I’ve been to Angkor Wat twice now. The first time was as a backpacker a couple of years ago, and then more recently in October 2005, when I returned to see Cambodia’s awe-inspiring ancient temples with my parents.
Both times I found Angkor a little overwhelming – there is simply so much to see and, more importantly, to absorb and think about when you go sightseeing amongst the temples that it can make your brain distinctly full. It’s not just taking in the intricate, organic architecture of Angkor Wat itself, the largest religious building in the world, or the 200+ huge stone faces which smile enigimatically from the towers of the Bayon, or the collapsing temple of Ta Prohm whose dark stonework is suffused and suffocated by huge strangler fig trees which split the masonry, as nature encroaches to reclaim its own. Beyond the incredibly powerful visual spectacle of Angkor’s temples, there’s the whole question of trying to understand something about their history and how they came to be – and why they were abandoned.
As I was the designated tour guide the second time I went, I had to make up the itinerary of what we were going to see out of Angkor’s 40 plus temples. Here, then, is what I think are the “must see” temples in Angkor – if your interest in Angkor is fired by seeing these, then you can spend more time looking at the other temples – if not, then you’ll know you’ve seen the most spectacular of Angkor’s ancient ruins.
I opted to go for a day and a half itinerary which took in a mix of Angkor’s most interesting ruins. On the first day we visited Angkor Wat, the Bayon and Ta Prohm, and on the second day we spent the morning visiting Kbal Spean and Bantei Srei. You can buy a one day or a three day pass for Angkor, which are US$20 and $40 respectively. It’s better to get the three day pass so you’ve got the option of spending more time amongst the temples if you get bitten by the bug. I hired a driver with minivan for six of us from our hotel for $30 US a day – if you’re backpacking you can get guides cheaper – every guesthouse will be able to help you.
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It’s basically a waste of time to try and see all of the temples here – there are scores of them. More importantly, most of us aren’t archaelogists or historians – we simply can’t take in the significance of many of these temples because we have no prior knowledge about them. It’s much better to go on a “less is more” principle – plan to see a few temples and explore them in depth and read up on them a little or get a guide who can tell you about them. Lonely Planet Cambodia has an excellent section dedicated to Angkor. That way you can enjoy them beyond being a merely visual spectacle.
Angkor has many recurring motifs in the architecture and decoration of its temples, despite them being built over 4 centuries, so many of the temples are similar to one another. This means you don’t need to tear around seeing all of them. There are numerous Cambodian kids who speak excellent English hanging around each of the main temple sites who will gladly sell you a bootleg copy of Dawn Rooney’s Angkor or Michael Freeman’s Ancient Angkor to help you understand what you’re looking at. [See my other article on bootleg books in Cambodia and Vietnam].
Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, the Bayon and Ta Prohm are the biggies of Angkor’s sights – they are the most spectacular and the most famous. Angkor Wat itself is truly vast, with its wide paved causeway running on for hundreds of metres and through several courtyards up to the iconic three massive, vertigo-inducing towers at its centre. There are still shrines to the Buddha in active use within Angkor Wat, with larger than life stone statues swathed in bright orange cloth and incense burning at their feet. This place is still very much alive rather than being a mere museum piece.
The Bayon is perhaps even more memorable because of 200 huge, smiling, slightly sinister stone faces that look down from the temple’s towers at the visitors arriving nearly 1000 years after they were first built. It is the face of Jayavarman VII, the god-king who built more of the Angkor temples than any other king before him (although not, interestingly, Angkor Wat itself). His face also looks down at you from the imposing entrance gateway into Angkor Thom, the walled city within which the Bayon lies. Look on any piece of tourist literature about Cambodia, and you will see the stone face of Jayavarman VII and his enigmatic smile looking back at you. Historians speculate that Jayavaraman was the most ambitious and the most vicious of Angkor’s kings, enforcing slave labour and emptying the kingdom’s treasury to build ever bigger monuments to his greatness. [More]