The Wonders of Angkor Archeological Park, Cambodia – Day 2


On our 2nd day in Angkor Archeological Park, we explored some temples that are further out from the main circuit, and therefore the crowds were thinner too. Many of these temples are in an area known as East Baray (a large ancient reservoir), on the eastern side of the Park.

Banteay Kdei. We really enjoyed this temple, and had it almost completely to ourselves. It is a late 12th century temple, and is close to Ta Prohm, both geographically and style-wise.


A perfect picture-window section of Banteay Kdei.

Parts of the temple are a jumble of blocks and other parts you wonder how they’re still standing.


It amazes me that you can walk around these parts of Banteay Kdei!

It was poorly constructed using a poor quality of sandstone, but who can complain after nearly 1,000 years.


Another view of Banteay Kdei.

East Mebon. This temple was originally a man-made island, rising up out of the middle of the ancient East Baray reservoir, which is now dry. It is a late 10th century temple, and was dedicated to Hindu god Shiva, and is somewhat similar in style to Pre Rup, below.


East Mebon. This temple’s layout makes it difficult to get a good photo.

Pre Rup. This is another huge (and tall) state temple (meaning it defined a king’s capital city) and was built in the late 10th century, just a decade later than East Mebon. It has several imposing towers, and is another “mountain in stone” like Bayon.


A view of Pre Rup.


The courtyard around Pre Rup.

Banteay Samre. This mid 12th century temple is a bit isolated, at the eastern edge of Angkor Park, and hence is one of the least visited temples in the Park.


The walls, entrance and courtyard at Banteay Samre.


The main temple structure at Banteay Samre. The similarities to Angkor Wat are evident.

Banta Samre is surrounded by a large wall and is complete, meaning there are no ruined sections as a result of a well-planned reconstruction, and it has many well-preserved carvings. We had this temple to ourselves.

Ta Som. Another of my favorite temples, in the style of Bayon, late 12th century. This temple is north of East Mebon, but makes sense to visit after Banteay Samre if you continue a counter-clockwise route from south to north. It is a small temple, with the entrances being the most picturesque parts.


The east entrance into Ta Som (note the faces in the tower behind the tree).


Inside Ta Som temple.

Neak Pean. This is a very unique small 12th century structure, located on a island, with eight pools surrounding it. For part of the year the pools are dry.


Neak Pean temple.


The marshy reservoir surrounding the island temple of Neak Pean.

The waters were thought to have healing properties. You walk out on a boardwalk across a strange looking shallow reservoir to get to the temple on the island.

Preah Khan. Another great, romantic late 12th century temple. From an interest standpoint, I would put it in the same class as Ta Prohm (See Day 1 post).


Exterior view of Preah Khan.

This is a large temple, with many different courtyards, and was the residence of King Jayavarman VII while his palace was being constructed in Angkor Thom.


View of carving detail at Preah Khan.


Interior hallway at Preah Khan.


This structure at Preah Khan is unusual, having round columns. It may have been constructed at a later date.

Photo-wise, Preah Khan is interesting from multiple angles, with tree roots, vines and tumbled stone everywhere.

Beng Melea. Technically we visited Beng Melea on Day 3, but who is counting! This is an early 11th century temple, about 60 km southeast of Siem Reap. We hired a taxi for the round trip, and it cost about $50 USD. I had thought that since we were going so far out of Siem Reap, it would be pretty quiet. However, this temple is now on the tourist map, and there were a number of smaller tour buses here. Even so, it is still very worthwhile.


A view of Beng Melea. Much of the structure is ruined, giving it an “undiscovered” feel.


A part of Beng Melea that we had to ourselves.

Being on our own, my son and I were able to visit parts of the temple that the tour groups ignore (or don’t know about).


A section of wall at Beng Melea.


Another secluded part of Beng Melea.

Although hard to tell, this temple is in the style of Angkor Wat, and since it was constructed prior to Angkor Wat, it may have served as a prototype for that great structure.

Angkor Archeological Park and the surrounding area can mesmerize the tourist for days. If you get a chance, visit this astounding cultural and architectural gem.



The Wonders of Angkor Archeological Park, Cambodia – Day 1

After getting settled in Siem Reap our first night, we were ready the next morning to hit the ground running and see the magnificent temples of Angkor Archeological Park. It is helpful to have a good map of the main temples when reviewing the post below and preparing for a visit. I thought the map referenced here was excellent. Listed below are the sights we visited on the first day:

The Royal City of Angkor Thom (Big Angkor).

Angkor Thom covers a large area (3 km2) and contains many interesting structures and is second only to Angkor Wat in terms of priority to visit. It is just north of Angkor Wat and as I suggest below, bypass Angkor Wat (for now) and head directly to Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom was a walled and moated royal city, the last capital of the Angkor Empire. Most of the buildings date from the late 12th century to the early 13th century. You can spend much of the day just exploring the structures here:

Bayon. One of the most famous temples in Angkor Thom. Its configuration represents a stone mountain and it served as the state temple of King Jayavarman VII.


A view of Bayon Temple.


One of my favorite views of the towers at Bayon temple.


A passageway at Bayon.

There are 37 existing towers (out of 49 originally), most of which are carved with 4 faces, or in some cases 2 or 3 faces.


A closeup of the faces at Bayon.

It underwent several renovations under later kings.

Terrace of the Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. The Elephant Terrace is 300 meters long and dates from the 12th century. It derives its name from the carved elephants on part of the walls. It fronts the Baphoun Temple and provides the backdrop for an impressive Royal City thoroughfare.


The Terrace of the Elephants.


The elephants from which the terrace derives its name.

The Terrace of the Leper King is just north of the Terrace of the Elephants and contains intricate carvings, many found on a hidden double wall that was just excavated in the late 1990’s.


A close-up of the double wall at the Terrace of the Leper King.


Close up of a carving at the Terrace of the Leper King.

Just east of these terraces are other small towers lined up in a row whose purpose is not clear. To the west of these terraces are the following temples:

Baphuon. Another state temple, and an earlier (mid 11th century) construction than Bayon. This pyramid temple underwent major restoration and rebuilding over almost a 40 year period.


A view of Baphuon and the causeway leading up to the temple.

The restoration was interrupted during the Khmer Rouge dictatorship years in the 1970’s, and records regarding the restoration were unfortunately lost, leaving a huge pile of blocks!


A view from the top of Baphuon.

Phimeanakas. Close to Baphuon, this pyramid temple dates to the mid 10th century, and sits on the site of the Royal Palace, which no longer stands. However, there are enough remnants including walls, gates and pools to give an idea of the grandeur of the palace grounds.


Phimeanakas Temple



A view of a gate, wall and pool on the Royal Palace grounds near Phimeanakas.

Outside of Angkor Thom.

Just to the east of Angkor Thom are two small but well restored temples, both similar in style to Angkor Wat. Both temples have Hindu and Buddhist themes in their carvings. They also look very similar to each other, but were actually built in different periods. The best news is that they don’t receive a lot of visitors, so they make a peaceful and pleasant stop and a good place to get photos without crowds.

Thommanom. This is the older temple of the two. Built in the 11th century.


Thommanom Temple

Chau Say Thevoda (or Chao Say Tevoda). Directly opposite of Thommanom on the south side of the road leading out of Angkor Thom. From the 12th century.


Chau Say Thevoda Temple.

Ta Keo. Ta Keo is just a bit further east of the two temples above, and different in style from the examples above. Ta Keo was constructed out of sandstone and very plain, without much decoration. It is an older temple, originating in the late 10th century.


Ta Keo Temple–the red sandstone is apparent.

Ta Prohm. Perhaps the most romantic and mysterious temple in the Angkor area, and definitely one of the most famous, having been a filming location for the movie Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie.


Entrance to Ta Prohm.


The famous “Tomb Raider” door.


A panorama of the interior courtyard of Ta Prohm.

This temple has purposely been left more or less in its natural ruined state to show what the temples looked like during their rediscovery in the 19th century.


Another personal favorite view of Ta Prohm.


One more view of Ta Prohm. Almost every inch of this temple is a postcard image.

Ta Prohm was built between the mid 12th century and early 13th century. It was a Buddhist monastery, and a very wealthy one at that – controlling 3000 villages and known for its stores of jewelry and gold. Definitely a must-do on any itinerary. Hint: Ta Som, a temple we visited on our 2nd day (my next post), was almost as stunning and far less busy.

Angkor Wat. The granddaddy of them all and the world’s largest religious monument. We saved a visit to this temple until the afternoon and we were glad we did for two reasons: a) Fewer tourists. Since this is the first temple one comes to after the ticket entrance, most tours stop here first. We came back in the afternoon, and while there were still some tourists, there were no where near the crowds we saw in the morning. b) The view. The typical morning haze and clouds in this region dissipate by the afternoon, and we were left with a glorious temple bathed in perfectly positioned afternoon sunshine.


A perfectly blue sky in the afternoon at Angkor Wat.


A panorama of Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat was a temple-mountain dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. It dates from about mid 12th century. The towers are 65 meters high and it has an unusual western orientation (rather than eastern, as most other temples in Angkor).


One of the courtyard and towers of Angkor Wat.


A worship service at Angkor Wat.

Its large moat, enclosures and towers represent the Hindu universe. One could spend days exploring all the carvings and symbolism of this magnificent temple.


A view from the southeast corner of the Angkor Wat temple – almost no one goes out here.

Phnom Bakheng. The last temple we visited on our first day is pretty close to Angkor Wat, and required a 20 minute hike up the hill on which it is located. The temple itself is difficult to get a picture of, due to its orientation on the hill–it’s hard to step back and get a good view, and we found it a bit less impressive than the others.


Phnom Bakheng temple.


A view of Angkor Wat from the Phnom Bakheng temple.

The main reason for climbing the hill (and then climbing up the temple) is for the views overlooking the whole Angkor area and especially Angkor Wat. Many people (like us) make the hike up in the afternoon or right before sunset for the views. This temple is the oldest at Angkor, dating from the late 9th century and was the first state temple as Angkor became the capital city of the Khmer Empire. This temple is also undergoing restoration work.

More to come in my next post!


A Visit to Siem Reap, Cambodia – Overview

There aren’t a lot of words that can really describe the feeling of being at the world renown Angkor temple complex near Siem Reap. For me, being at Angkor Wat (featured image above) and the surrounding temples was the equivalent of seeing the pyramids of Egypt for the first time—I guess “awestruck” would be the best word I can come up with.


The entrance to Ta Som temple, one of the most picturesque in Angkor.

These temples and the surrounding landscape are stunning in every sense of the word, the jungle growth surrounding (and covering) them just adds to their allure. In addition to the temples, there are reservoirs, canals and other interesting features of what was an incredible capital city. Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire (which covered parts of modern Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) for about 500 years, from the 9th century to the 12th century. Considering how magnificent the ruins are today, one can only imagine how palatial the city must have been almost a thousand years ago.

We arrived in Siem Reap in late afternoon after a 7-hour bus ride from Phnom Penh. The bus dropped us off at a central point and then the bus company provided taxis to take us to our various hotels. Siem Reap was larger than I expected, for some reason I was thinking it might be a fairly small town on the outskirts of the Angkor temple complex for which it is known. There is a fairly small central core old town where most of the tourists and related services are located.


One of our meals in Siem Reap – with crocodile and other meats and fish (crocodile tasted like a fishy pork).


You can get yourself a “happiness pizza” in some towns in Cambodia – a pizza that has a little marijuana in it!

Speaking of tourists, Siem Reap is definitely a major tourist hub with a modern small airport, and the town seemed overrun (at night) with tourists compared with Phnom Penh. We visited during the height of tourist season, since the weather is at its best in January.


One of the main streets (Pub Street) at night in Siem Reap.

Even with all the tourists, we were able to see everything we had planned on during our 2 ½ days. It would be easy to spend a week here, since there are numerous temple ruins all over the region, not just in Siem Reap. My son and I visited one distant temple ruin (Beng Melea) which was about 60 km from Siem Reap on our 3rd day (we hired a taxi), while my wife and daughter visited a local museum and did some shopping.


The ruins of Beng Melea temple – fewer visitors here and we were able to wander around uninhibited.

Admittedly, some people might get “temple fatigue” after a day or two, but that wasn’t a problem for us!

The ticket entrance to the Angkor temple complex is about 4 km (2.5 miles) north of the city, and the temples are located another couple kilometers beyond the entrance.


The busy South Gate entrance into the Angkor Thom Temple complex, which is 1.5km north of Angkor Wat (the signature temple of Angkor Archeological Park, and the featured image of this post).

There are numerous transportation options, including joining a tour, getting a taxi, renting bicycles, mopeds, or doing as we did and hiring a tuk tuk that had room for 4 people. Since the terrain in this part of Cambodia is very flat, getting around on a bicycle or moped would not be difficult; however, the distances from the town to the temples and from temple to temple are significant enough that I would rather enjoy time at the sites.

Our tuk tuk (in our case a motorcycle pulling a cart) was $20 for the whole day.


Our tuk tuk. The driver put up a hammock to rest while we toured.

We just pointed out on the map the temples we wanted to visit that day and our driver took us on a route to cover those temples. This was a great way to go, we could visit the temples on our own terms rather than having to be with a larger tour.

Practical Considerations:

Our hotel was within walking distance of the old part of the city where many restaurants, shopping bazaars and nightlife keep tourists occupied in the evenings. There is even a Hard Rock Café in town. Lots of variety of food is available, and many small tourist agencies which can arrange transportation or day trips to nearby locations also. Hotel accommodations vary from grand, large hotels to small boutiques.

The Angkor temple complex is huge, and we spent two days exploring it. We typically started at 8 am. The temples are open very early, but we found late afternoon also worked well for avoiding the peak crowds that come in around 10 am and leave around 2 pm. If you have just one day you can realistically visit 6 or 7 temples, and get a pretty good feel, but you probably won’t get to experience the quieter temples that are further off the beaten path (we visited 17 temples in 2 ½ days!). A pass for the Angkor temple complex is $40 USD for 3 days in a 7-day period, and most temples will require you to show your pass, so don’t lose it! There are lots of small vendors around the main temples to buy water and snacks.

In my next couple of posts, I will share more about the temples we visited each day.


A Day in Phnom Penh: A Bustling City with a Dark Past

From Krabi, Thailand we flew (via Bangkok) to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Although many tourists head straight to Siem Reap to visit the ancient Angkor temple ruins and completely bypass Phnom Penh, we took an extra day to see this interesting city. I had heard about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge when I was a child and our visit allowed us to learn more about what had happened. More below on this.

As we talked with our taxi driver from the airport to the hotel, we ended up arranging with him to give us a tour of Phnom Penh for $15 per person, which we felt was reasonable to take the four of us around all day.

Our overall impression of Phnom Penh was that it is a little less wealthy than Bangkok and definitely less clean.


My daughter, son and wife enjoying a typical street scene in Phnom Penh.

Royal Palace

One of the major attractions in Phnom Penh is the Royal Palace, not unlike the Royal Palace in Bangkok, but a little less ostentatious in décor.


Part of the beautifully landscaped Royal Palace.


Another view of the Royal Palace grounds.


An emerald Buddha in the Royal Palace.

It was also fun to just wander the streets a bit. We went into a large covered market that had about anything you can imagine.


I wonder what kind of animal had the nice long tail, hanging in front of the counter?


More delights available in the market!

We enjoyed Cambodian cuisine – many curry and seafood dishes, along with other oriental delights.


One of our meals in Phnom Penh.

We even tried fried tarantula (yuck)! All kinds of insects and other creatures were available for adventurous snacking.


A nice street food pile of big spiders and beetles.


The Wat Phnom, a famous temple in Phnom Penh.


Inside the Wat Phnom.

In addition to various temples and the Royal Palace, the other primary sights relate to the tragic period of the Khmer Rouge regime (during which time Cambodia was known as Democratic Kampuchea) which lasted from 1975 to 1979. About 25% of Cambodia’s population perished during this period and many people were kicked out of their homes and relocated to other parts of the country.

The Khmer Rouge targeted anyone who was educated, especially those who might be sympathetic to Western values or beliefs, or anyone who was well-off economically. As a sign of how absurd things became, anyone who wore glasses was thought to be an intellectual and therefore an enemy of the state. So many people with poor eyesight got rid of their glasses. Undoubtedly many of the brightest minds in Cambodia perished during this period. I am old enough to remember hearing about the Khmer Rouge on the news and about the terrible atrocities. It was a bit surreal being here, where so much suffering had taken place.

Tuol Sleng Museum

Tuol Sleng prison, now a museum, was created from what was a high school. It was the most secretive of the country’s 196 prisons.


Exterior view of the Tuol Sleng Prison, now a museum.

Most of the prisoners taken to this prison were accused of fictitious acts of treason, such as collaborating with foreign governments or spying for the CIA or KGB.


Photos of some of the unfortunate victims at Tuol Sleng prison.


An interrogation cell with shackles.


Prisoner rules.

Typically, the entire family would be imprisoned. Most often, prisoners had no knowledge of the charges against them when arrested, but they were tortured until they confessed to whatever crimes they had been accused of. They were then marked for execution. At least 12,273 prisoners (and possibly many more) passed through this prison and only about 200 survived.


Cells at Tuol Sleng prison–in an area that used to be classrooms.


Some of the torture instruments used on the prisoners.


My son and I with Mr. Chum Mey, a survivor of Tuol Sleng prison.

Eventually, the Khmer Rouge regime was ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979 after about four years of absolute hell. This museum is well done, with explanations posted throughout the site.

Choeung Ek Genocidal Center (Killing Fields)

This outdoor museum is another “must do” in Phnom Penh. It is located 15 kilometers (about 9 miles) south of the heart of the city (the drive out to the site is interesting in itself).


Homes along a waterway (covered in foliage) on our way out to the Killing Fields.


The dusty road out to the Killing Fields museum.


Entrance to the Choeung Ek Museum or Genocidal Center.

This site is where many of the prisoners of the Khmer Rouge were brought to be slaughtered and buried in open pits.


In the foreground are the burial pits. The tall structure contains neatly arranged skulls of many of the victims.


In the tall pagoda-like structure, the victims’ skulls are arranged by how they were murdered – axe, hammers, rods, etc.

There is a marked path with explanation signs and also a good audio guide available to explain what happened here.


As the sign says, babies were bashed against this tree trunk.

To say the least, it was a very somber experience, but well worth the visit to understand what the Cambodian people have suffered in their fairly recent past.

Even today, as you walk among the burial pits, it is not uncommon to find bits of clothing and bone.


The sign says “Don’t step on bone”. Bits of clothing of the victims is visible in the lower right.


A bin stacked with bones from excavations.

We enjoyed our day in Phnom Penh. It was a very worthwhile stop on our journey. From Phnom Penh we went on to Siem Reap, home of the world famous Angkor temples, including Angkor Wat. I will write about these magnificent temples in my next couple of posts.

Note: During our day excursion, our taxi driver stopped by a tourist agency, and we arranged bus transportation for the following day to go to Siem Reap. The cost was $15 per person for a decent bus to take us on the approximately 6-hour drive to Siem Reap. While you can also fly there, it was fun to drive through and see the countryside. Beware: Part of the road to Siem Reap is unpaved and VERY dusty. Our suitcases (in the lower storage area), were coated with fine dust by the end of our journey. You may want to consider wrapping your bag in cellophane before placing it in the storage area!

 Also, although Cambodia has its own currency, the US dollar is widely accepted and many prices are quoted in US dollars, so take plenty of small bills. If you pay in US dollars at a store, you will get Cambodian currency in return. These transactions make many prices more expensive than Thailand, although prices are still relatively cheap by U.S. standards.