Travel Guide: World’s largest religious complex – Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat at sunrise

Cambodia offers visa on arrival as well as evisa for Indians; along with that AirAsia’s cheap fares from a dozen Indian cities to Cambodia with a short layover at Kuala Lumpur/Bangkok provides an economic opportunity to explore the world’s largest religious complex: Angkor Wat. The city of Siem Reap known as the gateway of Angkor Wat is located 400km away from Bangkok making it possible to visit the temples of Angkor after an overnight bus journey from Thailand’s capital.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The temple faces west

Spread across ~400km2, Angkor Archaeological park, a UNESCO world heritage site, comprises of Angkor Wat, the Bayon Temple and umpteen associated monuments such as Preah Khan and Ta Som. The park also has a rich forest cover which veiled the monuments from outside world for centuries. The temples of Angkor unveil the ascendancy and grandiose of the erstwhile Khmer Empire established by Jayavarman II in 9th century. Khmer Empire comprised of present day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and South Vietnam and soon after it’s decline Cambodia fell into the dark ages. The strong trade links with India influenced this region culturally and led to the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism in the 6th century. Angkor Wat is a monument of national pride for people of Cambodia and in fact it is featured in the flag of this country. Vandalizing, looting and smuggling of artifacts and bas-reliefs coupled with some unscientific restoration (though done with good intention) have taken a considerable toll on the temples. Yet they remain overwhelmingly impressive and enigmatic in the present day.

The park’s visiting hours is from 5:00 AM to 6:00 PM making it possible to watch the monuments during sunrise and sunset – a must-do during the visit. Tickets are available for 1 day ($37), 3 days ($62), and 7 days ($72) (the prices of the tickets were hiked to almost double in August 2016). The 3-day ticket would be the best buy as it’s neither too short or too long and (almost) all of the important sites can be covered in 3 days. The most popular tours offered by the tour companies and the local tuk-tuk drivers are half-day tour of small circuit and the full day big circuit tour which include visiting Angkor Wat at sunrise.  These 2 tours can be completed in 2 days and maybe on the third day you could revisit your favorite monuments and/or explore more by hiring a bicycle/tuk-tuk. The tours to the distant and less visited monuments are also getting popular these days. Make sure you carry plenty of water during your visit. Exploring these huge monuments under hot sun will be much tiring and it is advisable to avoid afternoon times. My 2-day visit to Angkor during the second half of December 2015 had been fruitful even though I have go to see only half dozen of temples. The list of temples I have visited are listed below; the heat and dehydration stopped my attempt to make this list a lot more comprehensive.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument and is featured in the flag of Cambodia. The temple of Angkor Wat with Lord Vishnu as the chief deity was built during the reign of Suryavarman II in 12th century. It symbolizes Mount Meru, the adobe of Hindu Gods and Goddesses.  About 400m of bas-reliefs depicting scenes from Hindu mythology cover the walls of this temple. Watch out for the 2,000 Apsaras (celestial female spirits) embodied in the form of rock sculptures.

Prasat Bayon

Right at the heart of ancient mega city Angkor Thom, is it’s state temple – Bayon, which consists of a series of towers carved with huge faces strikingly similar to Bodhisattva as well as King Jayavarman VII, who had built Bayon and Angkor Thom. Unlike his predecessors who were Hindus, King Jayavarman VII was Mahayana Buddhist and Bayon is in fact a Buddhist temple. His successors reverted back to Hinduism and modified Bayon to incorporate their religious beliefs. The interior of this temple which has a maze-like appearance and the “faces” with a subtle smile may startle the visitor.

Preah Khan

A distinguished Buddhist temple and university complex, Preah Khan (Royal Sword) is believed to be built on the site of a major battle between Khmers and Chams.

Ta Som

Ta Som is in a semi-ruined state with trees and vegetation growing out of monuments. Since 1998 World Monuments Fund did considerable restoration work on this Buddhist temple which was built by King Jayavarman VII in 12th century. The entry towers at east and west have carved faces similar to Bayon temple.


East Mebon

An island temple that once stood in the middle of a large reservoir named Yasodharatataka (which was protected by River Goddess Ganga), East Mebon is a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Neak Peam

Originally a Hindu shrine named Rajyasri, this site might have been rebuilt into a Buddhist shrine/hospital. The present name of Neak Peam (meaning entwined serpents) is attributed to the sculptures of 2 Naga Kings – Nanda and Upananda that skirt the base of the shrine located in the middle of a Baray (reservoir), the water of which possessed medicinal properties.

Travel info

  • Air: Siem Reap International Airport
  • Bus: Bangkok (~400KM), Phonm Penh (~325 KM)
  • Stay: Plenty of accommodation options with wide range of prices are available at Siem Reap
  • Explore: All of the hotels and tuk-tuk drivers conduct tours of Angkor Wat. Price and places that needs to be visited should be negoitated first. Else hire a bicycle and explore on your own.

Sources and references

  1. Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques (Book)
  2. Angkor: Wikipedia
  3. World Monuments Fund
  4. Tourism of Cambodia: Official site
  5. Cambodia e-visa