Angkor Wat Wasn’t Our Favorite Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

The archeological ruins of Angkor, Cambodia—near the city of Siem Reap—is the place that put temple-hopping in Southeast Asia on the tourist map. And for good reason: Deep in the jungle, it’s impossible not to feel like you’re on a movie set. But Angkor is actually much bigger than the most famous (and very big) main temple of Angkor Wat–voted by Lonely Planet as the number one tourist destination in the world. Seeing such an incredible example of human vision, artistic ability and strength rivaled our expedition among the 2,229 temples of Bagan, Myanmar.

Angkor Wat temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia

One thousand years ago, king Suryavarman II–ruler of the Khmer empire, one of the largest of its time (with an estimated one million people living on 1,000 square miles)–built Angkor Wat. This Cambodian king thought he was a reincarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu…and he built the temple as a representation of Mt. Meru, home of the gods for Vishnu. Which means that, in doing so, he was building the temple for himself.

Main temple Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Our guide at the temple, Sun, 31, was born in Thailand, as his parents were in exile from Pol Pot; they moved back to Cambodia 20 years ago. He explained that 37 was a lucky number in Hinduism, and that the temple has 37 steps leading up to the top level (which represents heaven) and was originally built in 37 years. A convenient story, since the time the king stopped building was around the time Cambodia was sacked by the Thais…and three years later the king was killed by his nephew. Still, makes for a good story.

The temple also has, Sun said, nearly 2,000 statues of women–one for each of the king’s concubines (prolific king, though he only had two daughters and no sons…no one to pass the crown on to and hence why he was killed by his nephew). This differs a bit, though, from Lonely Planet’s account, which says there are 3,000 of these statues, and they represent apsaras (heavenly nymphs). I prefer our guide’s interpretation.

Aspara statues at Angkor Wat, Sieam Reap, Cambodia

Around the outside of the 800m-long string of detailed bas-reliefs, which our guide told us represented the ancient Hindu story of Rama and Sita, and the monkey army that came to help defeat the demon king, Ravana, who had kidnapped Sita.

Wall carvings at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Sadly, most of the statues at Angkor Wat (as well as the surrounding temples) were missing their heads. Sun told us it was because Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge cut them off during their bloody reign and sold them to nearby countries for a profit:

Headless statues at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

But while Angkor Wat may be the biggest and most famous of the Angkor archeological complex, it wasn’t even our favorite temple among the couple dozen archeological sites concentrated in Angkor’s main 15 square-mile area. We preferred the smaller surrounding temples, all built in the late 12th to early 13th centuries by King Jayavarman VII:

<h3>Ta Prohm</h3>

Created as a monument to Jayavaraman’s mother and used as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, this jungle temple was abandoned in the 17th century for nearly 300 years after the fall of the Khmer empire. Today it’s in much the same condition as when French colonialists “discovered” it, eerily submerged in a sea of hulking, untamed roots that reach for the earth under a canopy of hundreds-year-old trees:

tree at Ta Prohm, Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Tree at Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ta Prohm is so atmospheric, a couple of movies have actually been filmed there, including Tomb Raider:

<h3>Preah Khan</h3>

This Buddhist monastery honored Jayavaraman’s father. Similar to Ta Prohm, it’s been overtaken by the jungle, with roots haphazardly crawling the walls and piles of stone temple debris blocking many rooms

Preah Kahn temple at Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

But instead of the more typical long hallways surrounding the edges of the building, it’s set up in a cross-shaped structure–four long corridors meeting at a central stupa. Each hallway features rows of successively smaller doorways to create a funhouse-hall-of-mirrors effect.

hallways at Preah Kahn in Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Curiously, the temple also houses an almost Roman-like columned structure:

Roman like columns at Preah Kahn in Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

<h3>Bayon</h3>

Dedicated to Buddha, this temple impresses with its 216 giant Buddha faces, each carved into dozens of stacked stones:

Buddha statues at Bayon in Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

<h3>Where We Stayed</h3>

We stayed at La Rivière d’Angkor hotel in Siem Reap, where we were close to Pub Street (a Cancun-like bar experience that’s fun for a beer) and nearby restaurants and massage spas at night. A cute little welcome on our arrival:

La Riviere d'Angkor, Siem Reap, Cambodia

<h3>How Long You’ll Need</h3>

We were glad we took two full days to visit Angkor: It was just about the perfect amount of time, though we could have stayed a day or two longer and enjoyed another day at the temples and maybe a day wandering the streets of Siem Reap.

<h3>Getting Around…Etc.</h3>

The first day we hired a tuk-tuk ($15 for the day) to visit Angkor Wat and the nearby temples, and the second day we each rented electric bikes ($10 per bike) and visited the outer temples ourselves. Our tuk-tuk:

tuk tuk at Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Either way, we were glad we brought a couple of big water bottles each and slathered on plenty of sunscreen (but we should have worn clothing that covered our skin on the bikes…we still got fried!).

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