The ultimate Indiana Jones fantasy, Ta Prohm is cloaked in dappled shadow, its crumbling towers and walls locked in the slow, muscular embrace of vast root systems. If Angkor Wat, the Bayon and other temples are testimony to the genius of the ancient Khmers, Ta Prohm reminds us equally of the awesome fecundity and power of the jungle. There is a poetic cycle to this venerable ruin, with humanity first conquering nature to rapidly create, and nature once again conquering humanity to slowly destroy.
Built from 1186 and originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman VII. Ta Prohm is a temple of towers, close courtyards and narrow corridors. Ancient trees tower overhead, their leaves filtering the sunlight and casting a greenish pall over the whole scene. It is the closest most of us will get to feeling the magic of the explorers of old.
Around 400m south of Angkor Thom, this hill’s main draw is the sunset view of Angkor Wat, though this has turned into something of a circus, with hundreds of visitors jockeying for space. The temple, built by Yasovarman I (r 889–910), has five tiers with seven levels.
(Sacred Sword) The temple of Preah Khan (Sacred Sword) is one of the largest complexes at Angkor, a maze of vaulted corridors, fine carvings and lichen-clad stonework. Constructed by Jayavarman VII, it covers a very large area, but the temple itself is within a rectangular wall of around 700m by 800m. Preah Khan is a genuine fusion temple, the eastern entrance dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism, with equal-sized doors, and the other cardinal directions dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, with successively smaller doors, emphasising the unequal nature of Hinduism.
(Temple of the Intertwined Nagas) Another late-12th-century work of – no surprises here – Jayavarman VII, this petite temple just east of Preah Khan has a large square pool surrounded by four smaller square pools, with a circular ‘island’ in the middle. Water once flowed from the central pond into the four peripheral pools via four ornamental spouts, in the form of an elephant’s head, a horse’s head, a lion’s head and a human head.
The monuments of Roluos, which served as the capital for Indravarman I (r 877–89), are among the earliest large permanent temples built by the Khmers and mark the dawn of Khmer classical art. Preah Ko, dedicated to Shiva, has elaborate inscriptions in Sanskrit on the doorposts of each tower and some of the best surviving examples of Angkorian plasterwork. The city’s central temple, Bakong, with its five-tier central pyramid of sandstone, is a representation of Mt Meru. Roluos is 13km southeast of Siem Reap along NH6.
Considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Angkorian art, Banteay Srei – a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva – is cut from stone of a pinkish hue and includes some of the finest stone carving anywhere on earth. Begun in AD 967, it is one of the few temples around Angkor not to be commissioned by a king, but by a Brahman, perhaps a tutor to Jayavarman V.
Banteay Srei, 21km northeast of Bayon and about 32km from Siem Reap, can be visited along with Kbal Spean and the Cambodia Landmine Museum.
Kbal Spean is a spectacularly carved riverbed, set deep in the jungle about 50km northeast of Angkor. More commonly referred to in English as the ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, it’s a 2km uphill walk to the carvings. From there you can work your way back down to the waterfall to cool off. Carry plenty of water.
At the nearby Angkor Centre for Conservation of Biodiversity, trafficked animals are nursed back to health. Free tours generally begin at 1pm Monday to Saturday.
The most sacred mountain in Cambodia, Phnom Kulen (487m) is where Jayavarman II proclaimed himself a devaraja (god-king) in AD 802, giving birth to Cambodia. A popular place of pilgrimage during weekends and festivals, the views it affords are absolutely tremendous.
Phnom Kulen is 50km from Siem Reap and 15km from Banteay Srei. The road toll is US$20 per foreign visitor, none of which goes towards preserving the site.
(admission US$5) Built by Suryavarman II to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea (admission US$5) is the Titanic of temples, utterly subsumed by jungle. Nature has well and truly run riot here. Jumbled stones lie like forgotten jewels swathed in lichen, and the galleries are strangled by ivy and vines.
Beng Mealea is about 65km northeast of Siem Reap on a sealed toll road.
(admission US$10) Abandoned to the forests of the north, Koh Ker, capital of the Angkorian empire from AD 928 to AD 944, is now within day-trip distance of Siem Reap. Most visitors start at Prasat Krahom, where impressive stone carvings grace lintels, doorposts and slender window columns. The principal monument is Mayan-looking Prasat Thom, a 55m-wide, 40m-high sandstone-faced pyramid whose seven tiers offer spectacular views across the forest. However, access to the top of Prasat Thom is currently prohibited for safety reasons.
Koh Ker is 127 km northeast of Siem Reap (car hire is around US$90, 2½ hours).
The lake is linked to the Mekong at Phnom Penh by a 100km-long channel, the Tonlé Sap River. From mid-May to early October (the wet season), rains raise the level of the Mekong, backing up the Tonlé Sap River and causing it to flow northwest into the Tonlé Sap Lake. During this period, the lake swells from 2500 sq km to 13,000 sq km or more, its maximum depth increasing from about 2.2m to more than 10m. Around the start of October, as the water level of the Mekong begins to fall, the Tonlé Sap River reverses its flow, draining the waters of the lake back into the Mekong.
This extraordinary process makes the Tonlé Sap one of the world’s richest sources of freshwater fish and an ideal habitat for water birds.