Located just six kilometres from the small city of Siem Reap, the Angkor temples are one of the main tourist attractions in Cambodia and visitors travel from all over the world to gaze at the magnificent structures which are considered amongst the seven wonders of the ancient world.
It takes just 20 minutes to drive to the Angkor temple complex from the city of Siem Reap where visitors can hire a moto with a driver. The easiest way to explore is by hiring transport for the entire day, as many of the temples are half-a-kilometre away from each other and walking in the hot sun can be draining.
Highlights of the Angkor Temple Complex
Tickets to the Angkor temple complex are available for one, three and seven days. It is best to start exploring in the late afternoon, starting the trip to Angkor by watching the sun set from the top of Phnom Bakheng.
Phnom Bakheng symbolises Mount Meru, the mythical home of the gods. To reach the monument, visitors must scramble up 67 metres of incredibly steep, crumbling steps. The temple is built on five levels, all reached by perilous flights of steps. Stone lions flank the steps as though guarding the way. At the very top, a large temple with five towers stands proud.
Large crowds gather at the summit of the temple around an hour before sunset to enjoy the awe-inspiring view. Visitors will find themselves far above the treetops, with picturesque countryside spread out beneath them and views of Angkor Wat in the distance. The best place to watch the sunset is on the western side, and as the sun creeps slowly beneath the horizon the scene is painted with a broad spectrum of colours.
It is best to get up early the next day and head straight to Angkor Thom. Surrounded by a vast moat, Angkor Thom is reached by navigating a mighty causeway, flanked by 54 stone gods on the left and 54 demons on the right. At the end is an enormous gate, guarded by gopuras with four faces facing to each compass point.
The bayon of Angkor Thom was built nearly 100 years after Angkor Wat yet competes with it in elegance and majesty. Over 200 faces are carved on the 54 towers. The carvings on the outer gallery depict scenes from every day life such as fishing, markets and cockfights and offer a rare and wonderful insight into Khmer culture.
Nearby is the Terrace of the Elephants, which is over 300 metres long. This is also beautifully decorated, this time with three-headed elephants carrying lotus flowers and scenes of elephants hunting whilst tigers claw at them. Visitors can walk along the Terrace of the Elephants to the Royal Palace and through a large wooded area to admire the remains of the Terrace of the Leper King and the Horse with Five Heads.
Now it is time to climb back into your moto and visit Preah Khah. Follow a path deep into the jungle to reach this magnificent temple. Much of the Preah Khah site is crumbled, but visitors can still get a good idea of the intricate detail and majesty of the monument. Man and nature coexist here; a tree has pushed its roots through the structure of the East Gate, nature’s contribution to unique style.
Symbolising the lake at the top of the universe, visitors should walk around Neak Pean before Preah Rup. With its towering gopuras, Preah Rup is reminiscent of Angkor Thom’s architecture.
The temple mountain of Ta Keo can be reached by driving along forest roads. This pretty temple also symbolises Mount Meru and measures a mighty 22 metres high. Also nearby is Ta Prohm, which is nestled in the heart of the forest. Tree trunks twist amongst stone pillars, fig, Banyan and kapok trees all entwine their epic roots with the masonry and branches and leaves form a canopy.
Finally, it is time to visit Angkor Wat, which took around thirty years to complete. The temple is 65 metres tall and covers an area of 500 acres. The moat which surrounds the temple is an incredible 200 metres wide, whilst the causeway is 250 metres long. The mighty Wat is built on several levels. The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, where effigies of all descriptions line the corridors, is particularly captivating.
The third level was originally reserved for the King and High Priest. There are 488 steep steps leading up to the Five Towers, which lie waiting like the Holy Grail at the end of a virtuous quest. Although climbing the crumbling steps to the top can be challenging, the effort is worth it and those who time the trip carefully can reach the very top just in time to watch another glorious sunset.
UNESCO listing for Angkor Wat: whc.unesco.org