Top 10 temples to visit in Cambodia

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“Let yourself be silently drawn  by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray”- Rumi

For the longest time, my love for travel has led me to new places, interesting people, exotic foods and intensified experiences. This same passion led me to the temples of Angkor Wat and they did not disappoint! Endless corridors with intricate reliefs on the walls, dimly-lit passageways and magnificent gopuras, all topped off by tree roots insidiously spreading across temple roofs parade the might of man and nature. But how do you choose from the over thousand temples in the region?

Most of us go to Siem Reap with about 3-5 days and would like to get the best of our Angkor passes. This is why I decided to put together a guide to the temples of Cambodia, covering not only the ones in the Angkor archaeological complex itself, but also the more remote temples in far-off provinces. Here are the top ten temples in Cambodia in my opinion, with my reasoning as to why they belong in the top ten.

10) Preah Vihear

preah vihear temple
Preah Vihear Temple

Situated at the border of Thailand and Cambodia, offering a view of Thailand and Laos, the Preah Vihear temple is in the most spectacular setting of all the Angkorean temples. Constructed on five rising levels that eventually lead to the sanctuary, this temple was constructed during the reigns of Khmer kings Suryavarman I and Suryavarman II. Bullet holes on the temple walls that are an echo of the wars fought here, remind you that this was not only a place of worship, but also a battlefield. It is a slightly surreal experience and with a bit of imagination, you could almost see the Khmer rouge soldiers fighting the Vietnamese in a last desperate attempt to regain lost ground.

preah vihear temple
Clockwise (L to R) – View from the Top, Lord Krishna fighting Kaliya, Churning of the Sea of Milk

9) Roluos Group

bakongtemple
Bakong Temple

The Roluos temple group, consisting of three temples- Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei dates back to the late ninth century. These are some of the earliest Angkorean temples constructed. As such, they will provide you with a frame of reference for the evolution of the architectural style. The Roluos temples are much simpler than later ones like Angkor Wat and Bayon; this is logical, given that each king was trying to out-do the accomplishments of the previous ones. My suggestion would be to visit Preah Ko and Bakong (the first important temple mountain) and skip the Lolei temple. This should give you a good idea of the style of the time.

ruluos temple
Clockwise (L to R) – Bas-reflief of Asuras losing a battle (Bakong), Inscription dedicated to Paramesvara, Preah Ko Temple

8) Baphuon

The Baphuon Temple
The Baphuon Temple

This enormous temple-mountain in Angkor Thom, built in the middle of the 11th century is quite impressive despite its somewhat ruined state. It has bas-reliefs in small individual panels, rather like a comic book, which is a contrast to the long carved walls you will see in Angkor Wat and Bayon. Walk around the pyramid to see the unfinished outline of a giant reclining Buddha.

baphuon temple
Clockwise (L to R) – Free standing door atop The Baphuon, Bas-relief detailing scenes from the Mahabharatha (including the Death of Bheeshma – Top panel)

7) Koh Ker

prangku temple
Prasat Prang Ku

Koh Ker, called Lingapura in ancient times, is about 120 km from Siem Reap and is worth the drive solely because you will finally experience a real jungle temple in relative isolation. As you visit the temples, you will also feel a chill down your spine. There are signs warning you to stay away from the areas that have not yet been de-mined. Inside the Koh-Ker complex, you can see a few different sanctuaries. Prasat Thom is one of the main temple sanctuaries. Prasat Prang Ku is the seven-tiered pyramid you can see and climb and is a bit reminiscent of Chichen Itza in Mexico.  Behind the pyramid is the tomb of the white elephant, which could be the foundation of a second pyramid or the grave of Jayavarman IV.

Prasat Pram is another temple that according to our guide, San Park, was used for worship by the general public in ancient times. Two of its towers are engulfed in roots and are very photogenic. We also saw two other sanctuaries – Prasat Damrei (with two beautiful elephant sculptures) and Prasat Linga, with a huge… you guessed it right – Linga. 🙂 Visit this one if you have the time. It is fulfilling on so many levels.

6) Beng Melea

bengmelea temple
Eastern Entrance of Beng Melea

Beng Melea (Lotus Pond) is a largely dilapidated temple that is worth the visit for its romantic atmosphere (several impressive root covered buildings). Its religious and architectural histories are still a bit of a mystery. We only know that it was built around the same time as Angkor Wat. All its galleries and towers have collapsed, although some restoration is now going on. This means that you definitely need a guide to visit this temple. Don’t miss the elaborately decorated five headed Nagas whose probosces are clearly visible (on the causeway) and the carving of an apsara, unusually cupping her breast (this one is a scramble up several precarious rocks).

naga beng melea temple
The best preserved five-headed Naga sculpture in all of Cambodia

5) Kbal Spean

KbalSpean temple
Lord Brahma – Kbal Spean

Known world-over for its field of lingas and the carvings of Vishnu reclining on the stream-bed, Kbal Spean was one of the highlights of our trip to Cambodia. To visit Kbal Spean, you must hike through the jungle, along a well-marked path to reach the Kbal Spean river with the carvings on its bed. As you see the beautiful carvings, you will see a field of butterflies as well. They are all around, flitting over you and lending a fairy tale feel to an otherwise mystical experience.

kbalspean temple
Clockwise (L to R) – Reclining Vishnu, Underwater Lingas, Butterflies everywhere

4) Ta Prohm

Primarily famous because Tomb Raider was filmed here, the Ta Prohm temple is still a must-visit on most tourists’ radars. This temple monastery built by Jayavarman VII has prompted more writers to romantic ramblings than any other Angkorean temple. The gigantic roots of the silk cotton trees seem to be single-minded in their intent to re-claim what once belonged to nature. You will also see another tree species-the strangler ficus, with a mass of thinner, smoother roots. In the late afternoon, when the sunlight is mellow and plays with the  galleries and gopuras of this gently declining temple, you will see why I think it still lives up to the hype.

ta prohm temple
Is this a Stegosaurus or what? – You can find this relief to the left of the last gopura before you exit the inner enclosure

3) Banteay Srei

banteay srei temple
Inner gopura – Banteay Srei

Often described as the “Jewel of Khmer Art”, Banteay Srei, or the “Citadel of the Women” is a temple of unparalleled beauty. Built of pink sandstone, this temple has stood the test of time better than any other you will see in the region. The first thing that strikes every visitor to Banteay Srei is the miniature scale; most doors seem to be built for children. Once you get past that, you will be amazed at the near-perfect preservation of the mythological narratives on the lintels and the pediments. The exquisite detailing is like nothing else you will see, almost 3D in this depth. Do not miss this temple for anything!

banteaysrei temple
Lintels and Pediments – Shiva and Parvati on Nandi (top left), The fight between Vali and Sugriva (top right), Indra on Airavata showering rain on a forest on fire (bottom right), Depiction of Rahu (bottom left)

2) Bayon

The mysterious faces of Bayon #travel #traveler #wanderlust #cambodia #angkor #siemreap #latergram #bayon #temple #khmer

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The Bayon temple was the state temple of king Jayavarman VII,  and is perhaps one of the most enigmatic temples you will see in Cambodia. The structure of the temple is extremely complex, and can actually feel like a maze as you walk through. We got lost for a while and spent about fifteen minutes trying to find the inner galleries. The face towers are used to create a stone mountain with ascending peaks, symbolically mimicking Mount Meru.

bayon temple
Bas-relief of a Naval battle between the Khmers (on the left) and the Chams (on the right)

The Bayon temple is an overwhelming experience, and in my dad’s opinion, even better than Angkor Wat. While I am a bit on the fence about that claim, I think everyone that visits Cambodia must visit the Bayon temple. While you are there, stare at the faces and think about how they make you feel. Peaceful and calm? Uncomfortable? Mysterious?  Also, do count the faces. There 37 standing towers currently, with a face at each cardinal point, though not always. So, there are probably as many as 140 faces or more. They are all supposed to be in the likeness of the king, and it got me wondering about the psyche of a man who would have wanted to see his face everywhere he turned! Megalomania is not a modern phenomenon after all.

1) Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat temple
Angkor Wat sunrise

Angkor Wat, the grandest of all the Angkorean temples and currently the largest religious monument in the world, was built by Suryavarman II. The scale of this temple is something you can only appreciate while you are actually there. Apart from the ubiquitous carving of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, you will see several others- scenes from the battle of Kurukshetra, a procession of Suryavarman II, Krishna’s victory over the Asura Bana and many many more.

angkor wat temple
Scene from the Battle of Kurukshetra – Karna desperately trying to fix his chariot’s wheel

As for that world-renowned sunrise, despite the crowds, the gazillion cameras you will see flashing and the elbows in your ribs as people jostle each other to get that perfect view, it is worth it. No, really! Think about it. A sunrise, one of nature’s most sublime phenomena, lighting up the five towers of the Angkor Wat temple, one of man’s most masterful creations. There is magic in that moment, and you will be blessed to be a part of it.

 

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