Introduction

Welcome to heaven on earth. Angkor (ប្រាសាទអង្គរ) is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The temples are the perfect fusion of creative ambition and spiritual devotion. The Cambodian ‘god-kings’ of old each strove to better their ancestors in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in the world’s largest religious building, Angkor Wat.

The temples of Angkor are a source of inspiration and national pride to all Khmers as they struggle to rebuild their lives after the years of terror and trauma. Today, the temples are a point of pilgrimage for all Cambodians, and no traveller to the region will want to miss their extravagant beauty. Angkor is one of the world’s foremost ancient sites, with the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal, and the symbolism and symmetry of the pyramids, all rolled into one.

Highlights

  • Angkor Wat Watching the sun rise over the holiest of holies, Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious building.
  • Bayon Contemplating the serenity and splendour of Bayon, its 216 enigmatic faces staring out into the jungle.
  • Ta Prohm Witnessing nature reclaiming the stones at this mysterious ruin, the Tomb Raider temple.
  • Banteay Srei Staring in wonder at the delicate carvings adorning Banteay Srei, the finest seen at Angkor.
  • Kbal Spean Trekking deep into the jungle to discover the 'River of a Thousand Lingas'.
  • Beng Mealea Exploring the tangled vines, crumbling corridors and jumbled sandstone blocks.

Itineraries

Back in the early days of tourism, the decision of what to see and in what order came down to a choice between two basic temple itineraries: the Small (Petit) Circuit and the Big (Grand) Circuit. It’s difficult to imagine anyone following these to the letter any more, but in their time they were an essential component of the Angkor experience and were often undertaken on the back of an elephant.

Today, most budget and midrange travellers prefer to take in the temples at their own pace, and tend to use a combination of transport options, such as car, remork, bicycle or minivan. Plan a dawn-to-dusk itinerary with a long, leisurely lunch to avoid the heat of the midday sun. Alternatively, explore the temples through lunch, when it can be considerably quieter than during the peak morning and afternoon visit times. However, it will be hot as hell and the light is not conducive to photography.

Resources

Angkor – Unesco World Heritage Site (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/668) Information, images and videos on the world's top temples.

Angkor Ruins (www.angkor-ruins.com) For a great online photographic resource on the temples of Angkor, look no further than this Japanese website with an English version.

Lonely Planet (www.lonelyplanet.com/cambodia/temples-of-angkor) Destination information, bookings and more.

National Geographic (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/07/angkor/angkor-animation) Animated illustrations of life in the Khmer Empire.

When to Go

  • Avoid the sweltering temperatures of March to May.
  • November to February is the best time of year to travel, but this is no secret, so it coincides with peak season. And peak season really is mountainous in this day and age, with more than two million visitors a year descending on Angkor.
  • The summer months of July and August can be a surprisingly rewarding time, as the landscape is emerald green, the moats overflowing with water, and the moss and lichen in bright contrast to the grey sandstone.
  • The Angkor Wat International Half Marathon takes place annually in December, including the option of bicycle rides for those not into running.