meets anyone expectations.
I visited Angkor back in 2011 with four friends. We hired a local guide, who helped us to visit the most interesting sections of this huge complex, and we hire a tuk-tuk driver that took us around the site for the entire time we were there. The first suggestion the guide gave us was to keep the Angkor Wat for the end of the tour to avoid spoiling all the rest. That was indeed a great tip!
There are several other ways to visit the site: organised tours, bicycles, buses, elephants (Please don’t!) etc.. The tuk-tuk gave us the freedom to move at our own pace and the independence that we wanted, and at the same time it made the exploration enjoyable. In my opinion, another good option could be to explore the site by bicycle, but it is really too big if short on time and Cambodia is very hot all year round.
I’m not going to describe all the temples that we saw, they were too many, but the experience was unforgettable. I usually tend to avoid going back to a place I had already been. Not with Angkor. Angkor is one of the few places where I would like to go again. I feel there’s so much more to explore than what I know about it.
Coming from Siem Reap in the south, the first temple on the road is the Angkor Wat that, as I said earlier, we left for last. We headed for the huge walled city of Angkor Thom and entered it from the South Gate.
Angkor Thom, as all the main temples in Angkor, was a walled city with a square shape, whose sides are perfectly oriented north-south and east-west, surrounded by a moat. Another feature of Angkor was in fact its incredible waterworks. Angkor Thom is by far the largest walled city. Its sides are over 3.5 km long and it encompasses countless ruins.
The most popular among all the temples within Angkor Thom is the Bayon. The Bayon is known for the hundreds of gigantic stone smiling faces and its sets of bas-reliefs.
Another temple inside Angkor Thom that I really enjoyed is the Baphuon, located just north of the Bayon. What I liked about this temple is that is was converted from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist temple and they used the construction materials of the tower (typical in hindu temples) to start building a reclining Buddha that was never completed.
After going around Angkor Thom, with hundreds of ruins surrounding us, we decided to leave the walled city and headed east for another important temple, made famous by the movie Tomb Raider that was filmed there: the Ta Prohm.
I have no words to describe this temple. It felt like being in an Indiana Jones (or Tomb Raider) movie. The main feature of Ta Prohm is the gigantic trees that started to grow on the walls of the temple since it was abandoned in the 15th century, following the fall of the Khmer Empire. It’s simply breathtaking.
A few kilometers away from the main Angkor area is another temple that is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List: Banteay Srei. The peculiarity of Banteay Srei is the fact that it’s built of red sandstone, so finely carved that the decorations are still incredibly beautiful today, and its buildings are a scaled miniature version of the usual structures of Khmer temples.
No visit of the Archaeological Park should end without going to the masterpiece: the majestic Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, built at the end of the 12th century, it’s now the symbol of Cambodia. Like the other main temples in the area, it is surrounded by a square moat and a wall but it’s the only one facing west instead of east.
Angkor Wat is an outstanding example of Khmer architecture, the so-called Angkor Wat style, for obvious reasons. It was originally built as an Hindu temple to be later slowly converted into a Buddhist temple. It is simply breathtaking, one of the most impressive monuments I’ve ever seen. That is why it is better to visit it at the end of the tour, its majesty shadows everything else.
Something that most tourists do, which unfortunately I wasn’t able to do, is to watch the sunrise from this temple. It is supposed to be an unforgettable experience, although it is so popular now that getting a good viewing spot it’s really hard because of the crowd.
I want to end this post by talking briefly about another temple that is not included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, but it’s instead in the tentative list: Beng Mealea.
Beng Mealea is about 75km away from the main group of temples, therefore quite isolated from the rest. It’s mostly surrounded by thick forest and it’s mostly collapsed. What is really interesting about this temple is the mystery that surround it. It is known that it was built during the Angkor Wat period, because of the architectural style, but its history is unknown. Still, it is one of the largest Khmer temples. Moreover, being so isolated, not that many visitors reach this temple and private transportation has to be arranged. In my opinion, the hassle and the higher cost to get to Beng Mealea was totally worth it. That day I really felt like those explorers who found this temple after it had been forgotten for century in the jungle.