The temples surrounding Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia, attract millions of visitors each year, especially those of the Angkor Archaeological Park. Angkor Archaeological Park, which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992, contains roughly fifty temples dating from the 9th to the 15th century. The park is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and is often referred to as the “Eight Wonder.”
An Angkor pass is required to enter each of the temple sites and should be purchased from the official ticket center. One, three and seven day passes are available. The following list of temples are what I consider the must-see temples of Siem Reap and can also be used as a one-day itinerary, in the same order.
1. Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is one of the largest and most spectacular temples of Siem Reap. It is also one of the better preserved in area. It was originally built as a Hindu temple by Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century and its construction took approximately thirty years to complete.
I recommend waking up bright and early and watching the sunrise here. Give yourself plenty of time to purchase your ticket and get your camera gear set up. I left my hotel in town at 4:30 am and it worked out perfectly. The beautiful photos you’ll take are definitely worth the lack sleep.
I would then visit the next temple on your list and return to Angkor Wat later in the afternoon, when it’s less crowded. You’ll want to take your time and really enjoy its intricate details. The wall carvings are beautiful and each tells a story.
2. Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm is another of Siem Reap’s most popular temples. It’s is commonly referred to as the “Tomb Raider Temple”, after the movie of the same name that made it famous. A visit to Ta Prohm is a special experience. The temple, built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, is made up of winding corridors and towers.
It has been overtaken by the jungle, but that is actually what makes it so incredible. Banyon trees and their roots continue to grow and overtake the structures, making them difficult to restore. Some of the crumbing corridors and areas have been been deemed unsafe and roped off from the public. The shadows, moss and tree roots only add to its beauty though. I would suggest visiting Ta Prohm early in the morning as to avoid the crowds. I arrived as soon as it opened and there were very few people there. It was perfect timing.
3. Banteay Kdei
Banteay Kdei, meaning a “A Citadel of Chambers”, is located south of Ta Phom and is built in a similar style. It is much smaller and less complex though. The temple is made up of four walls with four separate entrances. It is a Buddhist temple, but most of the Buddha carvings seen on its walls have been defaced.
Banteay Kdei was built from soft sandstone and for this reason is in some of the worst condition of all the temples. It’s a fascinating temple to visit, though, because not much has been done in terms of restoration. It is also a quieter temple and is a great place to escape the crowds between visiting the larger temples.
4. Pre Rup
Pre Rup is a large, brick and sandstone pyramid-shaped temple. Its name means “Turning the Body,” which refers to a type of cremation, suggesting that the temple may have been used as a royal crematorium.
It’s top peak has five towers, representing the mountain peaks of Mount Meru, which is the center of the universe in Hindu mythology. The temple has steep, climbable step, making it a great place to watch the sunset.
5. Ta Som
Ta Som was built toward the end of the 12th century and is one of the smaller temples. For this reason, it’s often skipped over. Despite its size, it is definitely worth a visit and was actually one of my favorite temples.
Like Ta Prohm, it has been left largely unrestored and has become overgrown with vegetation. One of the best things about this temple is the huge tree that has overtaken one of the temple gates. It makes for a great photo op!
6. Preah Khan
Preah Khan, one of the larger temple complexes, not only served as a temple, but also as a city. Details of the temple’s history can be found inscribed on the walls of one of the temple’s columns, including the city’s population which was 100,000 at the time.
Preah Khan has four walkways leading over a moat to each of its entrances. These walkways are lined with statues, many of which are missing heads that were at one point stolen and most likely sold on the black market. It has four enclosures, each with walls full of intricate carvings. Although, this temple is also overgrown with trees, more restoration has taken place.
Banyon is located in the exact center of the city of Angkor Thom and was hands down one of my favorite temples. I found it to be really unique and there is something very powerful about it. From the outside it really doesn’t look that different from the others, but upon entering and after climbing to its third level, you begin to see why it’s so special.
The first two levels have beautifully detailed bas-reliefs, or carvings. On the third level, you’ll find fifty towers with approximately two-hundred smiling stone faces on them. Each face is about four meters high, all with their eyes closed. It’s not known what the faces actually represent.
Most people visit this temple early in the morning or for sunset. I recommend going around mid-day to avoid the crowds. It does get quite hot and provides little shade, so that is something to take into account during summer months.
8. Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei should be visited on a separate day from the above mentioned temples. It’s located about 25 km northeast of the main temple group and although it is somewhat out of the way, you won’t want to miss it. Banteay Srei means “Citadel of Women” and it is often referred to as the “pink temple” because the red sandstone that makes up its structures looks pink in the sunlight.
It is dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva and has some of Angkor’s most intricate and delicate carvings. The temple is much more petite and feminine than the others. Banteay Srei is also the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of the main temples. It’s surrounded by winding pathways, beautiful botanical gardens and lily ponds. I would plan on spending an entire morning exploring the area.
If you are in search of a guide/photographer in Siem Reap, I highly suggest Kimleng Sang. Kimleng knows the area and its history well and is an excellent photographer. He will happily take photos for you or give you pointers, so you can take beautiful photos of your own. Many of the photos in this post were either taken by him or with his assistance.
Stay tuned for my next post on everything you need to know before visiting the Angkor temples!