There is not doubt that Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s national icon and one of the most important archaeological site in the world. Built in the 12th century, it was the center of the Khmer empire and nowadays is well preserved in a remarkable state of repair and on a staggering scale: a vast monument to human industry overall volume greater than the Great Pyramid of Giza. However, Angkor Wat isn’t the only temple in the region, there are many temples in Cambodia that worth not missing in your Cambodia holiday. Let’s find out!
#1 – Beng Mealea – The most adventurous experiences of any temples in Cambodia
Beng Mealea is one of the mysterious temples in Cambodia. Unlike Angkor Wat, which is pruned and prettied to the highest possible degree of perfection, Beng Mealea is half-consumed by the jungle, covered in moss and falling to pieces under a proliferation of foliage. Its central tower has collapsed, its surviving chambers are dark and strangled by vines, and visitors are permitted to climb and scramble over the rubble unchecked.
Beng Mealea certainly isn’t unknown: it’s a popular day-trip destination from Siem Reap and can be very busy at times. Nevertheless, its tumbledown state and air of abandonment provide one of the most adventurous experiences of any of Cambodia’s temples, and it is worth taking time to explore it thoroughly. Let’s indulge your inner Indian Jones at Beng Mealea Temple.
Getting there: 1.5 hours’ drive from Siem Reap.
Beng Mealea is about 40km east of Bayon (as the crow flies) and 6.5km southeast of Phnom Kulen. By road, it is about 68km (one hour by car, longer by moto or remork-moto) from Siem Reap. The shortest route is via the junction town of Dam Dek, located on NH6 about 37km from Siem Reap in the direction of Phnom Penh.
#2 – The Bayon
The Bayon is best known for the massive stone faces carved into the sides of its towers. Although it’s unclear exactly how many there once were, it’s estimated there were about 200 of these faces. Although not nearly as large as Angkor Wat, this temple is much more condensed and you’ll need to walk through some dark and tight passages to see it all. At times it feels like you might get lost on the lower levels before you find stairs to the top.
#3 – Preah Vihear – A place for Spectacular views of Khmer ruins
Most travelers have never heard of the name Preah Vihear, so it may come as a surprise to discover that this obscure northern temple is actually the second of Cambodia’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Up until 2011, the far away area of northern Cambodia was the site of a border dispute with its neighbor – Thai Lan, that explains why Preah Vihear might have slipped under most people’s radar. However, in August 2015, the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office removed their warning against travel to this area.
Today any threat of violence is thankfully long gone, and Preah Vihear offers a superb place to not only admire remarkably well-preserved Khmer ruins – dating back to the 10th century – but to do so with very few crowds around to clutter your photos. Built on a lone hill 525 meters above the surrounding plains, it also has the most spectacular views of any temple we’ve ever visited.
Getting there: Preah Vihear is pretty far-flung over three hours of good road from Siem Reap. Given the drive, it’s best to spend a night at the very pleasant boutique Hotel nearby.
#4 – Koh Ker – A forgotten capital of the Angkorian Empire
Best for: Peace and quiet
Visitors who only set aside time for the tourist-ready temples of Angkor Wat will miss out on the thrill of discovering an ancient, overgrown temple complex in what can often be complete solitude. Though it is relatively easy drive but involves an early start to get a good full days sightseeing and returning to Siem Reap in the same day, Koh Ker was for a long time one of the most remote complexes in Cambodia; a forgotten capital of the Angkorian Empire.
Even today, visitors can often find themselves wandering the city’s remaining temples and sanctuaries without another soul in sight, happening upon its overgrown causeways and multi-tiered, Mayan-esque pyramid like the first explorers.
Getting there: 2 hours’ drive from Siem Reap.
#5 – Banteay Chhmar
Located in the depths of northern Cambodia, Banteay Chhmar is home to what was once one of the country’s largest temple complexes: the ‘Citadel of Cats’. Built by the warrior king responsible for the famous faces of Bayon, root-strangled Ta Prohm and the Terrace of the Elephants, most of its Angkorian relics have now all but been subsumed by their surroundings.
Though this means there are fewer really striking edifices than at some sites, it does make for a more exciting and adventurous experience, as you scramble over rubble and tramp through thick jungle to make your own discoveries. One of the best things about Banteay Chhmar is the proximity of the local village and surrounding countryside. This means that the ruins feel less like a vast museum – as can be the case at more controlled sites – and more like a piece of living history.
Best for: Combining temples & countryside
Getting there: 4.5 hours’ drive from Preah Vihear or 2.5 hours’ drive from Siem Reap.
Top tip: Leave time to combine your visit to the ruins with some exploration of the surrounding countryside. We recommend spending the night at a local homestay for insight into rural Cambodian life.
#6 – Banteay Srei – Best for Stunning bas-reliefs
Unique amongst Angkorian temples, Banteay Srei’s pink sandstone certainly sets it apart from its neighbors. Not only known for its vibrant color, the “Citadel of Women” is also renowned for its astonishingly intricate bas-reliefs, which are widely acknowledged to be the best of any temple in Cambodia. So well does this pink sandstone lend itself to this style of carving that the beautiful designs have survived almost completely undiminished for over a millennium.
Getting there: 45 minutes’ drive from Siem Reap.
Top tip: Visit in the late afternoon to witness the bas-reliefs come to life in the dying light.
#7- Sambor Prei Kuk – Wonderful alternative of Ta Prohm
If you have been seduced by photos of the engulfing roots at Ta Prohm (AKA “Tomb Raider Temple”) but don’t like the thought of jostling for space with a hundred like-minded individuals, Sambor Prei Kuk is a wonderful alternative. Unlike the other temples on this list, Sambor is actually pre-Angkorian – built by the Chenla civilization of the sixth to the ninth centuries. With no grand centerpiece, the site instead consists of small, ramshackle towers dotted through the surrounding jungle, many of them well on their way to being completely consumed by strangling vines and vegetation.
Getting there: 50 minutes’ drive from Kampong Thom; 2h 45 drive from Siem Reap. We recommend spending the night in Kampong Thom.
Top tip: Rent a bicycle and explore these jungle-clad temples under your own steam.
Our Cambodia itineraries focus on best temples in Cambodia, including all of the sites mentioned in this article. The trip also includes three nights in Phnom Penh, an introduction to Khmer art at the National Museum, and some of Angkor’s more famous sites: Bayon, Ta Keo, Angkor Thom and the magnificent Angkor Wat.
Get in touch to find out the best Cambodia itineraries at Asianwaytravel.com