Sunrise on the moat of Angkor Thom

Angkor: The Ruin of a Formidable Kingdom

Tiếng Việt

For centuries, Angkor was the center of the Khmer Empire. With impressive monuments and sophisticated urban plans, it demonstrates the development of a formidable kingdom and its exceptional civilization. Today, the site is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. And no traveler to the region will want to miss this extravagant beauty.


Hiding in the jungle of Cambodia’s northern province Siem Reap, Angkor (ប្រាសាទអង្គរ) is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. It contains the magnificent remains of different Khmer Empire capitals, from the 9th to the 15th century. The whole complex covers an area of more than 400 km², including multiple temple complexes and forested areas. According to the Cambodian, Angkor is the embodiment of Mt Meru, home of the gods in Hinduism. Therefore, it exemplifies cultural, religious, and symbolic significance, as well as high architectural and artistic value.

Angkor Wat

Of all temples in the archaeological site, Angkor Wat (អង្គរវត្ត) or “Capital Temple” is probably the best-preserved architecture. Built in the early 12th century by King Suryavarman II, it was dedicated to Vishnu – one of the three major deities in Hinduism. The temple complex stretches over 162 hectares, with quincunx of towers at the center. The architects’ calculation was so precise, that from afar, only three towers are visible. The towers are then surrounded by three rectangular galleries, kilometers long wall, and a wide moat.

Angkor Wat’s main temple
Angkor Wat

Near the end of the 12th century, the “Capital Temple” fell into the hand of Cham invaders. It suffered some damage, but quickly recovered thanks to King Jayavarman VII. However, the temple was converted into a Buddist temple, because the King was a faithful Buddhist. When the Khmer Empire was demised in the 15th century, the temple gradually receded into the jungle. Yet its role as a religious center has not waned over centuries.

I must admit I was not prepared for the enormous size and overwhelming beauty of Angkor Wat. The temple is the ultimate expression of Khmer genius, which in turn becomes the source of inspiration as well as the national pride of all Cambodians. Therefore, it is no surprise to see the temple proudly standing at the center of the country’s flag.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat
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Angkor Thom

After reclaiming the empire in the late 12th century, King Jayavarman VII – Cambodia’s most celebrated king – established a new capital just several kilometers north of Angkor Wat. He named it Angkor Thom (អង្គរធំ), which means “The Great City”. And it was indeed the last and most enduring capital in Khmer Empire’s history (nearly 300 years).

Covering an area of over 9 km², the ancient city was built in a nearly perfect square. It was protected by a multi-layered system, including gates, high walls, and a wide moat. During its heyday, Angkor Thom might have a population of one million people.

En route to Angkor Thom

Standing exactly at the heart of this city is the mesmerizing Bayon Temple – the intersection between Heaven and Earth. Constructed in the late 12th or early 13th century, it served as the official state temple of Jayavarman’s kingdom. The temple is known for its 216 gargantuan smiling stone faces of Avalokiteshvara – a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. They were carved on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak. The curious smiling image was thought by many to be the portrait of the King himself.

Bayon Temple
Sunset at Bayon Temple
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Ta Prohm

With enormous tree roots embracing crumbling towers and systems of vines strangulate walls, Ta Prohm ( ប្រាសាទតាព្រហ្ម) does look otherworldly. Known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), the 12th-century Buddhist complex lies approximately one kilometer east of Angkor Thom and was dedicated to the family of King Jayavarman VII. The complex is filled with temples, closed courtyards, and narrow corridors where more than 12,500 people are called home.

After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, Ta Prohm was abandoned and neglected for centuries. Unlike other monuments in the area, it’s in much the same condition which it was discovered by European explorers in the 1800s. Hundred of years old trees tower overhead, their leaves filter the sunlight and cast shadows over the whole scene. The temple is literally swallowed by the jungle, making it the most atmospheric ruins in the Angkor Archeological Park.

Ta Prohm
Twisted trunk at Ta Prohm

Tips for visiting Angkor

  • An Angkor Pass is required to visit temples and sites in the Angkor Archeological Park. It can be purchased directly at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat. Please note that the cashier only accept crisply bills.
  • It’s recommended to buy the ticket the day before to avoid the massive crowd in the morning. The pass will be checked at the entrance of each major temple, so keep the pass with you. If you get caught at the site without a pass, you may get a considerable fine.
  • The park is opened at 5:00 and closed at 18:00. Some temples might be closed earlier.
  • As most of the temples face east, the best lighting condition is in the morning, except for Angkor Wat. But the sunrise at Angkor Wat is still pretty amazing. Temples surrounded by jungle such as Ta Prohm can also be photographed when the sun is overhead.
  • The whole complex is enormous. Therefore, taking a Tuk Tuk to travel from temple to temple might be a wise choice. The cost is affordable (around 10-15$ for the whole day). A taxi might cost around 35$ per day.
  • When in Siem Reap, I would recommend watching a show of Phare – the Cambodian circus. The performance is great and easy to understand. There are also subtitles in both French and English. Furthermore, the ticket sale is donated to orphanages, from which the artists originate.
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62 thoughts on “Angkor: The Ruin of a Formidable Kingdom”

  1. Bama – Jakarta, Indonesia – Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.
    Bama says:

    What beautiful photos! How did you get that photo of the inner sanctum of Angkor Wat without people? I remember when I was there, the place was full of tourists. So full we actually had to wait for a few minutes before we were allowed to go up the steep stairs.

    1. Actually, I was at the opposite side of the steep stairs 🙂 Only a handful of peole there. And it was afternoon so I guess most guided tours already went home.

  2. Wow, these photos are stunning!

  3. Mel & Suan – Singapore – Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!
    Mel & Suan says:

    Wonderful indeed! Our 4 days were hot, humid and sweaty, but it was all worth it!

    1. Indeed. When I was there, it was hot as well. We only visited the complex either on the early morning or in the late afternoon. It was unbearable at noon…, except at Ta Prohm where there is a lot of tree 🙂

      1. Mel & Suan – Singapore – Mel works his day job for a living, but lives for antiquities, history and geography at all other times. He enjoys writing and thought sharing and obviously traveling. Suan is a homey person, who like girlie stuff such as cross stitching etc. Enjoys shopping & modeling for Mel. What a match!
        Mel & Suan says:

        Yes we did the same arrangement with our Tuk Tuk driver too.

  4. Marie – Alexandria, VA – I am retired from working but not from life. In the next phase of growing up, instead of growing old I plan to travel, take lots of photos, collect whatever appeals to me, write, read mysteries, and eat ice cream. The world awaits. Update: I can no longer eat ice cream. So sad!
    Marie says:

    Lovely photos. When I was there it was gray and the light was terrible for photography. Love seeing it in the sun.

    1. Thanks a lot, Marie 🙂 I guess I really had luck with the weather. There were some rains but the cloud dismissed very quickly.

  5. Nice blog. Please review mine as well

  6. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
    Jolene says:

    Those photographs are surely the best of Cambodia I’ve seen. One of my friends just recently came back after a month long trip and the place looked tired and uninviting. You should work for Trafalgar or one of those global travel firms… Much better suited to your skills than medical research? (Perhaps you are equally talented in both and we are all just ignorant )

      1. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
        Jolene says:

        I’m jealous of your talents
        How many languages do you speak by the way?

      2. Currently, three: Vietnamese, English and German :). Two years ago, I could speak some Mandarin. But without training, I can barely remember anything now (still can hear and understand some words, but reading and writing are impossible haha)

      3. Jolene – Sydney, Australia – Jolene is a banker by trade, a writer at heart, and is a contributor to Thought Catalog. You are welcome to peek into her adventures and reflections on films and life at "SoMuchToTellYou", her ultimate love affair with words.
        Jolene says:

        I’m sure in 2 years’ time you’ll acquire 3 more! German is way too hard…

  7. Nano @ Travels With Nano – Tokyo, Japan – Hi, I'm Nano! Welcome to my site! Travels With Nano is filled with everything I am passionate about: uncovering the world one sight, bite and cultural experience at a time. I'm here to share savvy travel tips and inspire (not influence!) your future travel adventures. Needless to say, I am thrilled to have you here reading!
    Nano @ Travel With Nano B. says:

    I will never tire to compliment you on your stunning photography! I really hope to make it to Cambodia some time next year, so much history and culture to explore.

    1. It is very kind of you, Nano! Thanks a lot 🙂 I still need to learn more, especially for shooting food haha. Angkor is a great place, and I suggest to spend at least 2 days there to see the place at different time points.

  8. Monalisa – Limra Hospitality Pvt Ltd is approved by the Ministry of Tourism (Govt. Of India) as an inbound tour operator. A traveler will hence be able to select areas of interest based on their preferences and subsequently identify destinations to visit. The intention is to provide customers with access to exclusive travel destinations, service to fully appreciate destinations through information packages, not just sightseeing, and access to special interest travel according to the group's/individual's preferences.
    Ranthambore National Park says:

    What excellent photos!..Wow, these photographs are shocking!..

  9. You have really beautiful photographs and also good information to plan the visit.

  10. Great post and lovely photos! I have just arrived in Siem Reap and am unsure how to choose to see all the temples. I would like to get the 3 day pass but I was wondering how did you organise your Tuk Tuk? Did you have the same driver on all days or just find one on each day?

    1. Oh, I had the same driver for all days. I found it is more convenient that way 🙂 I told the driver the time to pick us up at the hotel. He brought us to the temple, then he waited outside until we finished visiting, and we moved to the next one. They are hardworking so you can even make an appointment at 4:00 AM 🙂

      1. Was it expensive for you to have the driver for all days? And is it flexible what order you do the temples etc? I’m not sure if I should hire a bike instead. Sorry to bombard you with questions!

      2. Don’t worry 🙂 I paid around 10 to 14$ per day. It is not totally flexible but the driver really has no problem with waiting 🙂 Just set a time frame for him. I remember that I spent like hours in Angkor Wat but my driver was already there when I walked out the temple.
        If you want absolute flexibility and you are adventurous and have a good orientation, I think you should rent a bike 🙂 But please beware that the road condition is not that good, and it might be easy to get lost, especially at dusk.

  11. Wow! Congrats on these pictures, they are truly awesome! Thanks!

    1. Many thanks! My Son looks really like a mini version of Angkor. But they belonged to 2 separate kingdoms (the Champa vs. the Khmer). If you have some time to spend in Southern Vietnam, I highly recommend you making a trip to Angkor 🙂

  12. Beautiful pics and great tips. I wish, I had read your blog before visiting Cambodia.

  13. margaret21 – United Kingdom – I'm retired and living in North Yorkshire, where I walk as often as I can, write, volunteer, and travel as often as I can.
    margaret21 says:

    Very powerful images.

  14. Thank you for these splendid photos and the travel advice.

  15. whippetwisdom – www.whippetwisdom.com – The stories, poems and photographs on this blog are the original creative work of Xenia Tran. Inspired by life in the Scottish Highlands and in awe of nature she gives voice to the wisdom of her two adopted whippets Eivor and Pearl.
    whippetwisdom says:

    What an amazing place and your photographs capture the light and atmosphere so well too! Thank you so much for sharing this :o)

  16. Well thought out and well written. The photos are amazing and very different from my park of the world. Thank you.

  17. Breathtaking photos! And a very informative post…

  18. Megha's World – I’m a mother of a smart and energetic seven-year-old. I started expressing myself creatively since the last two years. Since then I have been continuously inspired by events in my life and around me which has helped me in penning my thoughts. I’m an avid reader, loves to sing, an ardent lover of poetry and sometimes can scribble few lines too. Loves to dance in the rain, have an undying love for nature, can watch the beautiful sunset for hours. Love to kiss and hug my loved ones. I have worked in the IT field for almost a decade as a manager, worked crazy hours and traveled around the world. In that busy schedule, I never got the time to creatively express my thoughts. Now every time I finish a poem, free verse anything it fills me with so much happiness and excitement and a feeling to have created something of my own. I’m planning to post at least one creation of mine weekly. Lastly, a million thanks to all who visit, like or follow my tiny bits of creation. Every time you do that, I get to know one more beautiful person in my life and get the chance to see their creation too.
    Megha's World says:

    Beautiful pictures as always. Your post transports my mind to these exotic places you always feature. Lot of places in my bucket list from South Asia now 😉

  19. joseph elon lillie – I am a full-time pastor and a dad. In my sojourn here I have learned that the two constants in the world are God and change. When it comes to changes, some are good, others...not so much. When it comes to God, well, He is all good.
    joseph elon lillie says:

    The lighting in some of these is just amazing!

      1. joseph elon lillie – I am a full-time pastor and a dad. In my sojourn here I have learned that the two constants in the world are God and change. When it comes to changes, some are good, others...not so much. When it comes to God, well, He is all good.
        joseph elon lillie says:

        🙂

  20. This is a beautiful post of a spectacular place. I especially like your photo “On the road to Angkor Thom”. It looks so peaceful. We were there two years ago during Chinese New Year holidays and it was crazy busy. You have a really nice blog.

    1. Many thanks, Caroline! I’m glad that you like it. I took that photo several mintues after sunrise, when the people go to work/school. A very early start, I think 🙂

  21. Just a note on your practical information: if you want to go early to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat, the ticket booth in the dark early morning is a confusing, crowded madhouse. Also, your money (at least if it is US bills) must be crisply perfect. We saw a woman turned away because her $100 bill was not perfect. (Luckily, her friends had money to help her.) We would suggest buying a multi-day ticket the day before to avoid this ticketing problem. Also, get crisp bills before you go and preserve them carefully just for this.

    1. I didn’t know that they are so strict in term of the bill’s appearance. Perhaps an imperfect bill is a sign of counterfeit money? I also agree that the best way to avoid the crowd in the morning is buying the ticket a day before. Thanks for reminding me! I will add these tips into the post 🙂

    1. It’s incredible! I still don’t understand how they could build such monuments, without nails or concrete. And it’s in the middle of a jungle 🙂

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