Most people head to Siem Reap to visit the famous temples of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom. That was what I did when I visited the Angkor temples 10 years ago — I only spent 1 day temple-hopping to see the more popular sites. However, the Angkor Archeological Park is dotted with so many more incredibly impressive ruins; so this time around, I made sure I visited as many temples as I could. I ended up spending 4 days immersing myself in the ruins of the Khmer empire.
The Angkor Ruins
The town of Siem Reap is located in the northwest of Cambodia. It is the gateway to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Angkor — most notably the magnificent Angkor Wat. The temple, as well as many other capital remains of the now extinct Khmer empire, was built from the 9th to the 15th century. They make up the Angkor Archeological Park, which stretches over a vast forested area of 500km2.
I wrote about Angkor’s most popular temples in this post:- Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Temples on the Angkor Small Circuit Tour. My first day temple hopping was spent visiting these main ruins, and then I spent the next 3 days exploring the others — and I have to say, some of them are absolutely breathtaking (and mostly devoid of visitors). So here’s a rundown of my visit to the other cluster of Khmer ruins — those that are still within the grounds of the main Angkor complex, and those that are much further away.
Angkor Big Circuit Tour
The Angkor temple tours are divided into the small and big circuits. The small circuit covers the famous temples; and the big circuit covers the ones a little further out. The big circuit tour begins with the temple of Preah Khan, and continues with Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup. I started my temple tour at 7am (with a half-hour tuk tuk ride to reach the temples from Siem Reap town), and finished it in less than 6 hours. It cost me US$20.
I arrived at Preah Khan just before 8am. On my way, I passed by Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom; exiting through Angkor Thom’s north gate. Preah Khan lies northeast of the gate, and is a 12th century temple built by King Jayavarman VII to honor his father. Just like Ta Phrom (which he built to honor his mother), the flat temple of Preah Khan is left covered with vegetation. Keep an eye out for the huge trees growing out of the ruins, and search for the stupa with sunlight shining through a hole in the upper walls — it makes a great picture.
Just east of Preah Khan is the small temple island of Neak Pean (it means coiled serpents, carved at the base of the island). Built by King Jayavarman VII, it stands in the middle of an artificial pond that was meant for healing purposes. Surrounding the pond is a huge reservoir — I had to walk across a long wooden platform through the reservoir (it was dried out during my visit) to get to the temple.
East of Neak Pean is the small temple of Ta Som, built at the end of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII. The temple is flat with beautiful wall carvings, and is a smaller version of the more famous Ta Phrom, or even Preah Khan. My tuk-tuk driver dropped me off at the temple’s west entrance, and told me to walk all the way to the gate at the east entrance to see the enormous sacred fig tree that has grown atop it — its roots completely cover the gate!
Along the road south of Ta Som is the Hindu temple of East Mebon. It was built in the mid 10th century by King Rajendravarman, dedicated to Lord Shiva to honor the king’s parents. The 3-tiered temple was once only reachable by boat as it was surrounded by water (it has since dried out). A distinct feature of East Mebon is the gorgeous 2-meter stone elephants at the corners of its tiers.
The final temple on the Angkor big circuit tour is King Rajendravarman‘s state temple, Pre Rup. Built during his reign in the 10th century, it is a Hindu temple for Lord Shiva and is believed to be used for funerals. The temple has a reddish tone with detailed carvings on its lintels, as well as on the false doors at the top towers. The upper level of Pre Rup has beautiful views of the surrounding forests.
Banteay Srei Tour
Some people combine the Angkor big circuit tour with a visit to Banteay Srei, but I decided to do it on a separate day. Banteay Srei is much further out from the main cluster of Angkor temples; it takes about an extra hour to get there. My tuk tuk hire cost me US$20, and I also a requested a stop at the Landmine Museum; and another temple, Banteay Samre. The tour took just a little over half a day.
Banteay Srei is a small 10th century Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. It was not built by a King, and used to be surrounded by an ancient town. The temple has an orange-pinkish tinge as it is made of red sandstone, and is filled with wonderfully preserved intricate wall carvings and decorative art — there’s just so much beauty and charm surrounding it.
On the way back, I dropped by Banteay Samre, a Hindu temple located further east from the other Angkor temples. It was built in the 12th century, with a style similar to Angkor Wat; and named after the Samre, an ancient Indochinese tribe. The temple is flat, and is on top of a platform that used to be an interior moat — it must have been beautiful. I was alone in the temple during my visit, and I felt a surreal quietness while walking through its dark chambers and along the grey mossy walls.
The Roluos Temples
The Roluos temples are situated in the town of Roluos, about half an hour’s tuk tuk ride from the Siem Reap centre. They are the remains of Hariharalaya, the first major capital of the Khmer empire (before it was shifted to Angkor 70 years later). My visit to the Roluos temples was purely coincidental — I was at a retreat next it, you can read about it here:- Hariharalaya Yoga and Meditation Retreat Center. I took an afternoon out and cycled to the ruins.
The majestic temple of Bakong was built in the late 9th century by King Indravarman I, and stood at the center of Hariharalaya. It is surrounded by a moat, and is in the shape of a 5-tier pyramid with many steps, archways and guardian statues. The view from the top is spectacular. There is a modern Buddhist temple and monastery at the entrance — they were chanting through the speakers during my visit.
Preah Ko means sacred bull, and is named after the bull statues at its entrance. It was built in the late 9th century by King Indravarman I to honor the king’s family and dedicated to Hindu god Shiva. Most of the walls surrounding the temple are in ruins, but the six central towers with its beautiful carvings still remain.
The last temple built in Hariharalaya (by King Indravarman I), Lolei is made up of 4 brick towers on a small platform. It used to be an island temple but the baray is dried up now, and the towers are pretty much in ruins — though you can still see the carvings and inscriptions. Next to the temple is a modern Buddhist monastery.
Prei Monti is obscure and abandoned. It was built before the three main temples at Roluos by King Jayavarman III, in the mid 9th century. The three brick towers of Prei Monti is almost completely collapsed, and is overgrown with vegetation. I had a picnic here! This site, as well as several places in the village surrounding it, were used to film Angelina Jolie’s ‘First they Killed my Father‘.
To be honest, by the end of the 4th day, I was almost templed-out. Visiting temple after temple can be really tiring, especially with the heat! The more famous temples of Angkor are undoubtedly magnificent (hence the crowds), but what I enjoyed most about visiting the other temples is that sometimes I had them all to myself — and with the lonely and eerie atmosphere the old mossy walls of the ancient ruins provide, I could let my imagination fly.
For more details on the main Angkor temples, as well as other tips and information for your visit, check out this post:- Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Temples on the Angkor Small Circuit Tour. Admission to all the temples are included in the regular Angkor Park pass.