We get it, you don’t have as many days as you’d like in order to travel around Cambodia and get lost like Lara Croft within the Angkor area ruins. We’re going to help you optimize your time if you’re in a rush so you can get to see the essentials. Three or four days are optimal, but what if you have less?
It’s not like the inhabitants of Siem Reap are in a hurry to do anything. They seem very happy and content just to nap in their hammocks or tuk tuks while the sun is too powerful to sell souvenirs to tourists. But as soon as the hottest hours of the day are gone, they resurrect full of vigor with their cries of “one dollaaaaar” to sell their merchandise. Theirs is truly a life on the slow lane.
Forgotten in the midst of the jungle for centuries by everybody except Buddhist monks and stray cats, Siem Reap is a frenzy of steps, bas-reliefs, statues, domes and towers. Jaw dropping in its intensity, the old IX to XVth century Khmer structures defy explanation and require – no, demand – detailed exploration. You could spend weeks exploring and finding solitary stones to admire, but we’ll give you the essential temples in a platter. So grab your bike, tuk tuk, motorcycle or other selected means of transportation and be sure to check out these beauties before you leave Angkor:
1) SOUTH GATE OF ANGKOR THOM
The Angkor Thom citadel was the capital of the Khmer empire from approximately the thirteenth century up until the early seventeenth century when it was finally abandoned, and contains many of the temples we mention in this quick and dirty guide. But the south entrance deserves a mention in its own right.
All throughout the ruins you’ll be able to find expressive “naga” sculptures, an ancient representation of a long cobra snake with many heads, but none as impressive as the one found here. On one side of the snake, Devas (good gods) pull with all their might opposing the Asuras (evil gods) which pull from the opposite side of the snake. From the friction that these opposing movements create on the sacred mountain Meru onto which the snake is coiled, the sky and the earth were formed according to their traditions.
2) TA PROHM
Better known as the Tomb Raider temple, this stunning beauty appeared in the movie of the same name, in which Angelina Jolie shows off her fighting chops while scouting for her first adopted child in between scenes.
The uniqueness of this temple lies in the fact that the archeologists decided to maintain it in the same wild state as the first European explorers found it. Trees and ferns run the show, and the ancient buildings are forced to adapt to their organic hosts, in an accurate metaphor of how nature always finally prevails in her battles with humankind.
3) PREAH KHAN
This temple has the distinct advantage of being huge enough to dilute the number of tourists inside, so you won’t be shoulder to shoulder with other fellow travelers, and you’ll be able to enjoy a leisurely stroll through time on your own.
Almost one hundred thousand souls used to live in this area back in its heyday, as it was a center for culture which included a college. For bonus points try to find the structure within that seems to have been transported by helicopter directly from Greece.
4) ELEPHANT TERRACE AND LEPER KING TERRACE
“It’s good to be king”, would presumably think the Khmer regent from under a shade in the terrace, while watching his army march below under the scorching sun along the main avenue of Angkor Thom.
These terraces were places of honor and celebration, and were decorated by master sculptors with incredibly detailed carvings representing elephants and gods. The elephant terrace’s name is self-explanatory, but The Leper King Terrace received its name from to the poor state of preservation of the statue found on top, which made early archaeologists mistakenly believe that it represented ancient king Yasovarman I who had contracted leprosy.
Among the most narcissistic people in history there must be a special place for king Jayavarman VII, who basically commissioned the Bayon temple depicting his face in stone over two hundred times. Under the pretense of representing the Buddhist bodhisattva, artisans used his facial characteristics to carve these smiling statues which will creepily watch you as you wander through the archeological site.
6) ANGKOR WAT
This astonishing crown jewel of world architecture was described in the sixteenth century by explorer Antonio Da Magdalena as being “of such an extoardinary construction that it’s impossible to describe it in writing”. So we’re not going to try.
Nevertheless during your visit you’ll be able to admire the gracious arches which appear to float like fluffy clouds over the columns. This mammoth work of ancient engineering was extremely complex to build due to the intense monsoons that would hit the area with regularity, which had to be taken into account during construction. Don't forget to check out the superb Hindu bas-reliefs that surround the main temple.
The above temples can be visited in one intense day, but we recommend you stay one or two days more. You'll thank us later!