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Row of sculptures at the bridge at Angkor Archaeological Park  <img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click for full image
Travel Guide > Asia > Cambodia > Angkor Archaeological Park

Angkor Archaeological Park Travel Guide

  
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Angkor Archaeological Park, located just north of Siem Reap in northern Cambodia, is one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia - and tops our list of Southeast Asia's best temples and monements.

Stretching over some 400 square kilometers, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of several capitals of the Khmer Empire of the 9th to the 15th centuries, including the largest pre-industrial city in the world. The most famous are the Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations.

Angkor Archaeological Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992. At the same time, it was also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to looting, a declining water table, and unsustainable tourism. UNESCO has now set up a wide-ranging programme to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.

Angkor itself has no accommodations and few facilities; the nearby town of Siem Reap is the tourist hub for the area.

The temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park can broadly be categorized into four groups:

  1. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (please see below for more information on both sites)
  2. Little Circuit in clockwise order, exiting Angkor Thom by the Victory Gate: Ta KeoTa ProhmBanteay KdeiSras Srang and Prasat Kravan
  3. Big Circuit in clockwise order, exiting Angkor Thom by the North Gate: Preah KhanNeak PeanTa SomEast MebonPre Rup
  4. Roluos group. The ruins here are from the ancient capital of Hariharalaya, dating from the late 9th century and thus predating Angkor itself: BakongLoleiPreah Ko
  5. Outlying templesBanteay SreiKbal SpeanBeng MealeaPhnom Krom

You can, of course, mix and match freely, but as distances are fairly long, it makes sense to plan ahead and pick sites connected by road. Most car, tuk-tuk or moto drivers will have an itinerary ready if you don't have one in mind, and their expertise may come in handy for arriving at sites a step ahead of the big tour groups.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

History

Located six kilometers north of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is one of the largest of Khmer monuments. Built around the first half of 12th century by King Suryavarman II, the temple's balance, composition and beauty make it one of the finest monuments in the world.

Though 'Wat' is the Khmer (Cambodian) word for temple, the westward orientation of the structure is atypical of temples. Scholars believe that the architecture and sculptures are that of a temple where Lord Vishnu was worshipped but it was also built as a mausoleum for the king after his death.

How to explore

The size of the monuments makes it look overwhelming when one encounters it for the first time. The following is one of the suggested plan to explore Angkor Wat.   Enter through the west entrance. When you reach the entry tower, walk to the right to get a glimpse of all the five towering gopuras.

Inner temple of Angkor Wat at morning light  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Passing the tower and the libraries on both sides of the walkway, climb down the steps towards the left side and get to the water basin. You can catch a glimpse of the temple and its reflection in the water. Go past the basin and reach the left end of the temple.

You would by now have reached the starting point of the famous bas reliefs depicting scenes from various mythological stories and historic events. Walking from left to right you will come across scenes from battle of Ramayana, battle of Mahabharata, army of Suryavarman II, scenes from judgement by Yama (the supreme judge), churning of ocean by demons and gods to get Amrita — the nectar of immortality, Vishnu's victory over demons, victory of Krishna over Bana and other scenes of battle between gods and demons.

One of the four entrance gates to Angkor Thom  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>
 

Climb the steps to reach the second tier. One can reach the third tier and the central courtyard within by climbing the steps oriented towards any of the four cardinal points. However, it is suggested that the steps on the south (right) be taken, as these have now been fitted with a handrail — particularly useful when descending. 

View from Angkor Wat  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

When to visit

The sight of the grand monument towering over the landscape is breath-taking at any time of day. However, to maximise the effect it is suggested that the first trip to Angkor Wat be made in optimal lighting conditions, usually around 1~2PM. Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a also great sight to witness. Hence most of the tourists tend to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, then explore other ruins in the morning and then return to Angkor Wat later in the afternoon. The sun rises behind Angkor Wat and the best colors are seen just before the sun climbs into view. As the position of the sun as it rises varies according to the time of year, do position yourself accordingly. For example, in November-December time when you are facing Angkor Wat, the sun rises on your right hand side. Hence grab a place to the extreme left of the entry tower to see the sunrise. Sunset at Angkor Wat is best viewed either on the top tier or outside the main temple structure.

Angkor Thom sights

Angkor Thom is a walled and moated royal city some 10 sq km in size. The city houses Bayon and Baphuon temples (described below), which form only part of what was formerly the giant city of Angkor Thom, once thought to hold a population of one million.

In addition to the Bayon and Baphuon temples, the ancient city of Angkor Thom holds a number of other sites of interest: Five Entrance Gates, The Elephant TerraceThe Terrace of the Leper King,  Phnom Bakheng.

Bayon

Bayon  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Built in the latter part of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, Bayon is one of the most widely recognised temples in Siem Reap because of the giant stone faces that adorn the towers of Bayon. There are 54 towers of four faces each, totaling 216 faces. There is still a debate as to who is being depicted in the faces. It could be Avalokiteshvara, Mahayana Buddhism's compassionate Bodhisattva, or perhaps a combination of King Jayavarman VII and Buddha.

Bayon's plan can be divided into three levels — the first two are bas-reliefs and the uppermost consists of the central sanctuary.

Bayon's most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

The outer gallery depicts scenes from everyday life and historical events, while the second inner gallery depicts mythical figures and stories. In total, there are more than 1km of bas-reliefs to be viewed in the Bayon.

Enter Bayon from the east. The outer gallery comes into view first. The second gallery is on the next higher level. The third level is where you will encounter many of the famous faces (and tourists). The fact that these stones are exposed to direct light makes it easy to shoot pictures throughout the day, though mid-day sun eliminates shadows. You will find fewer tourists too during this time of day. Elephants are also available to take you from the gate into Bayon for $10 per person (seats are limited and often already pre-booked by the tour groups, but still worth checking out!)

The surrounding and the tall towers makes Bayon a bit dark and flat for study and photography near sunrise and sunset. Hence, it is best to visit Bayon when there is plenty of light. 10AM in the morning to around 4 PM in the evening is the stretch most people prefer.

Baphuon

Baphuon temple located to the northwest of the Bayon was one of the largest and grandest structures in Angkor  <span style='white-space:nowrap;'><img src='http://www.guidegecko.com/images/spyglass1.png' align='texttop' /> Click to enlarge</span>

Located to the northwest of the Bayon, the Baphuon is supposed to represent Mount Meru (sacred to Hinduism), and was one of the largest and grandest structures in Angkor. Built into the western face of the Baphuon is a giant reclining Buddha, added in the 16th century after the region converted from Hinduism to Buddhism.

Archaeologists had dismantled the Baphuon to perform renovation when they were interrupted by the civil war; the records for piecing the temple back together were subsequently lost or destroyed. Today it is undergoing painstaking reconstruction work, so visitors can only walk across the long terrace leading up to the main structure and around the outside base.






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