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Angkor's treasures part 1

04/03/2020 577 Views

Angkor is by far one of the largest and most monumental historical sites in the world.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the former Khmer capital contains many valuable historical testimonies. There are so many things to see that we don’t know where to begin with! Here is a list of the main monuments of the central part of Angkor, which we hope will help you to better understand the historical richness of the site.


The history of the Khmer Empire went on for 6 centuries, from the 9th century to the 15th.

Very early in their history, the Khmer kings developed the Baray system. This system is still today, used and considered as a very advanced development and major role in the development of the Empire.

Recall that this system was created from the beginnings of the Empire, with for example the Baray Oriental (7.5km on 1.8km) built during the reign of Yasorvarman I (889-915), who is also the king having decided of Angkor as royal capital.

Thanks to this irrigation system that ensured the wealth and survival of the people, the Empire conquered many territories. At its peak, the Khmer Empire spread over the current Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, part of Vietnam, part of Myanmar and part of Malaysia.

The wealth generated by international trade between these many territories has thus enabled the Khmer kings to build the gigantic monuments we know today to the glory of their own reign and the empire.

Despite this rich and long history, we actually do not really know much about the Khmer Empire, the first European writings describing it date from the 16th century only, and almost all the written traces of the Empire were destroyed either during the invasions, or by the wear and tear of time. 

Abandoned to the jungle for many years, Angkor remains, as the only testimony of this brilliant civilization.


For this article, we will present the most famous part of Angkor, the central part, including the temple of Angkor Vat and the city of Angkor Thom.

The official religions of the Khmer Empire followed one another between Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism («simplified» approach to Buddhism). Thus, temples are the reflection of these different influences and if you are an expert, you will notice the characteristic features of religions in the architecture of temples.

Angkor Wat (Hinduism at the beginning)

Angkor Wat is the largest, best preserved and most famous temple of the site.

It was built in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, originally dedicated to Hinduism, then to Buddhism. Occupied and maintained since its creation by a religious and human presence, the temple has survived the wear and tear of time better than other abandoned of the Angkor complex. 

Its architecture and size are simply breathtaking: the wall forming the main enclosure is 800 to 1,000 metres long, and the ditch supposed to represent the world’s oceans is 200 metres wide. The 5 towers, 55 meters high, which dominate the scene are supposed to represent the 5 summits of Mount Meru, sacred mountain dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva. Magnificent bas-reliefs and engravings decorate the inner sanctuaries and depict various epic scenes of Hindu mythology such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharat. The outdoor gallery has the longest bas-relief in the world. 
A true artistic and architectural work of art, it is also a representation of the progress of the baray system that we mentioned earlier.

National pride, world heritage, religious symbol and tourist attraction, Angkor Wat is so important to the country that it is the central element of the Cambodian flag.

Ta Prohm (Buddhism)

You probably know this temple from the numerous photographs of tree roots invading the building. 

Do not rely on this apparent negligence, many improvements have been necessary in order to preserve this aspect and allow access to the many tourists. This temple stretches over about 60 hectares and was built under the reign of the king builder Jayavarman VII (r. 1881 to 1901 approximately), as a Buddhist monastery, but also as a university.

Phnom Bakheng (Hinduism at the beginning)

Phnom Bakeng is the first state temple built in Angkor, which became the royal capital under the reign of Yasovarman I.

The construction of this temple required to demolish the top the hill (phnom) and build a stave to feed the city and this imposing temple.

Built in about 900, there are few traces of the magnificence of the temple, but you can still climb the monumental stairs on the hill and enjoy a beautiful view of the sunset and Angkor Wat.

Baksei Chamkrong (Hinduism)

This temple, located on the route between Angkor Vat and Angkor Thom may be less impressive than the others, but will be a quiet place where you can take a break from the constant crowd of tourists.

According to the legend, the king was saved in an attack on Angkor by a great bird who opened his wings to protect his king; the name of the temple can therefore be translated as «the bird that shelters under its wings».

Built during the 10th century, the stairs of the temple are quite arduous but you can enjoy a well deserved (and quiet !) nice view.


Angkor Thom is the royal capital built by the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII.

Baphûon (Hinduism then Buddhism)

Located between the Royal Palace and the Bayon, the Baphuon is the largest of the mountain temples of the Angkor site.

Built around 1060 during the reign of Udayādityavarman II (r. 1050-1066), it was known as the “golden mountain”. It was built to honour Mount Meru which is a sacred mountain of Hindu religion.

The Baphuon has the particularity of having been modified during the 15th century to be converted to Mahayana Buddhism. Part of the original temple was demolished, Buddhist ornaments and symbols were added, including an impressive statue of Buddha lying down.

The Bayon (Buddhism then Hinduism)

Built during the 13th century under King Jayavarman VII (again), the Bayon is also a well-known monument of the site of Angkor.

Its name means «the magic mountain» and it is also a temple-mountain on three floors built to honor the sybol of Mount Meru. The atmosphere is unique, thanks to the many images of Buddha’s faces that seem to look at the visitor. The temple was first built for Buddhist worship, then converted to Hinduism, which is why many images of Buddha were destroyed, despite the efforts of restoration.

It is a temple of 3 floors and 43 m high, the lower floors of the Bayon are a pantheon dedicated to the Khmer gods from the beginning of its construction to a time of transition between Hinduism and Buddhism. On the upper floor, we notice that Buddha is honored. Fabulous bas-reliefs of 1,200m in length, representing more than 11,000 sculpted figures, line the Bayon as well as very large frescoes depicting the naval battles between the Khmers and the Chams, not to mention the frescoes depicting daily life.

Phimeanakas (Hinduism)

Its name literally means “celestial chariot”, which might be an evocation of the shape of the temple. Hindu temple built under Rajendravarman II (r. 944-968), it was modified by Suryavarman I to serve as his particular temple. It is currently in a quite poor condition, even if it remains evocative of the Khmer civilization greatness, as well as the other places of the site.

The terrace of the elephants

It is believed that the famous Elephant Terrace was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII, as a royal ceremonial terrace.

Overlooking Angkor, the king could admire military parades and shows. The bas-reliefs describe hunting scenes while all along the high reliefs is dedicated to elephant representations.

Terrace of the Leper King

Established like the Terrace of the Elephants, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, it is not yet exactly known what this terrace was used for.

It owes its name to one of the statues attributed to King Yasovarman, apparently dead of leprosy. Composed of several dozen small well preserved statues, it is a must-see in Angkor.

Preah Palilay (Buddhism)

Despite not being the oldest temple of the site (built between the 13th and 14th centuries), the tower of the sanctuary Preah Palilay is one of the many victims of the time. 

Yet the atmosphere is magical and relaxing. It is, like Baksei Chamkrong which we talked about at the beginning of the article, a site less visited than those more imposing, where you can, for a moment, avoid other tourists.

Preah Pithu

Preah Pithu is a set of 5 temples of which history is still very little known of our civilization today.

There is not necessarily any particular connection between the temples, which were not built either at the same time or for the same worship, one being a temple for Buddhist worship and the others for Hindu worship. Their poor condition limits advances in historian research, but you will enjoy the serene atmosphere that reigns around.

Prasat Suor Prat

It is not yet clear what these 12 towers were used for, but what is certain is that they form a beautiful landscape at the entrance to Angkor Thom.

Their name means “funambule towers” which is why a legend says that strings linked the top of the towers together for the performance of acrobats.

It is also said that if a conflict between two people could not be resolved, the protagonists were locked in a tower. When they came out, the culprit was recognized because he was sick and the innocent because he was in good health.


We will stop here for this first article presenting the treasures of Angkor with some recommendations for you to enjoy your visit.

Plan several days of visit :
The site is very (veery) large and the objective is not to run around to see everything, but to enjoy the exceptional atmosphere !

Do not do everything by walking :
Even if you have planned several days of visits, plan to take a tuk tuk between the various monuments, or at least for your return to avoid getting lost at nightfall.

Watch the weather carefully :

If it rains, take comfortable shoes that stick well to the ground; some places, stairs, paths can become slippery.

If it is hot, Angkor is a very sun-exposed site with relatively few shade areas, so take with you something to hydrate with also sunscreen, sunglasses, hat etc. Spot the outlets for bottled water, It will surely serve you well if you have emptied your reserves.

Give some thougths about your oufit :
The site of Angkor is a religious site, so you should avoid very short clothes, even with an overwhelming heat!

Prefer a visit with a local guide :
So you can have all the stories and details of the temples and on a side note you won’t get overcharged in restaurants and so on.

We hope Angkor will inspire you as much as it does for us ! This article presented «only» the central part of Angkor and will therefore have a sequel for more wonderful places to visit !

See you soon with Mandarin Road Voyages !


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