Archaeologist Dougald O’Reilly helps us navigate the Kingdom’s historic temples by sharing his insights into the treasures found at Angkor and beyond
Best for… tranquility
For those looking to get away from the crowds, Banteay Chhmar is well worth the drive. Though the local population has set up a community-based tourism group, few people visit this incredible temple built by the great King Jayavarman VII. Enigmatic faces peer down on the site’s visitors, as the song of myriad forest birds fills the still air. Probably the best part is the incredible bas-reliefs set along the walls of the temple. They are simply unforgettable.
Best for… Wow Factor
Almost every temple in Cambodia has a degree of ‘wow factor’. The time and effort put into creating these incredible monuments is humbling, so it becomes difficult to choose one site above others. But perhaps Sambor Prei Kuk, set near Kampong Thom town, which lies between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, is one such example. This group of brick temples is nestled in forest, with many in the stranglehold of ficus trees, and is seldom visited by crowds of tourists. In its heyday, the site was known as Isanapura and was the Khmer capital before it relocated to the plains of Angkor.
Best for… Off the Beaten Track
If you are looking for temples off the beaten track, one that is highly recommended is Prasat Preah Khan in Preah Vihear province. Getting to the site is not for the faint of heart, as the trip is long and can be arduous. Once one of the great provincial cities of the Khmer empire, Preah Khan boasts impressive walls surrounding groups of imposing sandstone temples and has a ghostly air. You can spend hours stumbling over these ruins, which have, sadly, been extensively and brutally looted. The scale of destruction could even put Preah Khan into the ‘wow factor’ category.
Best for… Jungle and Nature
If you are based in Siem Reap, head up to the Kulen hills and visit Kbal Spean. Accessing the site involves a leisurely walk through the forest. It’s uphill but easy, and you will be rewarded at the end of the path. The riverbeds here have been carved with hundreds of linga, or phallic representations of Shiva. Other gods, including Vishnu and Ganesh, are found in various spots. At the height of Angkor’s power, this area was of great importance, as the waters that flow over the linga are sanctified before reaching Angkor.
Best for… Carvings
This category was the easiest to decide, as no temple boasts more impressive carvings than Banteay Srei, located in the Angkor park. The beautiful and unusual red sandstone makes it a standout destination, and its diminutive size adds to its appeal. The carvings themselves are simply breathtaking. It looks as if the sculptor has just put down his hammer and chisel. Wonderful scenes from Hindu mythology jump out of the stone and bring tales of the Ramayana to life.