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