Beyond Angkor Wat

Beyond Angkor Wat

By Wendy Updated Jun. 28, 2021

Your first impressions of the Angkor complex may be of ancient temple ruins covered by giant roots of banyan trees; or of many smiling stone-carved Buddha faces, comprising a stone mountain of ascending peaks. Such mysterious ruins in dense jungle often appear in action films.

Such images originate with the well-known Ta Prohm and Bayon temples. Angkor has much to offer, however, besides these two temples. The following are some suggestions for sightseeing after your visit to Angkor Wat.

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Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was founded in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, considered the most powerful Khmer monarch of all time, and was one of the largest of all Khmer cities. Here lie the ruins of many striking monuments.

Most visitors reach the monuments by driving up to Angkor Thom. Once they’ve arrived, they stop off to go inside. Although most ruins are in a state of disrepair, the remarkable scale of the architecture and the intricate carvings still reflect the city’s glorious past. Of the five gateways into the city, the usual approach is via the South Gate.

The South Gate has been restored extensively, with a causeway flanked by impressive stone statues; benevolent gods on the left and less benevolent asuras on the right. There is a giant serpent in each row, being carried and pulled along by the row’s statues. You will notice that some of the statues’ heads are missing, as they have been stolen.

The gate itself is a massive archway, with towers decorated by four smiling faces facing in cardinal directions. From here a pathway leads straight to Bayon temple — at the heart of Angkor Thom.

south gate of angkor thom

Bayon Temple

Located right at the heart of Angkor Thom, Bayon is the state temple of King Jayavarman VII, an unusual devotee of Buddhism, who identified himself as a “god-king”. It’s a temple with highly religious symbolism, primarily built as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine, dedicated to the Buddha.

The temple’s most distinctive feature is its many towers, each bearing four (though sometimes only two or three) huge enigmatic stone faces, gazing out with a smile in cardinal directions. These faces are believed to represent the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara as personified by Jayavarman VII.

buddha face

The temple features many wonderful bas-reliefs (sculptures in which figures project slightly from the background). These depict scenes from daily life, battles and other historical events. The best-known are at the eastern section of the south gallery, and depict a battle between the Khmers and the Chams, along with other interesting images from everyday life in the 12th century.

How much time you spend viewing the bas-reliefs depends on you. We recommend first-timers to visit the eastern section of the south gallery, and the southern section of the east gallery; together these create a convenient and interesting short detour.

Save most of your time for an exploration of the inner temple’s architecture. The complexity of the inner enclosure allows surprising glimpses of the stone faces when you look out from inside. Early morning and late afternoon may be good for photography: the light is such that you may have unusual and unexpected views of the faces.

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Elephant Terrace

This terrace, more than 300 meters long, is named after the elephant-carvings on its eastern face. Stretching from the entrance of Bayon to the connecting Leper King Terrace, the Elephant Terrace was built by King Jayavarman VII as a platform from which to inspect the royal army and other parades.

The Elephant Terrace has three main platforms and two smaller ones. The entire terrace is elaborately decorated with life-sized sculptures, such as three elephants with their trunks pulling lotuses from the ground, elephants in a procession with their mahouts, alternating Garuda with raised arms (the mount of Vishnu). Images of lion-headed figures, serpents and horses can also be found on the terrace.

Leper King Terrace

The Leper King Terrace is north of the Elephant Terrace. The name “Leper King” comes from a king who had leprosy. This small platform was built in the late 12th century and probably used for royal cremations. The terrace is marked by two walls, both decorated with powerful carvings, such as seated male figures clasping swords, attendant devatas (deities) and five-headed serpents.

leper king terrace

Ta Prohm

This is the well-known jungle temple that appears in the movie Tomb Raider. Perhaps the most mysterious structure at Angkor, the temple is in a state of disrepair, with trees interlaced among the ruins, helping to create the enigmatic atmosphere.

The temple was built as a Buddhist monastery during the reign of King Jayavarman VII, to transfer merit to the king’s mother. Its main deity Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom, was carved in her likeness.

The French organization entrusted with restoration has elected to preserve the site in its existing collapsed condition. Much work still needs to be done to prevent further collapse and retain the atmosphere experienced by early explorers. It can be visited at any time of day, but looks particularly peaceful in the early morning.

ta prohm temple
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Banteay Srei

The remarkable Banteay Srei is located about 20 kilometers north of Angkor. Considered to be the jewel in the crown of Khmer art, the temple was built largely of pink sandstone, with exquisitely detailed carvings depicting Hindu mythology.

Unlike other major monuments in Angkor, Banteay Srei is not a royal temple. It was built by a priest, one of King Rajendravarman’s counselors, in the second half of the 10th century. The buildings here are of miniature proportions, meaning that the details of lintels, pediments and roof decorations are easy to see at eye-level, in contrast to most temples where they are too high to view clearly.

banteay srei

The glowing pink sandstone is attractive in itself, let alone the delicate decorations, especially in the early morning and mid-afternoon, providing good photo-shoot opportunities.

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