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The best temples in Cambodia

by Martha Hales

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Put yourself in the shoes of the various travellers, explorers and hunters that stumbled upon the temples of Angkor deep in the Cambodian forests all those centuries ago. Imagine the incredulous look on their faces as they stared up at the intricately carved stonework peeping through the greenery. This feeling of amazement still persists for today’s visitors, as you approach the site and catch your first glimpse of the ancient temples piercing the treetops.

Angkor Wat in the forests of Cambodia

The undisputed jewel in Cambodia’s crown is the ancient city of Angkor, the Khmer capital constructed between the 9th and 12th centuries where around 1,000 temples are scattered on the plains north of Tonle Sap lake. The sprawling metropolis of Angkor would once have been a powerhouse of the region and was proven in 2007 to have been the world’s biggest pre-industrial city having potentially had one million inhabitants.

North Gate of Angkor Thom, Cambodia

The main cluster of temples is relatively compact, and focuses on some of the best preserved of the Khmer monuments, but the site spreads across a huge area, and if you are hoping to find your way to some of the temples with a lower footfall, this can be arranged. Depending on how extensively you wish to explore the site and its temples, you could devote anything from a couple of days to a week to discovering Angkor’s mesmerising temples.

Aspara carvings in Banteay Srei, Cambodia

Angkor Wat

So thoroughly entwined with Cambodia’s national identity that it features on the flag, Angkor Wat is the best known of the temples of Cambodia. It is widely credited with being the world’s largest religious monument, and though it is often busy with visitors, it doesn’t disappoint.

Angkor Wat at sunrise

The harmonious symmetry and impressive setting surrounded by water enhances the beauty and unbelievable detail of the temple. Even when it seems crowded on the approach, you can quite easily find a quiet corner to contemplate the amazing 12th century workmanship, and our local experts know all the hidden hotspots.

Angkor Wat at sunrise`

Ta Prohm

If you are hoping to feel the magic and mystery of these ancient relics of the Khmer empire, there’s no better place to go looking for it than Ta Prohm, where fallen masonry and remnants of stone edifices are slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding vegetation. The roots of giant kapok trees are knotted around and through the remaining walls, giving the whole temple the sense of a lost kingdom, and reminding visitors of the great age of all the Angkor monuments. Exploring Ta Prohm gives you an idea of how it must have felt to stumble upon this ancient city after centuries of neglect.

Angkor Thom and the temple of Bayon

The history and significance of Angkor Thom can be detected as soon as you set off across the walkway leading into the enclosed city proper, which is flanked by 54 larger than life figures on each side.

Guardian sculptures outside Angkor Thom gate

Angkor Thom is a moated area with an enclosing wall of around seven kilometres which contains some fine carved bas-reliefs within the star attraction, Bayon. The temple of Bayon is one of the most impressive sites within the whole of the ancient city of Angkor, with its imposing towers sporting huge carved faces that stare out over the surroundings.    

Faces on Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom

Banteay Srei

A little further out from Siem Reap than the main temple circuit, Banteay Srei is worth the effort to get there, as you will discover its amazingly detailed decorative exterior, featuring elaborate pattern inspired by flowers and plants.

Bird guardians of Banteay Srei temple near Siem Reap, Cambodia

The whole temple is relatively small in size so it’s not going to keep you all day, yet the carvings are so mesmerising that you may end up spending longer here than you planned.

Banteay Srei, Cambodia

If you do have spare time after viewing the temple, head for nearby Kbal Spean, where yet more impressive carvings can be seen, this time chipped out of the rocks on the riverbed.

River carvings of Kbal Spean, Cambodia

Preah Vihear

The temple requires a bit of perseverance to reach, as it is quite some distance from all the others, at around 150 kilometres from Siem Reap. For a long time it was out of bounds due to ownership disputes, but it has recently reopened.

Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia

This sandstone temple is appealing for its remoteness and its lofty position high on an escarpment with views over the plains below. Along with the ancient city of Angkor, Preah Vihear is one of Cambodia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, listed to ensure the preservation of its exceptional carved stone ornamentation.

Carving of Shive on Preah Vihear temple

Roluos

Not far outside Siem Reap lies the so called Roluos group of temples, which are thought to be among the earliest of the Khmer Empire’s monuments. There is a notable difference in the architectural style in this group compared to the main group of temples, mainly because of the use of bricks in the construction.

Roluos temples in cambodia

There are still some interesting carvings present on some of the temples, even though most of them are from the 9th century, making them over 1,000 years old. Preah Ko is the temple to head for to explore the best examples.

bas-relief in Roluos temples, cambodia

Make it happen

Discover one of Asia’s most captivating historic sites and marvel at the craftsmanship that has gone into the mesmerising stone work on Cambodia’s iconic Khmer temples. Allow the expertise of our local partner to help you plan your dream Cambodia holiday, they can design a bespoke itinerary around your preferences and priorities. All you need to do is get in touch with them via our enquiry form. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.  

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