Inside Vietnam: Cambodia Laos

The temples of Angkor

Rescued from the clinging grip of the enveloping jungle, the vast and ancient temple complex of Angkor is truly one of the world's great sights.

The many jungle-clad temples of Angkor are truly one of the most fantastic man-made sights on the planet, on a par with the Pyramids or Machu Picchu for their sense of sheer jaw-dropping wonder. Seeing the sunrise over the world's largest religious complexes, Angkor Wat; feeling the gaze of countless stone faces watching you at Bayon Temple; clambering around the jungle ruins of the 'Tomb Raider Temple', Ta Prohm - these are all magical, unforgettable experiences.

Angkor was once the seat of the ancient Khmer Empire, a huge city home to one million people. The temples themselves were built by the Khmer 'god-kings': blending tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism to represent heaven on earth, they are the ultimate expression of creative vision and spiritual devotion. 

Angkor Wat

The most celebrated of the Angkor temples is Angkor Wat, the image that features at the centre of the Cambodian national flag. Built during the reign of King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century, Angkor Wat was based on the model of the temple-mountain and symbolises Mount Meru, home of the gods.

Construction is thought to have taken around thirty years of intensive labour. Inside the temple the walls are covered with ornate stone carvings and bas-reliefs depicting Hindu mythology and the wars Suryavarman II fought during his reign.

Awaiting sunrise over Angkor Wat has become something of a ritual for the tourist crowds, and though this is an excellent opportunity to capture the image of the temple reflected in the lotus pool, the atmosphere of the occasion can be impaired by the sheer number of other people sharing the moment with you. If you are keen to experience the temples at first light, we suggest asking your guide for their recommendation - the great majority of people stick to the west entrance of Angkor Wat, meaning you have the rest of the complex pretty much to yourself. Ta Prohm, Bayon, or even the east side of Angkor Wat provide a more atmospheric option.

As the closest of the main temples to Siem Reap, Angkor Wat features first on most itineraries, meaning it can be quieter in the late afternoon, when the light is at its finest. Please note that shoulders and knees must be covered to enter the central tower, and sturdy footwear with decent grip is recommended as steps are steep.

Angkor Thom

Just north of Angkor Wat is Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Great Khmer Empire under the reign of King Jayavarman VII. This once-great city is surrounded by an eight-metre-high wall arranged in a perfect square, each side four kilometres long. Entrance to the city is through one of its ancient stone gates, each carved with elephants and four giant faces.

Bayon Temple

At the centre of Angkor Thom is Bayon Temple. This 12th century masterpiece is a study in grandeur. The exterior gallery walls have extensive, superb bas-reliefs, particularly the East and South Galleries. The latter depicts a battle procession featuring warriors, musicians, elephants and scenes of everyday life on the road, while the east gallery portrays the battle fought in 1177 between the Khmers and the Chams in southern Vietnam. The Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King are also must-visits for their intricate bas-reliefs.

For those seeking a little solitude, a walk or cycle along the top of the outer walls from the busy south gate to the rarely-visited east gate provides a remarkable sense of discovery. Please note that the top of the walls are uneven and rutted with tree-roots, so please be adequately prepared with appropriate footwear, and take plenty of water as it will be hot at any time of year.

When to go:

The temples of Angkor

located in Siem Reap

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