A Brief Overview of the Angkor Temple Complex

Where to go and when – especially for photography enthusiasts

Angkor WatMost visitors heading to Cambodia will stop off in Siam Reap to take in the stunning network of temples at Angkor.

And rightly so. I have seen my fair share of archaeological sites, and have to say, the Angkor complex rates as one of the most impressive collections of ancient engineering in the world.

The stunning settings make the temple complex even more enjoyable for photography enthusiasts. The only problem is avoiding the hordes of ignorant tourists and deciding which of the many temples to visit.

Even with a three-day pass, you will not see them all! You need at least three days around the grand circuit where most of the temples are concentrated, and another day if you want to see the Roluos Group, the former capital of the Khmer Empire.

This article outlines which temples to visit and the times of day when you are most likely to avoid crowds. There are also a selection of suggested off-the-beaten track temples you can go to be alone.

Angkor Wat

The most famous temple in Siam Reap, north Cambodia, is Angkor Wat thanks to its signature five prangs that reflect in the waters and are aligned to the orbit of the sun.

Even when it is not the equinox, tourists have an obsession with seeing the sunset and sunrise at Angkor Wat. Granted the photography is stunning during these times – if you can stand the crowds. Otherwise do what I do and admire them on Google images!

Angkor Wat

Avoid Angkor Wat first thing in the morning. The best time to visit is after 7am when the bleary-eyed cockerel rises have cleared out and gone for breakfast. Mae sure you vacate the premises before 11am when the bus loads turn up. 4hrs should be enough.

Also avoid the mountain temple of Phnom Bakeng at sunset. Stupid people with no spatial awareness on a high-raised platform with steep steps just sounds dangerous.

You could actually ignore Phnom Bakeng altogether. It is a trek to get up there and is covered in scaffold with not a great deal to see or photograph other than a distant shot of Angkor Wat. Unless you have long zoom and a beautiful sky, it’s a waste of energy.

For a good sunset of Angkor Wat, sit around the moat, but expect crowds so get there early. Otherwise, do what I did and just take a shot of the sunset over the moat. It was very relaxing.

Angkor sunset

Alternatively, Zaki, my driver for the day, knows of a less frequented mountain temple a little further out, but after 10 hours on the back of a motorbike (the quickest way to see the most temples) my ass was too numb to take another 30 minutes of sitting.

Preah Kahn

If you do Angkor Wat in the morning, go to Preah Kahn and some of the smaller temples around it in the afternoon. That way you can pick quite a few sites off in one day.

Preah Kahn 1 That’s if you go by Tuk-Tuk mind. If you take the cheap option and cycle, after Preah Kahn you probably won’t have the energy to do much more; unless you are super-fit – which I am not.

If you hire a driver you can do more, and Preah Kahn is well worth a visit. I was there mid-afternoon (albeit in low season) and although it was riddled with tourists, it is big enough for large groups to be spaced out. If you are patient enough you just might get a photo of the most significant monuments.

Look out for the linga yoni (left), a symbol that represents the mystery of the one that becomes two, the duality that emerges in unity.

The square base is called the yoni and represents the female energy of Mother Earth and the linga is the male “spiritual” energy. When male and female unite, the result is a third element, the creation of the combined energies that manifest in life.

Also look for bell stupa in the centre temple. The holes built into the roof give the stupa the appearance of a flaming candle – but good luck getting a shot of either unhindered! The monument represents the stages of consciousness that ultimately end with the flame – illumination.

candle stupa

What I enjoyed the most about Preah Kahn was exploring the nooks and crannies scattered throughout the temple, so explore the secluded passageways.

Here you will find interesting stone slabs and tables that would have been used for various rituals together with hidden shrines most tourists will not see other small groups of up to four people who have hired a guide from the site. Tour bus guides probably don’t even know the nooks are there!

Bas relief Preah Kahn

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is twice the size of Angkor Wat, and you could easily spend the entire day there – if the tourists do not piss you off first. I was there two hours!

Carved faces in stone at BayonThe focal point of Angkor Thom is undoubtedly Bayon, the central complex which the ancient Khmer built to represent the centre of the Universe. It is most notable for the giant heads carved in stone.

Scholars claim the faces are of the Bodhisattva, Lokeshvara, which may be the case, but the design is clearly taken from the Hindu myths featuring Brahma who grew four heads to find his daughter, Lakshmi who he later takes as his consort.

If you go to Bayon first thing whilst everybody else is obsessing over the sunset at Angkor Wat, you should be able to enjoy the temple before the bus loads arrive.

This is quite important. Whilst the majority of Asians are great, the tourists are rude and disrespectful. Most of all the guides. They have no problem muscling you out of a prime spot to bring in their followers.

Other tourists – especially young girls and couples – will spend 10 to 15 minutes orchestrating a photo shoot of one another at the photogenic highlights, unaware, or they just don’t care, that other people are waiting to take a shot without them in it!

But don’t let this put you off as Bayon is worth seeing. In the same area there is also the Terrace of Elephants which is probably worth a visit, but given the symbolism is all the same I skipped it.

Bas relief at Bayon

The bas reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat and Bayon explain the path towards spiritual growth and are much more interesting. You can read more about that in my next book, Journeys To Ancient Worlds: Search for the Truth which will be out in summer 2016.

Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei is considered the jewel of Angkor, and it is a charming, highly photogenic temple. My Tuk-Tuk driver, Zaki, advised we go there first before the bus loads arrived, but even at 8am it was busy. You probably need a 6am-7am start to avoid crowds. After 10am, the site will be too crowded for photos.

banteay srey

The temple is pretty small compared to some of the other major attractions, so even one bus load can make the place feel crowded. But it is a little gem and should not be missed.

Banteay Samre

I actually preferred my time at Banteay Samre. Whilst not as ornate or visually stunning as Banteay Srei, it is bursting with character and highly photogenic. The bonus is the scant number of people rattling around at 9.30am which made it more pleasurable.

The temple is a little crumpled, but still has plenty to offer – especially if you are a keen photographer. As with all the other temples the discoloured paint and crumpling brickwork give the temples a rustic and gritty character, but there is still enough delicate decoration to appreciate the immense skill of the Khmer builders, architects and sculptors.

Banteay Samre

My shots probably don’t give the temple the justice it deserves and a professional or skilled amateur will produce better images, but I think I pulled a couple out the bag to at least whet your appetite.

Banteay Samre 2Pre Rup

You will see Pre Rup from the road and will probably want to stop and take a look out of sheer curiosity.

The huge towering prangs are noteworthy and this is one of the few temples that allow you to climb the original steps rather than the wooden stairs that have been laid for safety – and justifiably so as the steps are steep and slender.

Climb to the top and you get a decent view overlooking the trees which gives you some appreciation of how vast the Angkor temple complex is.

The architecture here also has echoes of ancient Greece, especially around the edges where the fallen temples are now nothing but standing pillars.

Crumbled temples of Pre Rup

Ta Prohm

Photo enthusiasts cannot leave out a visit to Ta Prohm. This is where Simon West shot Tomb Raider with Angelina Jolie so is obviously one of the most popular visits on the grand circuit – but don’t let that deter you.

Scene from Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm

Zaki suggested that we go after 5pm when it was quieter – a good move! Not only do you stand a better chance of getting in a money shot unhindered – of which there are several – but the play of light at that time of day makes for some excellent photography.

However, there are times you may have to wait, but if you are lucky enough, the person invading your photo space actually adds to the picture like this little sweetheart in red.

Lady in red, Ta Prohm

Banteay Kdei

Worth a visit in the late afternoon when most of the tourists have cleared out. There is still large portions of the temple standing and one of the few where the bas reliefs and statues have not been destroyed or partially ruined.

Benteay KdeiDespite being former Hindu temples, the majority of ruins in Angkor are used today as a Buddhist shrines. At Banteay Kdei, you may find a little old lady handing how incense sticks.

Pay her a dollar and she will bless you with good luck. For those of you who are sensitive to energy, you will feel a lot of positive verve from this woman.

Off-the-beaten track

If you want to spend some time on your own in peace and quiet, maybe have a packed lunch or do some meditating, head to some of the smaller temples where hardly anybody goes.

The best time to go to these temples are between 12pm and 4pm when the others are stuffed. You may get one or two other drifters turn up, but you will pretty much have the place to yourself.

Banteay Prei is small and is covered with tumbled stone, but was totally deserted. If I had more time, I would have stayed there an hour just to enjoy the peace and quiet.

Kraol Romeas and Prasat Leak Neang are other options where you are unlikely to find anybody else. Perfect for meditating.

The former is a stone circle with not much to see either. It was probably used for rituals on full moons. Leak Neang is one small temple you can sit inside or venture down to the small lake and watch the Water-Buffalo grazing.

The Buddha Shrine in Krael Ko
The Buddha Shrine in Krael Ko

Ta Nei and Krael Ko also receive very few visitors and are great for exploring, particularly Ta Nei. Deep in the jungles, both temples are off the main drag and only reached by dirt tracks

Ta Nei is mostly tumbled stone, but has enough brick left standing to appreciate its one-time beauty. It is also quite good fun and adventurous climbing over the rubble.

Krael Ko is pretty dilapidated, but has a charming setting in the jungle and a quaint Buddhist shrine to explore. Worth a visit just to have some space to yourself.

I will be featuring the iconography, symbolism and history of some of Angkor’s principle temples on this blog later in the year, but if you want an in-depth guide to the lessons you can learn from their sacred walls, look out for my second book, Journeys To Ancient Worlds: In Search of the Truth.

To see more of the temples in the Angkor complex, you will need a three-day pass and at least one day in a Tuk-Tuk. If you only get a one day pass, take a Tuk-Tuk.

I would recommend Zaki to anyone. In a three-month trip through South-East Asia, he is the only Tuk-Tuk driver I met that charged honest and reasonable prices – US$25 and we were out for over 10 hours! Contact him on Facebook.

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