Six Temples Not To Be Missed While In Siem Reap
Updated: May 12, 2022
Angkor Archaeological complex and surrounding areas in Siem Reap have many beautiful temples, from the sprawling Angkor Wat to small but exquisitely carved Banteay Srei. Here are our pick of the six most magnificent temples not to be missed while in Siem Reap in no particular order! they are all stunning in their own right...
1. The Bayon temple
The Bayon temple was built by Jayavarman VII in the late 12th to the early 13th century and was the last state temple to be built at Angkor. The temple is located in the exact centre of Angkor Thom.
There are numerous similarities between Angkor Wat and the Bayon temple. Both were temple mountains (inner enclosures higher than the outer ones- giving the feel of a mountain) and demonstrated the religious affiliation of the ruling king in a strong architectural statement. Angkor Wat was built by the Hinu King Suryavarman II in the 12th century and dedicated to Lord Vishnu and the Bayon temple was built by Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII. Both also served as the masoleum of their builder kings. Both make a strong political statement and give us a great glimpse into how the religious orientation dictated the architecture in those days. But unlike Angkor Wat which has a stunning frame and silhouette from a distance, the Bayon temple needs to be seen up close to appreciate its beauty - the sheer size of the structures and the enigmatic smiling faces.
The iconic towers of Bayon temple with smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara
The Bayon temple is built on three levels and consists of 54 magnificent towers with 216 smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara (the bodhisattva of compassion, 'bodhisattva' is a person who has attained enlightenment but delays attaining nirvana in order to help others attain enlightenment). The three levels correspond three phases of building, which is believed to be because Jayavarman VII started the construction when he was quite old. So one phase was completed before moving to the next.
The first two levels are square and adorned with bas-reliefs (the technique where sculptures are carved out so that it is slightly raised from the background). The outer wall of the southern gallery in the first floor depicts scenes from everyday life like meal preparations, cockfights, markets, celebrations etc. The eastern gallery depicts scenes of battles between Khmer and the Chams (originating from Champa Kingdom, now central Vietnam) – one of the ethnic groups in present day Cambodia.
The third level is circular and contains the 54 towers and their 216 smiling faces. It is also believed that the 54 towers represent the 54 provinces at the time and the bodhisattva faces are made in the likeliness of Jayavarman VII and were meant to ‘watch over’ his provinces.
A tree and one of the gopura (entrance) of Ta Prohm temple
2. Temple of Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm is better known as the Tomb Raider temple starring Angelina Jolie! The internet is flooded with the rather unreal pictures of a temple crumbling under massive roots of imposing cotton-silk and strangler fig trees. It is this uneasy but true picture of the vulnerability of human creation against nature that makes this such a visited place in the world! If it wasn’t for this weird marriage of architecture and nature, the Ta Prohm temple would have been just another one of the ‘ruins’ in Cambodia.
Ta Prohm means Ancestor of Brahma though we are not quite sure what that means and why it is called so when it was built by a Buddhist King. This was infact a royal Buddhist monastery and a centre for learning, built during King Jayavarman VII's reign. It was originally known as Rajavihara or ‘Royal House’ and was dedicated to his mother. The monastery also served as the headquarters of the huge hospital network that Jayavarman VII had built.
Inside Ta Prohm
Unlike other temples which are ‘mountain temples’ (inner enclosures higher than the outer ones- giving the feel of a mountain) this one a ‘flat’ temple and is east facing like most other temples in Cambodia. It has 5 enclosures and gopuras (entrance towers) in all four cardinal directions. The outermost enclosure is 1km by 600m, and most of the people that were attached to the Ta Prohm temple as dancers, servants and villagers lived within the fifth enclosure. The fourth enclosure had cells for the Buddhist monks of the temple and the walls of this enclosure depict scenes from Buddhism but most of these were destroyed and replaced by Hindu deities during Jayavarman VIII’s reign who was a Hindu and worshipper of Shiva (the 'destroyer'). The fourth enclosure also contains the ‘hall of dancers’ at the eastern end- because of the bas-reliefs depicting dancing apsaras (celestial dancing nymphs). The third enclosure also has carved panels depicting several Buddhist scenes. The innermost central enclosure houses statue of Prajnaparamita which means "the Perfection of Wisdom" in Mahayana Buddhism. The face bears likeliness to the king’s mother. The centre of the monument is reached by a series of towers connected with passages. The different enclosures house around 260 statues. There are numerous towers, closed courtyards and narrow corridors many of which are difficult to access with loose carved stone blocks filling up the narrow spaces.
Ta Prohm is one of the few temples in the Angkor region where a Sanskrit inscription which is still in place, provides us information that give an idea of the scale of the temple. Almost 80,000 people attended and supported the monastery, there were villagers, officials, dancers and priests. The temple also had some mind-boggling property – dishes made of gold, diamonds, pearls, precious stones, silk beds, veils and parasols – hard to imagine considering the derelict state of this place!
One of the many gigantic trees of Ta Prohm temple
The temple was built using sandstone blocks and there was no use of mortar which sort of made it easy for the jungle to take over and once it was abandoned after the fall of the Khmer Empire. When this was ‘discovered’ and restoration work was started by the French in the early 20th century, the overgrowth was clipped to make the site accessible and the core was strengthened. Perhaps a lot of work goes in to maintain this balance of the living over non-living such that the structure doesn’t crumble down.
Some of the things to look out for while at Ta Prohm
Dinosaur stone carving – Carvings of what seem like stegosaurus are depicted one of the narrow stone columns which remains an area of fascination as dinosaurs as said to have extinct before the evolution of humans but some argue that perhaps some species survived for longer to have appeared in the historic artworks of humans.
The dinosaur stone carving
The Tomb Raider Tree – Coming into the spotlight in the movie Tomb Raider this stunning strangler fig is worth a big long stare!
The Tomb Raider tree from the famous movie - Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
The Crocodile Tree – Spreading its roots further and further every year this strangler fig known as the crocodile tree is visible on the easternmost gopura of the central enclosure.
In front of the Crocodile tree
The Waterfall Tree – With its curvy flowing roots on the walls of the inner gallery, this ‘waterfall’ tree is a strangler fig that seems to be providing a curtain shielding the masonry.
The waterfall tree
Face Tower – Seen above the west entrance, the four stone faces resemble the ones at the Bayon temple and are believed to be Jayavarman VII as the bodhisattva.
Hall of Dancers – Inside the fourth enclosure, beautiful bas-relief of the asparas (dancing celestial nymphs), decorate the wall similar to those found in other bayon style temples.
Inside Preah Khan temple
3. Preah Khan Temple
The Preah Khan was a ‘temple-city’ built by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century to commemorate his victory over the invading Cham army, from the neighbouring Champa kingdom in today’s Southern Vietnam. It was therefore called Nagarajayaciri (city of victory) and was inhabited by around 100,000 people including farmers, monks, officials and dancers. It also served as a Buddhist university with more than 1000 teachers and was Jayavarman VII’s temporary residence while Angkor Thom was being built. It also has the massive Jayatataka baray (reservoir) which surrounds the Preah Neak Pean.
The Preah Khan temple complex was at the heart of the Nagarajayaciri city and are the ruins that we see today. The temple was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father, while Ta Prohm was built in dedication to his mother.
A large inscribed stone stela (2m by 0.6m) with inscriptions on all four sides gives us useful insight about Preah Khan’s role as a centre for worship and learning. It was discovered in 1939 by a French conservator and includes an invocation to Lokeshvara and Prajnaparamita, pays homage to the three gems of Buddhism (Buddha, Dhamma Sangha), contains praise for king Jayavarman VII and includes other details on population, treasury etc. The stela was originally located within the first eastern enclosure but is now housed at Angkor Conservation in Siem Reap, so don’t go looking around for it!
The outer wall of the temple complex is surrounded by a moat and adorned with 5m tall Garuda (mythological bird) in battle with nagas (serpents). Like Ta Prohm the complex many towers, ceremonial spaces, courtyards, shrines, and connecting corridors and passages, several hundred divine figures but also includes a two-storey Greek style pavilion which still puzzles archaeologists. Preah Khan also witnessed a large number of festivals every year.
The Greek style two-storey pavilion of Preah Khan temple
There are four gates that allow entry into the temple complex, and each has a causeway over the moat. The eastern entrance which is the main entrance is dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism and the other cardinal directions dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma giving this temple somewhat of a ‘fusion’ feel. Today most tourists enter from the west gate near the main road. The bridge over the moat, on the West side of the complex, are bordered by another stunning depiction of the Samudra Manthan, similar to the approach to Angkor Thom and with mostly decapitated heads. (Samudra Manthan means churning of the ocean to extract the nectar of immortality - read South Gate of Angkor Thom for more information here on Samudra Manthan). The eastern entrance has ruins of a small landing stage for boats, and two lions standing guard.
The temple consists of four rectangular enclosures around a central Buddhist sanctuary from which vaulted galleries extend in the cardinal directions and depict bas-reliefs of rishi and apsaras.
The fourth enclosure would have contained wooden houses of villagers. The third enclosure houses the Hall of Dancers with depictions of apsaras (celestial dancing nymphs) located just beyond the Gopura of the east entrance. Above the entrance doors are beautifully carved Devatas (divine figures). The second enclosure has only a narrow gap between it and the first. The inner sanctuary, which is the most sacred part of the temple walls adorned with images of Buddha.
Tree roots and trunks engulfing Preah Khan temple
Like Ta Prohm. Preah Khan has many trees with roots piercing the masonry but unlike Ta Prohm, the temple of Preah Khan is in a reasonable state of preservation due to the extensive restoration done by the Worlds Monument Fund (WMF) since 1991.
Entrance of Angkor Wat - The largest religious monument in the world
4. Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat literally means 'city temple'. Its importance to present day Cambodia can be seen from the fact that it takes place of pride on the Cambodian flag.
Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century (between 1130 and 1150) by King Suryavarman II. The temple was dedicated to Lord Vishnu (the ‘Protector’ and one of the three of the Hindu Trinity- the other being Brahma- the ‘Creator’ and Shiva- the ‘Destroyer’). It also served as an astronomical observatory and later the tomb King Suryavarman II.
Inside the temple of Angkor Wat
It is interesting to note here that though being one of the most significant religious buildings of the Khmer empire, there is no information on the temple’s name – Angkor Wat (City temple) is quite a generic name for such an important temple. The layout of the Wat (temple) is based on the Hindu concept of ‘mandala’ (Sanskrit word meaning the representation of the cosmos). The central temple is in the shape of a lotus bud- central tower standing tall and surrounded by 4 towers. Like other temples this is also aligned to the Hindu mythological concept of Mount Meru – the 5 mountain ranges that is considered to be the centre of the universe and the axis of the world. (The roof tower crowning the shrine in a Hindu temple represents Meru). This central temple towers over the complex and is steep climb. The towers rise through three levels to a grand central shrine. The temple is surrounded by expansive enclosure wall, which separates the temple grounds from the moat that surrounds the entire complex. The moat represents the cosmic ocean.
One of the many magnificinet and intricate Bas-relief at Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat is also known for its intricate Bas-relief (technique of sculpture in which shapes are carved so that they stand out) in its galleries and pillars. There are 8 stories from the Hindu epics Ramayana, Mahabharata and Purana depicted on the galleries of the lower level. On the east galleries on either side of the main entrance are bas-relief of Battle of Lanka (from Ramayana) and Battle of Kurukshetra (from Mahabharata). On the west gallery are the bas-relief of Vishnu’s victory over asuras (demons) on north section and Samudra Manthana on the south section. It is interesting to note that the south gallery (west section) is depicts the procession of Suryavarman II, who built the temple.
It is therefore not surprising that it took around 30 years to be constructed perhaps with thousands of people at work each day.
Stone carved Apsaras of Angkor Wat
It is also interesting to note that many believe that this temple defies the Hindu principle of East facing temples. However, the direction of the temple is determined is by the deity- and Vishnu temples are west facing while Shiva temples are north-east facing. Vishnu is also considered to be supreme God therefore other demi-Gods face in east facing temples then face Vishnu who therefore needs to be in a west facing temple.
The four entrances feature the images of Buddha reminiscent of the rise of Buddhism and decline of Hinduism in Cambodia in the 13th century. Since then the temple is a site of worship for Buddhist monks.
Buddhist monk offering blessing at Angkor Wat
The view of the temple with the large pond to the left creates a dramatic image at sunrise. Recent excavations at the site, point to the existence of another town possibly before the construction of Angkor Wat.
Eastern gopura (entrance) of Ta Som temple
5. Temple of Ta Som
Ta Som appears to be a small-scale version of the Ta Prohm! The main highlight being the massive strangler fig tree growing over the eastern gopura.
It was originally referred to as Gaurasrigajaratna (meaning the gem of the white elephant) and is located to the east of the Jayatakata baray (reservoir of Preah Khan). It is a small temple built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII and unlike mountain temples (with inner enclosures higher than the outer) is a ‘flat’ temple. The outer wall hardly there now measured 240m by 200m) within which sat a second enclosure surrounded by a moat. The rectangular inner enclosure has towers at the four corner towers and four gateways at each of the cardinal directions, with a central free-standing tower in the middle in the shape of a cross with four
Inside the temple of Ta Som and its intricate stone carving
The first entry tower is bordered with large Garudas (mythological birds) and nagas (serpents). The wall of the second enclosure has entry towers in the shape of a cross on the east and west sides. The entry towers have windows and lead to a porch with pillars. The courtyard is piled with crumbles stones and also has two libraries opening to the west.
Temple of Banteay Srei
6. Temple of Banteay Srei
Unlike most other temples of Angkor, the temple of Banteay Srei is small in stature and is the only temple not commissioned by a king but rather a Brahmin, a counsellor priest to the King and built in the 10th century dedicated to Hindu God Shiva (the destroyer). Every inch of the temple is adorned with exquisitely carved devatas and devis (male and female deities). It was originally called Tribhuvanamahesvara, the name Banteay Srei means “citadel of the women” or “citadel of beauty”. It is speculated that the carvings were mostly done by womenfolk due to the finesse and detail.
A scene from Ramayana on the wall of Baneay Srei temple
The temple is made of pink sandstone. It temple is square and has entrances at the east and west, with the east approached by a causeway. The libraries and the three central towers with male and female divinities also depict scenes from the epic Ramayana.
Banteay Srei’s has some good facilities thanks to the restoration-a large car park, dining and shopping area, exhibition on the history of the temple and its restoration. There is also a small baray behind the temple with boat trips through the lotus pond.