Before visiting Cambodia, I had no idea that there was more to Angkor Wat than Angkor Wat! The largest religious monument in the world is just the big daddy of over a thousand temples spread across 400 sq. km in the Angkor complex (Angkor Archaeological Park). In my last post I wrote about our first day at Angkor, on a cycling tour that included visits to the most popular temples: the busy “big three”—Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm. Our next two days, now via tuk-tuk, took us to temples a little further afield. While they may lack the grandeur of Angkor Wat, our overall experience was perhaps even grander.
First, a little background on the size and layout of the complex. The most popular sightseeing route is known as the small circuit (about 17 km). It takes in Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and several other temples and monuments (route shown in yellow on the map below, and roughly what we covered on our first day bike tour). The grand circuit is 26 km and includes the small circuit plus the adjacent area right above on the map, outlined in white. Beyond these two circuits are many more sites. That’s how big this place is! It takes a good three days to do justice to the Angkor complex, and even then you’ve really just scratched the surface.
So, off we went rattling down the road with Mr. Sophead, the tuk-tuk driver we had hired for our two days. Based on my research from the night before and recommendations from our cycling guide, our plan was to visit temples on the grand circuit and a few beyond. Even this paired down itinerary was a lot to take in, but it gave us a great feel for the diversity and enormity of Angkor. Here are a few of my favourite temples:
Don’t bother looking for it on the map; it’s 25 km north of the main complex. But, it’s worth the drive! The magic of Banteay Srei is in its well-preserved carvings. The 10th century temple dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva is also known as “The Citadel of the Women”. It has been suggested that the intricate carvings in the pinkish sandstone are so fine that they must have been crafted by the small, delicate hands of women. This temple is all about the detail, and it’s a total feast for the eye.
Ta Som, part of the grand circuit, is often overlooked because of its relatively small size. It’s one of the “jungle temples”—the wonderfully atmospheric ones that much to the chagrin of archaeologists and restorationists are being taken over by giant strangler figs. Ta Som is much less crowded than Ta Prohm (of Tomb Raider fame) and huge Preah Kahn. You can wander around Ta Som in relative peace, admiring the forces of nature, the weathered carvings, and the mesmerizing Bayon-style faces.
Just a little note: Preah Kahn was among my favourites but we had a camera malfunction, so sadly no photos of this very impressive temple.
I can’t think of one distinguishing physical feature that makes Banteay Samre more special than other temples in the Angkor complex, but it was my favourite of the temples we visited. Just slightly off the beaten path, Banteay Samre was beautifully deserted. It felt wonderfully soothing to poke around the pretty temple and contemplate what life must have been like there in the 12th century. Walking along the the perimeter passageway with its gorgeous columns and door frame detail was especially magical. I highly recommend this temple if you need a reprieve from the bustling main temples. Take time to also wander through the vast grounds and see the imposing lion guardians.
If you haven’t been to Angkor Wat, I hope this post gives you some sense of how much there is to see beyond the main attraction. The Angkor Archaeological Park is huge, impressive and quite overwhelming. If you go, give yourself as much time as possible.
I’ll finish off with a few more photos that show the diversity of this amazing place.