The most famous and most visited attraction in Siem Reap is definitely Angkor Wat, once the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
The site is located just a few miles away from the city, and it is huge. The first temple you will encounter is Angkor Wat; then, right behind Angkor Wat, you can find Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer empire. Inside its walls, there are many different temples such as Bayon. Just a few minutes away towards east, you will find Ta Phrom, where nature is reclaiming back its supremacy.
Besides the temples, there are two other popular attractions, both away from the crowds of the city, and unique in their own way: The floating village of Kampong Phluk, entirely made of stilt houses, and the bird sanctuary of Prek Toal, home to an incredible number of water birds.
Angkor Wat - heaven on earth
Angkor Wat (Capital Temple) is the largest religious monument in the world, a huge complex on a site of 160 hectares. It is just 15 minutes away from Siem Reap, and it is extremely easy to reach.
Built during the 12th century under the Khmer Empire, it was originally a Hindu temple, and it gradually became a Buddhist one.
The site is surrounded by a moat and gorgeous forests, and it is a combination of temple mountains and concentric galleries. The site is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology.
Angkor Wat is famous for its amazing Khmer architecture, the detailed bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology, and the many devata (little statues depicting deities) sculpted on its walls.
You can visit Angkor Wat all year round. The best weather conditions are during dry season, from November to January, when the temperatures are not too high, and the chances of rain are low.
Angkor Thom - the last capital
Located on the west bank of the Siem Reap river, Angkor Thom (Great City) was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. It was built after Angkor Wat (at the end of the 12th century), and it covers an area of 9 km2. It was converted into a Buddhist temple in the 15th century.
The entrances are decorated with face towers, and most of the buildings are built with laterite. The most popular attractions are:
- South Gate: The bridge in front of the gate is decorated with 64 huge statues, each one with a different facial expression.
- Baphuon: A three-tiered temple mountain, dedicated to Shiva (the supreme being in Hinduism). With its tower included, the temple is 50m high; the view from the top is amazing.
- Terrace of the Elephants: The terrace was used by king Jayavarman II to admire his returning army. Most of the structure was made of organic material. The name comes from the carvings on the eastern face of the terrace.
- Terrace of the Leper King: The name derives from a sculpture of Yama, the Hindu god of death (now replaced by a replica). The statue was covered in moss, reminding viewers of a person affected by leprosy.
Bayon Temple - the face towers
The Bayon Temple (Victory Mountain) is the heart of Angkor Thom. Built in the early 13th century, it was later modified by Hindu and Buddhist kings.
Bayon is a temple with plenty of different elements compressed together, with little space inbetween.
Its main features are the big smiling stone faces on the 37 towers on the upper terrace and around the central peak. The bas-reliefs are impressive as well; they depict a combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes.
Ta Prohm Temple - temple in the jungle
Perhaps the most evocative and mysterious of all the temples. It was built in the Bayon style, during the 13th century, to serve as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university.
Ta Prohm is still in the same condition in which it was found: The silk-cotton trees are growing everywhere; the forest is finding its way through the ruins. This fascinating setting makes Ta Prohm the most visited of the temples.
The site is a typical flat Khmer temple. There is a central sanctuary enclosed by five rectangular walls (the three inner ones are galleried), and each cardinal point has its own gopura (entrance building).
Ta Prohm was once home to more than 12,500 people, and it used to amass many treasures. The expansion of the site continued until the 15th century, when the Khmer Empire fell; after that, the temple was abandoned and neglected for centuries.
The temple is also famous because it was the location for a few scenes of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Banteay Srei - the citadel of women
The site is 25km away from the main group of temples, and is known for its exquisitely detailed carvings in pink sandstone. Its buildings are pretty small by Angkorian standards.
Banteay Srei is the only temple not built by a monarch, but by two courtiers under king Rajendravarman II (around 960 AD).
Its modern name means Citadel of Women and it probably refers to the complex bas-reliefs. The red sandstone used to build the temples can be carved like wood.
Carvings cover almost every possible surface. Pay attention to:
- the Pediments (triangular spaces above doorways), depicting scenes from mythological tales;
- the Lintels (horizontal block between two vertical supports), all beautifully carved, representing a pinnacle of the Khmer art.
Rolous Group - the earliest temples
The temples of this group are some of the earliest temples built in the Angkor Region (9th century). They mark the beginning of the Angkor era, as they used to form the first major capital of the Empire.
The Group comprises three temples, Bakong, Preah Ko and Lolei.
- Bakong: the oldest temple. The site consists of three enclosures, separated by two moats. The pyramid temple at the center of the site is 65m tall. Most of the bas-reliefs covering the temple are now gone.
- Preah Ko: there are six brick towers arranged in two rows. The front central tower is dedicated to Jayavarman II, the founder of the Khmer Empire; the other towers are dedicated to his father and grandfather. The rear towers are dedicated to his wives.
- Lolei: the most recent one of the three. It is placed on a small island, once surrounded by water. It was built by king Yasovarman I (9th century AD) for his ancestors. The towers are known for their decorative elements, such as false doors, lintels and devatas (a representation of a standing female deity).
The group is located about 13km away from Siem Reap.
Beng Mealea - an unknown temple
Its name means Lotus Pond; it was built as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century. It is made of sandstone and it is largely unrestored; it has been difficult to reach for many years. Like Ta Phrom, nature is swallowing the temple, with trees growing around and inside the buildings.
The history of the temple is unknown. It ranks among the largest temples in Angkor and was the center of a town that was surrounded by a large moat.
The layout of the temple is the usual one: a sanctuary (now collapsed) built at the center of three enclosing galleries. There are many carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology.
Beng Mealea is located 40km away from the main site of Angkor.
Kompong Phluk - The floating village
On the big lake of Tonle Sap, you will find something amazing. The floating village of Kompong Phluk represents a special opportunity to experience a unique lifestyle. The entirety of the village is built on stilt houses, its inhabitants rely on fishing to make a living, and every daily activity requires a boat.
Kompong Phluk is still untouched by tourism. The village is surrounded by a gorgeous mangrove forest, home to varied wildlife. From Siem Reap, it is easy to reach the village: just rent a tuk tuk or a private car to reach the ticket booth, and then transfer to a boat.
The best time to visit Kompong Phluk is during rainy season, when the water level covers the wooden structure supporting the houses.
Prek Toal Bird Sanctuary - paradise for birdwatching
The sanctuary is located within the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve. It presents a rich biodiversity, and it is home to many water birds such as painted storks, spot-billed pelicans, black-headed ibis.
You can spend the night in one of the hotels inside the park. Part of the entrance fees go toward promoting responsible travel.
The best time for birdwatching is early in the morning. During the peak season (December-February), the concentration of birds is impressive. After these months, the sanctuary is almost inaccessible due to low water level.
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