It’s hard to imagine any building bigger or more beautiful than Angkor Wat, but at Angkor Thom the sum of the parts add up to a greater whole. It is the gates that grab you first, flanked by a monumental representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, 54 demons and 54 gods engaged in an epic tug of war on the causeway. Each gate (North, South, East, West and Victory) towers above the visitor, the magnanimous faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring out over the kingdom. Imagine being a peasant in the 13th century approaching the forbidding capital for the first time? It would have been an awe-inspiring yet unsettling experience to enter such a gateway and come face to face with the divine power of the god-kings.
The last great capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor Thom – set over 10 sq km – took monumental to a whole new level. Built in part as a reaction to the surprise sacking of Angkor by the Chams, Jayavarman VII (r 1181–1219) decided that his empire would never again be vulnerable at home. Beyond the formidable walls is a massive moat that would have stopped all but the hardiest invaders in their tracks.
If you have one day, hit Ta Prohm at dawn and explore the atmospheric jungle temple while it’s still quiet. From there continue to Angkor Wat around 8am and enjoy the post-sunrise quiet to explore this mighty temple. In the afternoon, explore the temples within the walled city of Angkor Thom and the beauty of the Bayon in the late-afternoon light.
If you have three days, follow up the first action-packed day by beating the tourists to beautiful Banteay Srei, with a quick stop at Preah Khan along the way. Then make your way to the River of a Thousand Lingas at Kbal Spean. On the third day, head out to the Roluos area and then on to the massive jungle temple of Beng Mealea.
For those with a week, continue the three-day itinerary with a visit to the remote temple of Koh Ker. For a change of pace, take a boat to the watery village of Kompong Pluk.
The ticket booth (1-day/3-day/1-week tourist pass US$20/40/60, children under 12 free; 5am-5.30pm) is on the road from Siem Reap to Angkor. Tickets issued after 5pm (for sunset viewing) are valid the next day. Tickets are not valid for Phnom Kulen or Beng Mealea. Get caught ticketless in a temple and you’ll be fined US$100. The Khmer Angkor Tour Guide Association (063-964347; www.khmerangkortourguide.com) can arrange certified tour guides in 10 languages (US$25 to US$50 a day).
All the major temples have some sort of nourishment near the entrance. The most extensive selection of restaurants is opposite the entrance to Angkor Wat. Some excellent local Khmer restaurants line the northern shore of Sra Srang.
Bicycles are a great way to get to and around the temples, which are linked by flat roads in good shape. Various guesthouses and hotels rent out White Bicycles (www.thewhitebicycles.org; per day US$2) and proceeds go to local development projects.
Motos are a popular form of transport around the temples (around US$10 per day, more for distant sites). Drivers accost visitors from the moment they set foot in Siem Reap, but they’re often knowledgeable and friendly.
Remorks (around US$15 a day, more for distant sites) take a little longer than motos but offer protection from the rain and sun. Even more protection is offered by cars (about $30 a day, more for distant sites), though these tend to isolate you from the sights, sounds and smells.
Hiring a car to more remote sites will cost about $50 to Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei, and about $70 to Beng Mealea.
Unique, even among its cherished contemporaries, Bayon epitomises the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. It’s a place of stooped corridors, precipitous flights of stairs and, best of all, a collection of 54 Gothic towers decorated with 216 coldly smiling, enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara that bear more than a passing resemblance to the great king himself.
These huge heads glare down from every angle, exuding power and control with a hint of humanity – this was precisely the blend required to hold sway over such a vast empire, ensuring the disparate and far-flung population yielded to his magnanimous will. As you walk around, a dozen or more of the heads are visible at any one time – full-face or in profile, almost level with your eyes or staring down from on high.
Bayon is now known to have been built by Jayavarman VII, though for many years its origins were unknown. Shrouded in dense jungle, it also took researchers some time to realise that it stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom. There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face.
The eastward orientation of Bayon leads most people to visit early in the morning, preferably just after sunrise, when the sun inches upwards, lighting face after face. Bayon, however, looks equally good in the late afternoon, and if you stay for the sunset you get the same effect as at sunrise, in reverse. A Japanese team is restoring several outer areas of the temple.
About 200m northwest of Bayon, the Baphuon is a pyramidal representation of mythical Mt Meru, which marked the centre of the city that existed before the construction of Angkor Thom. Restoration efforts were disrupted by the Cambodian civil war and all records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, leaving French experts with the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. On the western side, the retaining wall of the second level was fashioned – apparently in the 15th or 16th century – into a reclining Buddha 60m in length.
The 350m-long Terrace of Elephants – decorated with parading elephants towards both ends – served as a giant viewing stand for public ceremonies and as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. As you stand here, try to imagine the pomp and grandeur of the Khmer empire at its height, with infantry, cavalry, horse-drawn chariots and, of course, elephants parading across the Central Square in a colourful procession, pennants and standards aloft.
Just north of the Terrace of Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King is a 7m-high platform. On top of the platform stands a nude, though sexless, statue, another of Angkor’s mysteries. Legend has it that at least two of the Angkor kings had leprosy. It’s more likely that it is Yama, the god of death, and that the Terrace of the Leper King housed the royal crematorium.
New in 2013, Angkor is the ultimate backdrop for a zip-line experience in Asia. Flight of the Gibbon Angkor ( 0969999101; www.treetopasia.com; near Ta Nei Temple, Angkor; per person US$129; 7am-5pm) is inside the Angkor protected area and the course includes 10 zip lines, 21 treetop platforms, four skybridges and an abseil finish. A conservation element is included in the project with a pair of gibbons released in the surrounding forest. The price includes a transfer to/from any Siem Reap hotel, plus a lunch before or after the trip near Sra Srang.