10 Best Temples Of Angkor In Cambodia
Hidden for centuries in the forests nearby the lovely Cambodian town of Siem Reap, the temples of Angkor undoubtedly belong among the most incredible man-made structures ever made. But there is not only Angkor Wat, known for postcards and movies, the ancient Khmer ruins just offer so much more. To help you navigate in the area and see the best of their beauty, I am bringing you my list of the 10 best temples of Angkor.
The best base for visiting the temples is definitely the town of Siem Reap. Once a small town, it has recently turned into one of South East Asia‘s main tourist centers. Luckily, it still hasn’t lost its special charm. Yes, in the evenings, the streets get pretty crowded and the Pub Street resembles similar bar areas in Thailand or Vietnam. But throughout the day, it is still quiet and relaxed. With a beautiful promenade along the river, an amazing central market, and delicious fresh juices sold at every corner. In the end, we spend almost two weeks in Siem Reap and I can easily imagine it as an upcoming hub for digital nomads.
The Angkor Archeological Park and beyond
The main temple area nearby Siem Reap is known as the Angkor Archeological Park and it is located North of the town. It is formed by the former Khmer capital of Angkor Thom and some surrounding temples. Nevertheless, there are actually a couple more temple sites located outside the main area. For some of them, as Banteay Srei, Phnom Krom, Wat Athvea, and the Phnom Kulen, you are fine with the Angkor Pass. For other temple groups such as Phnom Kulen, Koh Ker, Beng Mealea, and Preah Vihear, you will need to pay a separate entry fee.
There are 3 types of Angkor Passes – for one, for three, and for seven days. The cost of the one-day pass is 37 USD, the three-day pass 62 USD, and the week-long pass 72 USD. Luckily, you can spread out these days over a longer period, concretely over a week in the case of the three-day pass and over a whole month for the seven-day pass. You need to buy the Angkor Pass in the ticket office which you can find about 6 km from the entrance to the Archeological Park. The office is open daily from 5.00 am until 5.30 pm.
Getting around the temples
As the area is quite vast, the best way to visit the best temples of Angkor is by hiring a Tuk Tuk (tricycle taxi). You can get one on the street, in your hotel, or easily book it online on websites like Klook. The usual practice is dividing the Angkor temple area Tuk Tuk tours into the Small Circuit (with Angkor Wat, the inner part of the ancient Angkor Thom city including the Bayon Temple, and also Banteay Kdei and Ta Prohm) and the Grand Circuit (remaining temples outside the Angkor Thom city walls as Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som or Pre Rup). Click here for a comprehensive map of the area. The prices of the tours with Klook are pretty similar to what you can get from the Tuk Tuks on the street, just the street ones give you some space for negotiation if bargaining is your thing.
As an alternative to Tuk Tuks, you can rent a bicycle or a private car with a driver. Usually, we prefer using a motorbike at places like this, but even though you can rent one, it is illegal to drive one without having a Cambodian driving license. And the local policy is always happy to cash you out on a fine.
The 10 best temples of Angkor
The temples on my list are basically exclusively located within the main temple group of the Angkor Archeological Park. However, to make it more interesting, I have decided to make an exception and include one of the more distant ones. Using a Tuk Tuk, you can cover all of them easily within the scope of the three-day Angkor pass.
1) Angkor Wat
The largest and also the best-preserved temple in the whole Angkor area hardly needs any introduction. One of such importance for the Cambodians is that it made it even on the national flag. As the only temple in the area that is still used for religious purposes, it attracts not only foreign tourists but also monks and locals seeking spiritual fulfillment. The temple was built in the 12th century and with its 162 ha, it is the largest religious monument in the World.
In front of Angkor Wat itself, you can find two ponds providing a reflection of the temple in the water. This provides probably the most iconic view of the temple, especially during sunrise. However, the most famous of the Angkor temples became recently so popular, that it is basically impossible to enjoy it without hordes of other tourists spoiling your experience. Opening at 5 am, due to the sunrise tours, not even waking up early will help you in this case.
As I have already mentioned in my article on the top 10 most instgrammable spots in Cambodia, Angkor Wat might be the largest and the most important of the Angkor temples, but the award for the most beautiful one goes to Bayon. The reason why are the beautiful large stone faces all around the temple. Built in the early 12th or 13th century, it served as the official state temple for King Jayavarman VII. You can find it in the center of Angkor Thom.
3) Ta Prohm
Besides Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm is probably the second most famous of the Angkor temples. It became widely known in 2001, after serving as one of the main filming locations for the Angelina Jolie starring action blockbuster Tomb Rider. Nevertheless, the director of the movie Simon West did not choose the temple for his movie at random. Ta Prohm is truly breathtaking and it symbolizes perfectly why tourists are coming to Angor in the first place. Magnificent ancient ruins swallowed by the jungle.
Yes, the temple itself is beautiful. But what gives it the special charm are the massive banyan trees growing through the large stones. It is that kind of harmony that only mother nature can do. Ta Prohm really gives you the Indiana Jones feeling of discovering a lost ancient city and I can only imagine how did the French colonizers feel when they rediscovered the untouched ruins in the 19th century.
4) Beng Mealea
Beng Mealea does not belong to the main Angkor temple group and it is located about 50km East. It is actually the last temple in the area made accessible to tourists. Just about a decade ago, it was still full of landmines laid by the Khmer Rouge. Do not worry, nowadays, it has been completely cleared out of any explosives and offers a unique experience, quite different from the Angkor Archeological Park. Most likely built later than the temples of Angkor, it exhibits a quite different architectonical style. Instead of detailed decorative engravings, it offers more simple, yet really massive and majestic stone structures. Being hidden in a jungle for years, it is nowadays full of trees growing through the ruins and everything is covered by beautiful moss. The temple is not included in the Angkor Pass and the entrance fee is 5 USD.
5) Preah Khan
Preah Khan was the biggest surprise for me from all the temples of Angkor. Honestly, I did not expect anything and the more I was surprised at how cool it was. To enter, you have to cross a stone bridge leading to a magnificent gate. Yet, the temple itself is still located a few hundred meters behind it. With its structure, it reminds me the most the Ta Prohm temple, but it has something no other temple around has – it is completely symmetrical. I wish we could have used our drone to get an aerial view!
The main structure of the temple is basically two long corridors with a small stupa in the middle at the point where they cross. But when I am talking about corridors, don’t imagine a tunnel, but doors in layers of walls symmetrically built around the center. There was actually a tour guide offering us to snap a photo of us with the central stupa, but come on, the corridors are the cool thing in here! The other great thing about Preah Khan is the banyan trees with roots organically growing through the walls. There might not be as many of them as in Ta Prohm, but come on, just look at the size of the thing below.
6) Pre Rup
The first thing you notice about the Pre Rup temple is its pyramidal shape, almost resembling some of the finest Mayan or Inka ruins in South America. You can find several temples of this kind in the area, like Ta Keo or East Mebon, but Pre Rup is simply the most impressive of all of them. Climbing up to the top of it will cost you some serious effort, but even if you decide to stay on the ground, you will not be disappointed. Unlike the other pyramidal temples, it has some pretty well-preserved ground structures worth exploring.
7) Neak Pean
Neak Pean might not be the most beautiful temple in Angkor, but no one can deny it the title of being the most unique one. The reason is that it is built on a small island in the middle of a swamp. You even need to walk on about 500 meters long pier to actually reach it and still, the building itself is enclosed by a ring of water, so you can’t actually get really close to it. I have no idea how difficult it must have been to build something as this in the hot and humid Cambodian weather with all the mosquitoes around!
Often forgotten part of the Angkor Thom city, located just a few steps from the beautiful Bayon temple. Even today, this three-tiered temple pyramid is still impressive, but I don’t even want to imagine how massive it must have looked in the time of its greatest glory. If you can climb up the steep stairs, it will reward you with a great view from its top and a truly Tomb Rider feeling while exploring it.
9) Banteay Kdei
This temple is almost like a mixture of the best elements of all the other temples in the area. You can find here beautiful carvings, big stone faces, or even large banyan trees growing through the ruins. Just, the final result is simply not as impressive as the most beautiful structures of Angkor… However, you will definitely not be disappointed if you put Banteay Kdei on your to-see list.
10) Ta Som
The first thing that pops up on your mind when entering Ta Som (besides some really cheap clothes stands by the entrance) is – I have already seen this. And indeed, Ta Som really feels like a smaller brother of Preah Khan or Banteay Kdei. Well, until you reach the very rear of the temple and see this massive banyan tree growing all around the entry gate. The best tree in the whole Angkor!