With the capital of the Khmer Empire being situated at Angkor for some 500 years, there are a wealth of ancient temples and other sites near Siem Reap Town. Most of these sites are in and around the Angkor Archaeological Park. The largest and most significant ruins of the Angkorian Empire are found just to the north of the municipality of Siem Reap, and thus has grown into a tourist oriented town. It is the base from which most visitors explore the temples of Angkor.
The ruins and restored sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and form part of the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
Depending on how you count them, there are some 50 Hindi and Buddhist temples and other sites near Siem Reap, with another 10 major sites further away.
Unfortunately, due to the ravages of time and conflicts, some sites are ruined and not in good condition, but even these crumbling sites are fascinating to visit, and provide a glimpse into the distant past. We have provided descriptions of some the more important sites you may wish to visit.
Angkor - Some Amazing Facts
- Built from 879-1191 AD at the zenith of the Khmer civilisation, the temples represent one of the world's most amazing and enduring architectural achievements.
- Angkor had a population of over one million, and was the spiritual centre for the Khmers until it was abandoned after being sacked by the Thais in 1431. The ruling Khmer God-kings controlled a vast territory in the twelfth century, extending south, to the Mekong delta in present-day Vietnam, north into Laos, and west over large tracts of what is now Thailand. In its heyday, 1.
- The surviving structures today are but a fraction of the whole stunning picture, which included a huge city whose wooden buildings - houses, markets, shops, palaces, and public buildings - have long since been destroyed by war and time.
- The best preserved, and most visited, are Angkor Wat, the Bayon, and Ta Prohm, which were first restored by the French, who established an Angkor Conservancy in 1908.
If Angkor Wat and the city of Angkor Thom are best known for grandeur and majesty, then to the east, the temple and monastery of Ta Prohm wins hands down for sheer dramatic effect. Unlike most other monuments, this quiet and sprawling monastic complex has been left the way it was originally found. The ancient structure is thus still gripped by massive fig and silk cotton trees giving the feeling of discovering the archeological treasure for the first time. Most people will be familiar with this exotic structure through the movie and game 'Tomb Raider' although many do not realise that it is in fact an existing structure.
Faced with this extraordinary image, it is easy to imagine the emotions of the French naturalist Henri Mouhot when he came across it, hidden in the jungle in 1860. At its peak, over 70,000 people, including high priests, monks, assistants, dancers and laborers, populated this vast 600-room monastery. The structure measures 145 by 125 metres and contains a maze of courtyards and galleries, many impassable because of the dense overgrowth of creepers and roots.
Here, you’ll find flocks of noisy parrots flitting from tree to tree – all adding to the unusual and exotic atmosphere. Ta Prohm just begs to be explored as it has a plethora of darkened corridors reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie. One of King Jayavarman VII's first major temple projects, Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother. It was extremely wealthy in its heyday, with control over 3,000 villages, thousands of support staff and immense stores of jewels and gold.
- Location: One kilometre east of Angkor Thom
- Tour Available: Angkor Temples Tour visiting Ta Promh
The Bayon stands at the centre of Angkor Thom (literally 'Great City'), which forms the heart of the Angkor complex as it is today. This inner city is surrounded by a moat, and approached at the four cardinal points via huge stone gates and causeways flanked by statues of gods and giants. The Bayon forms a three-tiered pyramid with 54 towers, each dominated by over 200 huge, four-metre high, mysterious faces facing out to the north, south, east and west.
Each mystically serene countenance, with closed eyelids and faint smile, represents a Bodhisattaya (fully enlightened being) who delays entry into Nirvana to aid the spiritual development of others. The structure is rich in decoration, detailing scenes from battles, religious rituals, and everyday life. On approaching from a distance, it resembles a rather formless initially disappointing jumble of stone, but inside, the visitor discovers a maze of galleries, towers and passageways on three different levels. Under the sightless gaze of the ever-present faces, it is here, particularly if alone, that many tourists experience a feeling of profound spiritual awe. There are several other sites of interest within Angkor Thom, including the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King. At its height, the city had a population of nearly one million, and its nine square km area was comparable in size to anything in Europe at that time.
The Bayon has undergone several additions and alterations at the hands of subsequent monarchs. In the mid-13th century, the Khmers reverted to Hinduism and the temple was altered accordingly. In later centuries, Buddhism became the dominant religion, leading to further changes, before the temple was eventually abandoned and the jungle eventually crept in. Additions that were not part of the original plan include the terrace to the east of the temple, the libraries, the square corners of the inner gallery, and certain parts of the upper terrace.
- Location: Central Angkor Thom
- Tour Available: Angkor Temples Tour visiting the Bayon
Approximately 25 kilometres from the main complex, this relatively small 10th century monument in pink sandstone is dedicated to Shiva. Its perfectly proportioned decoration and detail with exquisite sculptures, lintels, and friezes, makes it one of the oldest and most aesthetically beautiful.
Almost every surface is a masterpiece of superb detail, each one it seems, more beautiful than the one before.
Another temple that has been left to creeping jungle, with huge trees and multi-coloured lichen infiltrating the structure's stone corridors and often gloomy interiors. Although it is not as visually arresting as Ta Prohm, this fascinating temple is formed in a cross by a long 200-metre central passageway cut by another wide perpendicular corridor. Both of these have networks of smaller passages, which themselves open to breezeways, courtyards, and rooms of all sizes. Although the central portion is fairly clear, exploring the outer passageways becomes increasingly adventurous with fallen stones, surreal looking tree roots, and tiny apertures leading into almost pitch dark interiors.
Built on the highest hill in the area and offering spectacular views, especially at dawn and sunset, this small but attractive temple makes an ideal start or end to the day's sightseeing, although most tourists congregate here toward dusk
East Mebon Temple & The Baray Lakes
One of the Khmers' most notable hydrological accomplishments were the West and East Barays, huge, perfectly rectangular artificial lakes covering 14 and 16 square km respectively, and used to irrigate thousands of acres of surrounding farmland. A temple was built in the middle of each lake, and since East Baray was drained, the East Mebon Temple is now easily visited. West Baray (2 km wide & 8 km long) is still filled with water. The boat service is accessible to the west Mebon Temple which is in the middle of the west Baray. East Mebon, however, is a fascinating site, best known for the almost life-size stone elephants on the corners of its tiers. Since each one appears to have been hewn from a single block of stone , the task of carving and transporting such huge pieces must have been tremendous. Smaller stone figures flank the stairways leading up to the central elevated platform. From here, the bed of the lake, now fertile paddy, stretches below you in every direction.
The Ruluos Group of Temples
Lying approximately 10 km from Siem Reap town, is a cluster of three 9th century temples, namely Prah Ko, Bakong and Lolei. Being the oldest in Angkor, and ostensibly the site of the capital at that time, they are interesting in their own right, particularly Bakong, which is the best preserved of the three. Stairways lined with stone lions lead up the five tiers of the pyramid shaped structure, terminating in a sanctuary on top. Eight small sanctuaries also encircle the base, an architectural concept common to many other Angkor temples.