With over 2 million visitors each year, a visit to Angkor Wat can feel more like a visit to Disneyland than to a Buddhist temple in South East Asia. Of course there is no denying the appeal of the temple, which stood as the centre of the Khmer empire for over 500 years and remains as the spiritual heart of Cambodia today. That said, the increasing number of visitors disrupts the fragile balance between preserving the temples and welcoming foreign tourists who generate jobs and stimulate the local economy.
To re-centre this balance, we must make an effort to experience this ancient wonder in a sustainable way that prevents damage to these buildings that took hundreds of thousands of people hundreds of years to construct. I suggest that we refocus our attentions not just on Angkor Wat, but on the entire Angkor Archaeological Park. According to UNESCO, the Angkor Archaeological Park is not only one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia, but is one of the largest archaeological sites in operation across the entire globe. By spreading out our visits, we allow the environments more time to recuperate from the impact of our presence. What’s more is that the lesser-known Angkor temples receive far fewer visitors compared to Angkor Wat. This means that you can take your time and let each and every carving tell you its life story.
Having spent 3 days exploring the Angkor Archaeological Park, I can promise you that there are many other temples in the area that are just as fascinating and beautiful as Angkor Wat. And, if you must visit Angkor Wat, make sure you plan your visit outside of peak hours. In the meantime, check out these equally beautiful Angkor temples that are even included in the same entrance fee as Angkor Wat.
If the idea of wandering through a maze of ancient ruins sounds like your ideal Sunday, Preah Khan is the temple for you. Preah Khan, whose name translates to the ‘Sacred Sword’, was once a temple city occupying 138 acres and surrounded by a protective moat and fortified walls (i.e. all the ingredients for your dream castle). As this temple complex is on the quieter tourist circuit, visitors are often left to wander the temple’s many corridors and courtyards without any crowds.
I like to think that Winnie the Pooh was thinking of this temple when he said that “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in our hearts”. Whilst the temple itself may be small, the sense of tranquility it offers to visitors extends to the eight pools that surround it. With every step you take along the 700 metre boardwalk that leads to the small island temple, a weight is lifted off of your shoulders. Within minutes you come to understand why this place was a pilgrimage site during the 12th century, when people would travel to the temple to “wash away their sins” in the healing waters.
Upon entering the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom, one is immediately greeted by the mesmerising giant faces of the Bayon Temple. With 216 faces and carvings that tell both historical and mythological stories, this temple is nothing if not unique. Whilst still less busy than Angkor Wat, the Bayon Temple is on the main tourist circuit. Accordingly, it is better to plan your visit for the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the crowds.
As you enter Ta Prohm, the first thing you will notice are the gigantic trees which spread their roots over the temple walls and terraces, more reminiscent of snakes than plants. The second thing you will notice is that you’ve seen this place before. This temple was actually used as the setting for Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider film. As a result, many people simply refer to the temple as the “Tomb Raider temple”. Alike for the Bayon Temple, Ta Prohm can get fairly busy during the day so it’s best to limit your visits to the early morning and afternoons when it is practically empty.
Is it a mountain? Is it a temple? No, it’s a mountain temple! You’d be forgiven for thinking East Mebon was a mountain on first glance. The temple was actually modeled after the mythical mountain of Mount Meru, with its five towers representing the mountains five peaks. For those unfamiliar with Hindu and/or Buddhist cosmology, Mount Meru is believed to be the centre of all physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes.
If the Angkor temples were characters in a Jane Austen novel, Banteay Srei would be Elisabeth Bennett – intelligent and beautiful. Whilst it may be a little out of the way (37 km from Angkor Wat to be exact), this 10th century temple will charm your pants off with its intricate carvings in pink sandstone. The silver lining to the temple’s remote location is that most visitors overlook it, meaning that you will have limited crowds to compete with.
Big, beautiful and full of mystery, just 5 minutes of exploring Pre Rup will be enough to inspire you to write an Oscar-winning adventure film. Whilst little is known about this temple, the common belief is that it served as an early royal crematorium. This legend stems from the temples name, Pre Rup, which literally translates to ‘turning the body’. This phrase is thought to refer to a traditional method of cremation in which a corpse’s outline is traced in the cinders.
Whilst Angkor Wat may embody the architectural genius of the Khmer empire, Ta Som embodies the power and resilience of Mother Nature. Alike Ta Prohm, Ta Som features trees overwhelming a complex of ancient ruins. However, at least for the time being, the temple is FAR less crowded. Moreover this temple allows you the chance to meet one of the loveliest Cambodian families who sell souvenirs at the site. Be sure to ask for Vow who will share his story of being a landmine victim with you and Prisay, the wittiest 11 year old you will ever meet.
No matter which of the Angkor Temples you choose to visit, they are sure to invigorate your day more than your morning cup of coffee. Although I have visited over 40 countries, few countries have filled me with such excitement and intrigue as Cambodia with it’s Angkor temples.
Haven’t booked your trip to Cambodia yet? Read Next > 9 Reasons You Should Visit Cambodia for some added inspiration!