Every gate (North, South, East, West and Victory) towers above the visitor, the magnanimous faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring out over the kingdom. Imagine that you were a peasant in the 13th century approaching the forbidding capital for the first time? It would have been a formidable but unsettling experience to enter such a gateway and come directly with the divine power of the god-kings.
The end great capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor Thom – set over 10 sq km – took monumental to a whole new level. Built in part as a reaction to the surprise sacking of Angkor by the Chams, Jayavarman VII (r 1181–1219) came to a decision that his empire would never again be at risk at home. Beyond the formidable walls is a vast moat that would have stopped all but the hardiest invaders in their tracks.
DISCOVERING THE TEMPLES
If you have one day, visit Ta Prohm at dawn and discover the distinctive forest temple while it’s still calm . From this view continue to Angkor Wat around 8am and enjoy the post-sunrise quiet to explore this mighty temple. In the afternoon, discover the temples within the walled city of Angkor Thom and the beauty of the Bayon in the late-afternoon light.
If you have three days, follow up the first action-packed day by beating the travellers to beautiful Banteay Srei, with a quick stop at Preah Khan along the way. Then make your way to the River of a Thousand Lingas at Kbal Spean. On the third day, head out to the Roluos area and then on to the huge forest temple of Beng Mealea.
For those with a week, continue the three-day itinerary with a visit to the remote temple of Koh Ker. For a change of pace, take a boat to the watery village of Kompong Pluk.
Tickets & Guides
The ticket booth (1-day/3-day/1-week tourist pass US$20/40/60, children under 12 free; 5am-5.30pm) is on the road from Siem Reap to Angkor. Tickets issued after 5pm (for sunset viewing) are valid the next day. Tickets are not valid for Phnom Kulen or Beng Mealea. Get caught ticketless in a temple and you’ll be fined US$100. The Khmer Angkor Tour Guide Association can arrange certified tour guides in 10 languages (US$25 to US$50 a day).
All the major temples have some sort of nourishment near the entrance. The most extensive selection of restaurants is opposite the entrance to Angkor Wat. Some wonderful Khmer restaurants line the northern shore of Sra Srang.
Bikes are a great way to get to and around the temples, which are connected by flat roads in good shape. Various guesthouses and hotels rent out White Bicycles and proceeds go to local development projects.
Motos are a popular form of transport around the temples (around US$10 per day, more for distant sites). Drivers accost travellers from the moment they go to Siem Reap, but they’re often knowledgeable and friendly.
Remorks (around US$15 a day, more for distant sites) take a little longer than motos but offer protection from the rain and sun. Even more protection is offered by cars (about US $30 a day, more for distant sites), although these tend to isolate you from the sights, sounds and smells.
Hiring a car to more remote sites will cost about US$50 to Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei, and about US$70 to Beng Mealea.
Bayon BUDDHIST TEMPLE
Bayon is unique even among its cherished contemporaries. It epitomises the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII . It’s a place of stooped corridors, precipitous flights of stairs and, best of all, a collection of 54 Gothic towers decorated with 216 coldly smiling, enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara that bear more than a passing resemblance to the great king himself.
These enormous heads glare down from each angle, exuding power and control with a hint of humanity – this was precisely the blend required to hold sway over such a vast empire, ensuring the disparate and far-flung population yielded to his magnanimous will. As you walk around, a dozen or more of the heads can be seen at any one time – full-face or in profile, almost level with your eyes or staring down from on high.
Although for many years its origins were unknown,Bayon is now known to have been built by Jayavarman VII . Shrouded in dense forest , it also took researchers some time to know that it stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom. There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – for instance its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face.
The eastward orientation of Bayon leads many people to visit early in the morning, preferably just after sunrise, as the sun inches upwards, lighting face after face. However, Bayon looks equally good in the late afternoon, and if you stayuntil the sunset you get the same effect as at sunrise, in reverse. A Japanese team is restoring several outer areas of the temple.
Baphuon HINDU TEMPLE
About 200m northwest of Bayon, the Baphuon is a pyramidal representation of mythical Mt Meru, which marked the centre of the city that existed before the construction of Angkor Thom. Restoration efforts were damaged by the Cambodian civil war and all records were disrupted during the Khmer Rouge years, leaving French experts with the world’s greatest jigsaw puzzle. On the western side, the retaining wall of the second level was fashioned – apparently in the 15th or 16th century – into a reclining Buddha 60m in length.
Terrace of Elephants HISTORICAL BUILDING
The 350m-long Terrace of Elephants – decorated with parading elephants towards both ends – served as a great viewing stand for public ceremonies and as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. When you stand here, try to imagine the pomp and grandeur of the Khmer empire at its height, with infantry, cavalry, horse-drawn chariots and, of course, elephants parading across the Central Square in a colourful procession, pennants and standards aloft.
Terrace of the Leper King HISTORICAL BUILDING
Just north of the Terrace of Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King is a 7m-high platform. On top of the platform stands a nude, though sexless, statue, another of Angkor’s mysteries. Legend has it that at least two of the Angkor kings had leprosy. It’s possible that it is Yama, the god of death, and that the Terrace of the Leper King housed the royal crematorium.
New in 2013, Angkor is the final backdrop for a zip-line experience in Asia. Flight of the Gibbon Angkor is inside the Angkor protected area and the course consists of 10 zip lines, 21 treetop platforms, four skybridges and an abseil finish. A conservation element is comprised of the project with two gibbons released in the surrounding forest. The price includes a transfer to/from any Siem Reap hotel, plus a lunch before or after the trip near Sra Srang.