The Temples of Angkor

Words by Dalene Heck / Photography by Pete Heck

I didn’t expect to think much of Angkor, really. Piles of old rocks on top of piles of older rocks, complete with a complicated history that is impossible to digest in the one brief day we had to explore.

But then we went. And even after the 4am wake-up call (which resulted in a slightly disappointing sunrise photo shoot), the stifling heat, and the constant harassing of vendors, we couldn’t get enough. We stuffed as many temples into our day as our weary bodies would allow, fascinated by the variety of architecture, the preservation of details, and the stories behind each one.

(After each stop we’d assert: “This is my favourite!”, and then after the next one: “No, wait, this is my favourite!” Like small children on Christmas morning, we were.)

We really wished we had another day, maybe two. But with over 1,000 temples covering such a vast area (the ancient preindustrial city of Angkor had a connected urban sprawl of over 1,000 square kms), even that would not have been close to enough time.

We did the best we could and are here to share the results of our single and highly memorable day in Angkor.

Angkor Wat

Awe-inspiring to see at daybreak (assuming the sun will cooperate), Angkor Wat is the best preserved temple and dates back to the 12th century. Despite the throngs of tourists that were waiting to snap photos with us as the sun rose, we were still able to steal quiet moments in empty corners to absorb the significance of this historic site. It is well worth considerable time to walk through the temple and grounds after getting the initial postcard shot.

Carvings at Angkor Wat

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South Gate to Angkor Thom

It’s not just the temples that hold significance and photo-worthy stops, but the magnificent gates between them as well. There are 54 statutes along the bridge leading up to this particular gate, some appearing smooth and new, others damaged by erosion or vandals.

The South Gate into Angkor Thom

54 Statues at the South Gate

Royal Palace (Angkor Thom)

The last capital city under the Khmer Empire (once the most powerful empire in all of southeast Asia), Angkor Thom was established late in the 12th century. It is a massive complex of 9 square kilometers and was abandoned sometime before the early 17th century.

Royal Palace - Angkor Thom
Walls Inside Royal Palace - Angkor Thom
Carvings within the Royal Palace - Angkor Thom

Bayon (Angkor Thom)

The most striking feature of the Bayon Temple is the large number of giant faces (216, in fact). Standing as a Buddhist shrine, it was the last temple to be built in all of Angkor.

The Tower of Prasat Bayon

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Prasat Bayon - Angkor Thom

Carvings within Prasat Bayon

Ta Prohm

Besides the morning rush for sunrise photos at Angkor Wat, this had to be the most visited temple. Understandably so, with the forest reclaiming much of the structure, there is a natural and eerie mysticism to it that doesn’t exist with the others. (It is no wonder that this temple was a prominent set in the film Tomb Raider.)

This temple was originally home to more than 12,500 people in the 12th century, with an additional 800,000 living and working nearby.

The Famous Tree of Ta Prohm

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Ta Prohm Carvings

Kravan

A small, barely visited yet unique temple with five towers, Kravan is exceptionally striking with its symmetrical red brick. Only uncovered in the 60s and partially restored since, it carries a much more modern appearance than others, even though it dates back to the 10th century.

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Carvings at Prasat Kravan

Beng Mealea

No kidding this time, Beng Mealea was DEFINITELY our favourite. Located almost 40kms away from the other Angkor temples, it was a stop we made the following day on our return to Phnom Penh.

This sandstone temple is barely visited and hardly preserved. The result is a ghostly mixture of rubble, moss, and sprouting trees tangling those structures that do remain.

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Beng Mealea Moss

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Trees Beng Mealea

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Where To Stay

High-end One guest described the Borei Angkor Resort & Spa as an “oasis of calm in a bustling town.” Sounds great to us.

Check reviews | Book this hotel


Mid-range
Walk off a busy street into the welcoming, calm foyer of the Golden Temple Hotel and enjoy the complimentary welcome drinks and snacks! Definitely a great deal for such a lovely hotel.

Check reviews | Book this hotel

Budget The Tanei Boutique Villa in Siem Reap is a great value for money, and comes with incredibly helpful staff and a pool!

Check reviews | Book this hotel

36 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • November 28 2013

    Gorgeous photos, as ever. The more distant temples are certainly a more immersive experience, but the Bayon and Ta Prohm are still magnificent – crowds notwithstanding. Following your wonderful travels through the temples of Angkor and retracing our own steps back in 2009 has made me suddenly realize I hardly recall noticing people anywhere. I’ve gone and checked our (miserable) photos, and I definitely see some folks in Pre Rup and Angkor Wat, but I remember them being empty… In my memory, Ta Prohm was just like Beng Mealea – wild, deserted, mysterious. Since I wasn’t on chemical drugs, the only conclusion I can draw is that I was on an historical high for 3 days straight… Thank you for yet another beautiful post and safe travels!
    Lunaguava recently posted..A Ryokan in Mitakesan

    • December 3 2013

      A ‘historical high’! Awesome. I wish I could say the same about Ta Prohm, but it was CRAWLING with people.

  • November 28 2013

    Gorrrrgeous photos, guys! I think it’s decided – I can’t skip this when I’m in SE Asia in a couple of months!!
    Amanda recently posted..My 10 Favorite European Capitals

  • November 28 2013

    oh wow, magnificent place… thanks for sharing the photos, they really transmit the special atmosphere..
    Ivana recently posted..12 Lessons Learnt After One Month Travelling in Thailand

    • December 3 2013

      Thanks Ivana. Angkor really is a special place, hope you guys get there!

  • November 28 2013

    Amazing.
    I visited Prambanan and Borobudur in Indonesia and, especially at Prambanan, was overwhelmed by the beauty and detail. It was also so interesting to think about how they had been abandoned for so many years and the jungle had overtaken them (which was much less obvious since trees don’t grow over them). These places seem like all that times about 100.

    • December 3 2013

      It’s also crazy to even think that there are still so many in the jungles yet to be discovered!

  • November 28 2013

    Consider it shared! Can’t wait to go.
    Paul Miniato recently posted..Learning Languages for Fun, Travel & the Fountain of Youth

  • November 29 2013

    Stunning photos guys – you really captured the spirit of the place. Love your blog – keep on trucking! 😀

  • November 29 2013

    The clarity in your photos is amazing.

  • Mallory
    November 29 2013

    Gorgeous photos! Angkor Wat has been on my list of places to visit, especially after I took a class on Cambodian history in college. It’s such an interesting place with a long history. I love seeing places when they have such a rich history behind it.

    • December 3 2013

      Cambodia’s history is so rich and complex. And sad, too. I hope you get to Angkor.

  • November 29 2013

    Beng Mealea was my favorite too! On the day of our visit, we had the place practically to ourselves and it was exhilarating to literally crawl through the ruins. We spent three days exploring all the temples which made our time there a bit more relaxing. Never made it out for the sunrise, though, and after your experience I’m glad we opted for more sleep instead!
    Heather recently posted..Chinese Words and Phrases for Foreigners

    • December 3 2013

      I would still say that the early morning rise was worth it – such a great introduction to the temples! I wish we had had three days though!

  • Steph (@ 20 Years Hence)
    November 30 2013

    Ha ha! Tony & I had a similar experience to your own in that every temple we visited became our de facto favorite. In the end, I think the actual Angkor Wat was my least favorite, and my top pick might have been Banteay Samre, which is built in a similar symmetrical style but is way out in the countryside and saw pretty much zero visitors.

    Although I was pretty excited to visit the complex, I was still a bit worried that I might experience the dreaded temple fatigue at some point. In the end, I couldn’t get enough and I was really glad we had the time for a 3-day pass which felt just right to us. It gave us the freedom to really take our time and make an effort to get out to some of the temples that most overlook. Definitely one of those attractions that lives up to (and perhaps even exceeds!) the hype!

    • December 3 2013

      I think you’re right – it exceeds the hype. The three day pass would definitely have been worth it!

  • November 30 2013

    Great taste in temples – Beng Mealea was my favourite temple as well 😉

    • December 3 2013

      Ha! Next, we should compare taste in shoes. 🙂

  • December 1 2013

    Your photos are so beautiful guys! I have been to the Angkor Wat complex twice, because I loved it so much during my first visit. It is definitely not one of those sights that is overrated!
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..My packing list for Everest Base Camp

    • December 3 2013

      Thanks Tammy! I’m not even sure that twice would be enough! 🙂

  • December 2 2013

    I have probably seen almost 100 travel blog posts on Angkor, and I will be happy to see 100 more. The place is magical, and you summed up the experience quite well.
    Traveling Ted recently posted..Getting to Khao Yai National Park

    • December 3 2013

      Thanks so much Ted! I never read many before visiting (I don’t like to set expectations), but now I think I will devour any blog post I can find. Such a special place.

  • Beth
    December 2 2013

    Gahh, I can’t wait to finally visit Angkor in April! Too beautiful.

  • December 3 2013

    Wow, very lovely shots guys – some of the best I’ve seen from Angkor in a long, long time. You captured some different angles and some great mood with those photos. Makes me want to be there now.
    Red Hunt recently posted..Wildlife Photo: Polar Bear

    • December 3 2013

      Thanks a lot Red! We had a lot of fun with our cameras that day.

  • December 6 2013

    I love the angles of these photos!

    When I went to Angkor I had disappointing sunrises and sunsets…the in between parts were pretty good though 🙂
    Alana – Paper Planes recently posted..>> The Day-to-Day: Vientiane >>

  • December 7 2013

    Stunning photos! Definitely places I wish to visit sometime. 🙂

  • December 9 2013

    Hahhhhhhhhhhhhh! You had sunshine, I’m so jealous! 😉 It was raining the whole time I was there, spent my time wiping my lens and juggling with my umbrella, but I can still say I LOVED it! 😉 Nice photos

  • January 5 2014

    I spent one and a half day around Angkor by bicycle and it was one of my best travel experiences so far. At times I had the entire circuit for myself. However doing so made me unable to reach farther temples, like Beng Mealea and Banteay Srei, which is on my list of places to visit when I go back to Cambodia one day. Apparently I missed Kravan, maybe I should check that out as well.
    Bama recently posted..Sights from Asia’s Lusophonic Corner

  • Emily
    January 18 2014

    Wow, stunning photos! I was just watching a documentary on Angkor yesterday. My 3 year old said, “Want to go there!” and I said, “Ok!” I can’t wait to see it for myself. =)

  • February 25 2014

    Nice shots. I really need to get back there!

  • kelly
    February 10 2015

    We are heading here in about 5 weeks. I am taking my 3 children ages 7- 14 with me, what do u suggest we visit? Should we spend 1 entire day there???

    • February 12 2015

      Hmmm…I’m not sure Kelly as I don’t know how the kids will react to it! It can be a pretty long and hot day, but you definitely won’t run out of things to see!

  • September 11 2015

    Stunning photos! Definitely a place that’s on my bucket list. So much history to take in!

  • December 26 2015

    Beautiful photos and great info about visiting Angkor. We visiting not so long ago ourselves and really enjoyed our time. One of our favourite temples was Banteay Kdei, we didn’t have the time to visit Beng Meala but jee your photos have definitely helped it go to teh top of our list for the next time we visit Angkor!
    We’d love to share our photos and tips about visiting the Angkor temples too – let us know what you think:

    http://ilefthome.com/angkor-wat-the-right-way-to-do-it/

    Cheers!
    I Left Home recently posted..34 – Viviane: “I was a volunteer in Mother Teresa’s home”

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