(Photo: Fotolia)
(Photo: Fotolia)

Cambodia's Angkor Archaeological Park

This World Heritage Site contains the awe-inspiring remains of ancient Khmer Empire capitals

No matter how many guidebooks, magazine articles, or travel blogs you read, you won’t be completely prepared for the sprawling wonder of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex, the world’s largest religious monument.

The complex is part of Angkor Archaeological Park, which spans nearly 100,000 acres. Located three miles northeast of the northwestern Cambodia city of Siem Reap, where I stayed during my visit, the UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the remains of several Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to 15th centuries.

When the park was named a UNESCO site in 1992, it was added to the organization’s List of World Heritage in Danger, because it was threatened by thieves and illegal excavations and dotted with landmines. UNESCO launched a successful campaign to restore and safeguard the site, which was removed from the endangered list in 2004.

Ta Prohm temple. (Photo: Fotolia)
Ta Prohm temple. (Photo: Fotolia)

Many of the sanctuaries here display the Hindu concept of temple-mountain, where the temple is built in a mountain-like pyramid shape and topped by five towers, representing the five peaks of mythical Mount Meru.

Early Angkor temples were conceived as Hindu worship sites. Around 1200, Jayavarman VII, a king of the Khmer Empire, converted to Mahayana Buddhism and set out on an extraordinary construction spree, building the new capital city of Angkor Thom, which includes Bayon, Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and other Buddhist structures. However, his successor, Jayavarman VIII, returned to Hinduism and embarked on an equally massive destruction project, systematically defacing Buddhist images and even crudely altering some to be Hindu again. Hinduism eventually lost out to Buddhism.

Hundreds of temples and other religious structures are scattered across the landscape, but Angkor Wat is the most famous. Its image even appears on the nation’s flag.

Stone murals and statue at Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. (Photo: Fotolia)
Stone murals and statue at Bayon Temple in Angkor Thom. (Photo: Fotolia)

This 12th century temple-mountain was built as a spiritual home for the Hindu god Vishnu. The structure, which took about 30 years to finish, is an architectural triumph laden with artistic treasures, including the bas-relief galleries that line many of its walls and tell tales of Cambodian history, legends, and daily life.

The morning I spent here with my tour group, monkeys darted everywhere, grabbing whatever food they could snatch from unsuspecting visitors. As I walked toward Angkor Wat, which welcomes thousands of tourists from around the world every day, locals approached, trying to sell me everything from guidebooks and scarves to t-shirts; but they excused themselves politely if I told them I wasn’t interested in buying. It was a festive atmosphere, and everyone seemed to be smiling in the hypnotic shadow of the intricately designed, well-preserved shrine.

Having walked through the first building, I continued toward the heart of the Angkor Wat complex. The final building I visited here was the most elaborate, with swimming pools on two floors. Buddhist monks blessed visitors, who constantly took pictures.

Our second day of exploring began with a stop at Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire.

Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo: Fotolia)
Angkor Wat Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia. (Photo: Fotolia)

The tour bus driver dropped off our group so that we could walk along a bridge leading to one of the walled city’s five gates. On the right side of the bridge are sculptures of 54 frowning demons; on the left, 54 smiling gods guard the city. Many of the original heads were stolen over time and have been replaced with contemporary works.

Each of the temple’s entry towers stands 75 feet tall and is adorned with four faces representing the rulers of the four cardinal points at the summit of Mount Meru in the Hindu religion. Because Angkor Thom was originally Buddhist, each face actually looks more like a smiling Buddha.

Angkor Thom was a fortified city of priests, officials of the palace and military, and buildings for administering the kingdom. In addition to its amazing gates, its perimeter features several additional towers, each with four faces looking down from lofty heights. Sure-footed visitors can climb stairs to equally high vantage points. Intricate carvings in Angkor Thom adorn vast walls and offer a glimpse into everyday life as well as religious symbols and tradition.

A 10th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. (Photo: Fotolia)
A 10th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. (Photo: Fotolia)

Our next stop was Ta Prohm temple. Used in the filming of both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, it seemed to me to be more mysterious than mystical. Strolling along narrow corridors and into hidden courtyards, I found visitors less gregarious here; most seemed concentrated on the beauty of a maze-like temple that is slowly being overtaken by the jungle.

After lunch at a family-owned restaurant, we reboarded our bus for a 45-minute ride to the diminutive Banteay Srei, a beautiful 10th century Hindu temple. Banteay Srei—Citadel of Women—is made of deep red sandstone and takes on a deep pink glow in the afternoon sunlight. Small compared with the other temples I visited, it is adorned with exquisite, finely detailed carved scenes of Hindu legend.

Completed in 967, Banteay Srei remained in use until at least the 14th century. It is the only major temple at Angkor not built for a king. It was constructed by one of King Rajendravarman’s counselors, Yajnyavahara, and dedicated to Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu. The temple was rediscovered in 1914.

Our tour guide explained that the center doorway was reserved for the king and the two much smaller ones for everyone else. We walked around the many peaked structures in the center of the square while photographing buildings, doorway arches, and carved reliefs. Decoration covered almost every available surface.

I spent three days exploring Angkor Archeological Park, but it would be easy to devote a week or longer to the area. Every temple has its own personality and was built to honor a different faction of the Buddhist or Hindu religion. Each is a window into the rich history of Cambodia.    

Traveler Report Card

In Siem Reap, I stayed at Tara Angkor Hotel, which serves hot and cold breakfast and has Wi-Fi, an indoor pool and spa, a fitness center, a babysitting service, and an airport shuttle. The hotel has 206 spacious and tastefully decorated guest rooms and suites.Victoria Angkor Resort & Spa is within easy walking distance of sites within Siem Reap, including Royal Park and the Old Market. The hotel serves breakfast and has Wi-Fi, an outdoor pool and spa, and a babysitting service. The 130 guest rooms and suites evoke the elegant atmosphere of the 1930s.Lynnaya Urban River Resort Siem Reap is an upscale boutique property with 46 contemporary-designed rooms. It is in the township and only 15 minutes from the temples of Angkor Wat. The hotel serves breakfast and has Wi-Fi, a pool and spa, shuttle bus service, and airport transportation.

Tara Angkor Hotel offers two restaurants and two lounges that feature a wide variety of Cambodian and Western entrees. This is a good option if you don’t want to venture out after a day of sightseeing. You can, however, take a tuk-tuk (a motorcycle with a four-person trailer) into downtown Siem Reap, where numerous restaurants serve everything from pizza and curry to traditional Cambodian food.

For fine dining, Mango Cuisine is an excellent choice. Located in the heart of the city, the restaurant is known for its service, presentation, and European recipes as well as vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free entrees. For more casual dining, visit Try Me, which offers Asian, Cambodian, and Western options. The restaurant also delivers.

Tuk-tuk drivers will take you from your hotel to Angkor Wat or on longer tours to other temples. There is also great souvenir shopping in downtown Siem Reap at the Old Market, where hundreds of merchants offer everything from clothing and linens to spices and artwork. Your driver can take you here and return at an agreed-upon time to transport you back to your hotel.

Traveler Fast Facts

Angkor Archaeological Park contains the remains of several Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to 15th centuries, including the world’s largest religious monument. Located in northwest Cambodia, it is three miles north of Siem Reap and 200 miles north of the capital of Phnom Penh.

From November to January, temperatures are in the high 60s F, but by April they rise to the 90s, making early morning and late afternoon the best times to tour the temples here. May to October, Cambodia’s wet season, accounts for almost 75 percent of the country’s rainfall. Throughout much of this period, daytime temperatures average 75 to 80.

Siem Reap International, which has an 8,366-foot runway, is Cambodia’s busiest airport. It caters to charter flights as well as 16 commercial carriers, including Korean Air, Asiana Airlines, and Vietnam Airways. For private-jet arrival info, call +855 12 938 522, extension 6321, or email rep.tc@cambodia-airports.aero.

You’ll need a visa, which you can easily obtain when you arrive in Siem Reap. If your hotel doesn’t offer shuttle service, you can take a tuk-tuk from the airport. U.S. currency is widely accepted. Temple tickets are available at a checkpoint on the way to Angkor Archaeological Park. You can opt for passes good for a day; any four days of a week; or any seven days of a month. You must cover your shoulders and knees before entering the temples.

Exodus Travels covered the cost of Marilyn Jones's airfare, lodging, and tour for the trip described in this article. —Ed.