Best Angkor Temples to visit
Best Angkor Temples to visit
The temples of Angkor are Cambodia’s crown jewels and have elevated the destination to one of Southeast Asia’s superstars. The Angkor Archaeological Park covers 400km2 of UNESCO-protected forest that was home to the numerous capitals of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th century. In this blog, we have picked out which we think are the best Angkor temples to visit in several categories, based on our personal experiences and opinions. Rather than including the largest and most popular temples, such as the impressive and unmissable Angkor Wat, we have selected our Top 10 lesser-known and more unusual temples, where you can appreciate the wonders of Angkor in a more peaceful atmosphere.
Best remote Angkor Temples
- Phnom Kulen
As the birthplace of the Khmer Empire, Phnom Kulen has a major symbolic importance for Cambodians. It was here that Jayavarman II proclaimed independence from Java in 802, setting the stage for the glories, and majestic structures, of the Angkor-era. For years, the scale of Phnom Kulen remained a mystery until aerial LIDAR data in 2013 revealed a much bigger urban settlement than was previously realized. The mountain plateau is home to a collection of remote, stunning jungle sites best explored on the back of a motorcycle. Its ‘lost city’ atmosphere makes it an exciting temple complex to visit for those looking to release their inner Indiana Jones or Lara Croft.
- Koh Ker
Two hours northeast of Siem Reap, and thirty minutes from Beng Mealea, you will find the remote Angkor capital of Koh Ker. The history of Cambodia is riven with dynastic spats and political intrigue and one of the most memorable came in the 10th century when Jayavarman IV (928-942) fell out with his family, stormed off to the northwest and established the rival capital of Koh Ker. Although the capital for just 15 years, Jayavarman IV was determined to legitimise his rule through a prolific building programme that left a legacy of 30 major temples and some gargantuan sculpture that is on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. There are a number of interesting ruins at Koh Ker but the main attraction here has to be the huge step pyramid that sits majestically surrounded by tropical forest. For the ultimate remote temples experience Koh Ker combines well with a visit to Preah Vihear.
- Roluos Temples
The last remains of Hariharalaya, one of the earliest capitals of the Angkor era, the Roluos Temples are located outside the main Angkor Park, close to the small town of Roluos. Dating all the way back to the 9th century, these temples predate Angkor Wat by several hundred years and this is the earliest Angkor site accessible to visitors. The three main temples - the original ‘temple mountain’ Bakong, Preah Ko with its beautiful bull statues, and the island temple Loeli - are very well-preserved and offer a wonderfully peaceful contrast to the more popular temples in the main complex. We love visiting Roluos to get away from the crowds in the increasingly busy town of Siem Reap. While in the area, we highly recommend including a stop at Sala Roluos for a delicious lunch or to partake in a unique cooking class to learn some of the culinary secrets of rural Cambodia.
- Kbal Spean
Easily accessible from Siem Reap, but with a real feeling of being deep in the Cambodian jungle, are the splendid river carvings of Kbal Spean. This is one of our favourite remote temples to visit around Angkor as it involves a short jungle trek where you can look out for wildlife and pass interesting foliage and big boulder formations. When you reach the river, you find a riot of ancient carvings in the limestone river bed, mostly Hindu deities, as well as phallic fertility symbols. A visit to Kbal Spean combines well with Banteay Srei, with its magnificent sculptures, and features in a number of our itineraries, including Land of Apsaras, Cambodia in Style and The Grand Tour of Cambodia.
Best Angkor Temples for photography
- Ta Prohm
This beautiful temple is one of the most photographed and dramatic of the Angkor temples. Ta Prohm has been left in the same state as it was first ‘discovered’ by French explorer Henri Mouhot in 1860. The fig trees which overgrow the temple serve as a reminder that while empires rise and fall, the riotous power of nature marches on. The best time to visit is at dawn when the temple stands empty providing excellent photo opportunities amongst the tentacle-like tree roots which cover the surviving temple structures.
- Banteay Srei
Known locally as the ‘Citadel of the Women’ due to the extremely intricate carvings, considered to be too fine to have been made by the hands of a man, Banteay Srei was built in the 10th century and is the only major Angkor temple not to have been built by a king. Nevertheless, this is one of the crown jewels of the Angkor temple complex, due to the exceptionally well-preserved and staggeringly elaborate carvings. The red stone gives the whole temple a pinkish hue, and this is an excellent place to flex those photography skills with close ups of the unique carved motifs covering every surface. Banteay Srei features on many of our Cambodia tours. Wildlife lovers may like to include a visit to the Banteay Srei Butterfly Centre or see the important conservation work being done at the excellent Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, both located close by.
Best Angkor Temples for families
- The Bayon
The giant stone faces of the Bayon Temple have become synonymous with Angkor and are some of the most recognizable images connected to ancient Khmer art and architecture. We certainly never get bored of visiting them and striving for that perfect photograph. Sitting at the heart of Angkor Thom, the capital city of Jayavarman VII’s ancient Khmer empire, the Bayon has 37 standing towers, most sporting the four carved faces for which it has become renowned. A guided visit to the Bayon Temple features in most of our Cambodia tours as well as appearing in our Angkor Thom Scavanger Hunt, a interactive, family-friendly experience not to be missed if you are visiting Angkor with kids. If you are planning a family holiday to Cambodia take a look at our Laos & Cambodia for Families itinerary.
- Ta Nei
Rather like a miniature Ta Prohm, but without the crowds, Ta Nei is a temple that has been consumed by the jungle with huge twisting tree roots strangling the masonry. Measuring 55m by 47m, this petite temple is only accessible by dirt track through the jungle yet is conveniently located near the popular temples of Ta Prohm and Takeo. Built with sandstone in the reign of King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century, this is one of the more recent temples, and wall carvings remain in good condition depicting scenes of everyday life and Buddhist deities including Apsaras. The temple’s main courtyard and small library to the south is in a partially ruined state, but the two main towers and corridors running along the temple walls are intact. To explore the temple in detail you need to clamber over large sandstone blocks, which adds to the atmosphere of this lost jungle temple. With very few other visitors, and a location within walking distance of the popular Zipline Experience, we think Ta Nei is one of the most family-friendly Angkor temples to visit. You can visit Ta Nei on our Family Adventures in Cambodia tour.
- Beng Mealea
The ‘lost temple’ of Beng Mealea, around 90 minutes’ drive from Siem Reap, is an enormous edifice that has been slumbering for centuries in the forests of Cambodia. It is the most accessible of Angkor’s ‘lost temples’, a mirror image of Angkor Wat, but consumed by the voracious appetite of nature since the end of the Khmer Empire. Constructed by Suryavarman II (1113-1150), the builder of Angkor Wat, the forest has run riot here and it is hard to get a sense of the monument’s true shape amid the daunting ruins. However it is possible to enjoy an Indiana Jones experience here as you clamber over the vast ruins. Or for those who want a more gentle adventure, there is also a sturdy wooden walkway running right into the heart of the temple. If you are interested it is also possible to visit a nearby Angkor-era quarry from where stone was cut to build these massive monuments. You can visit Beng Mealea on our Highlights of Cambodia tour.
Best Angkor Temple for sunset
- Phnom Krom
Located 12km south of Siem Reap the holy temple of Phnom Krom is one of three hilltop temples built during King Yasovarman’s reign in the 9th century, with three main towers each dedicated to the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Set on a solitary hill at a height of 140m facing the open waters of Lake Tonle Sap, the temple has been weathered over the years, so unfortunately some of the detailed carvings in the sandstone structure have been eroded. Despite this we think Phnom Krom is the best Angkor Temple for sunset. From the summit of the hill there are panoramic views to the west across the flat fertile lands that lead to the vast waters of Lake Tonle Sap. Not many tourists make it out this way, so Phnom Krom is also a good place to watch sunset at Angkor and avoid the crowds. Phnom Krom can be combined with a more extensive tour of the floating villages of Lake Tonle Sap.