Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is rated the world’s number 1 site to visit by Lonely Planet. It has also been at the top of my travel bucket list since I first started the list. The famous view of Angkor Wat is recognisable to many, although what most people perhaps do not realise is that Angkor Wat is only one temple amongst over 1,000 in the Angkor area. Thus a visit here actually involves far more than just Angkor Wat alone!
Angkor was the Capital city of the Khmer Empire between the 9th – 15th centuries. During that time it was the largest pre-industiral city in the world, believed to have housed up to a million inhabitants. Over 1,000 temples were built in this area, ranging in size from what are now simple piles of brick rubble to the most famous landmark in Cambodia – Angkor Wat. A number of the temples here have been restored, and the area now houses the greatest site of Khmer architecture. Even if the history of the site doesn’t particularly interest you, I dare anyone to visit this location and not leave feeling amazed.
As I have already mentioned, Angkor Wat is, for many, the only known temple of this site. At 402 acres it is the largest religious monument in the world, and is truly spectacular. Built in the early 12th century it was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to Buddhism at the end of the 12th century. Unsurprisingly, it is absolutely swarming with tourists from opening to close. It’s actually possible to do an early morning trip to view the temple at sunrise, but unfortunately the weather forecast was so bad when we were there that we decided against it. (Something new for my bucket list!) For me, reaching this temple gave me the same feeling as viewing the Colosseum in Rome for the very first time. It’s such a famous historical site, and as an Ancient Historian those always make me excited! To view something you have thought of for so long, and for it not only to live up to those expectations but to exceed them is one of the most amazing things ever. This was quite possibly one of the best days of my entire summer.
Since there are such a huge number of temples at Angkor seeing even a small percentage of them is impossible. Personally I would recommend aiming to see five at the most, as this allows you enough time to explore the temples properly, but without getting too sick of them! The number one choice is, pretty obviously, Angkor Wat!
My second recommendation would be Ta Prohm, which is also referred to as the Indiana Jones Temple. The temple was built in the late 12th and early 13th century as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, and is one of the few temples in the complex that has been left virtually untouched from the way that it was first found. The atmosphere created by the overgrown nature of the temple has made it incredibly popular, and is in fact one of the most visited temples in the complex. Walking around here was a strange mix of amazement and continuous goosebumps. In some ways this temple truly does feel as though it’s a film set rather than a real religious site, I half expected to see Harrison Ford running out of the jungle at any moment! Although Angkor Wat was truly spectacular, I think that this may have actually have been my favourite temple out of the ones we visited.
I would then recommend going to see Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was the last capital city built during the Khmer Empire in the late 12th century. Along with the Bayon temple (which I’ll mention later) it is particularly famous for the towers each decorated with four huge faces. They are stunning to see, and when up close to them you realise how incredibly detailed they actually are. Entering the site itself is equally as impressive, as the causeway of the South Gate is flanked by 54 gods and 54 demons, apparently depicting a popular Hindu legend ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.’ For us this site was made even better by the procession of elephants we passed!
My fourth and final recommendation is Bayon temple. Like Angkor Thom this temple is famous for its huge stone faces, although here there are over 200 facing in every direction! Historians aren’t entirely sure who is depicted in these faces, although it is speculated that it may be King Jayavarman VII – the ruler who built both Angkor Thom and Bayon temple, or perhaps a mixture of the ruler and Buddha. Bayon was also built in the 12th century as part of the King’s expansion of his capital Angkor Thom and the Bayon can be found at the exact centre of the city. Like Angkor Wat this site is absolutely swarming with tourists trying to get the perfect photo. It’s also incredibly easy to get lost within the complex and trying to locate the rest of your group is surprisingly difficult – as I personally learnt! But there’s something spine tingling about this site, and I am so pleased that we decided to see one more site before we headed home for the day.
Well there you have it, my top four recommendations for the Angkor complex! Admittedly I only saw the four temples mentioned in this post, but we found that more than enough for one day. You can get a two day pass for the site but personally I think that for many that may be a bit too long visiting temples! This was one of the best days of my entire trip, and is somewhere I think everyone should try and visit at least once in their lives. Lonely Planet is definitely on to something listing it as the number one place to visit in the world!
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again- to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.” Pico Iyer