Southeast Asia is known for being a hotbed of sand, spices, and sushi. However, in this fertile land of culture, religion and spirituality too have grown and developed over the centuries, leading to the construction of the largest temple in the world. While Angkor Wat is the most popular temple, there are others in the surrounding complex that are well worth visiting as well (and come with the ticket price). Check out the top attractions in Siem Reap!
A majority Buddhist nation today, the Kingdom of Cambodia has traces of Hinduism in its past that arose primarily during the leadership of the Khmer Empire. In fact, Angkor Wat was originally constructed as a Vishnu temple by King Surya Varman II in the 12th century, and it was subsequently converted into a Buddhist temple. The royal family only went to the temple once or twice a month for prayers and ceremonies.
The temple structure is surrounded by a moat of water to protect against enemies and destruction. Angkor Wat represents the mystical mountain (Mount Meru), the center of all spiritual/cosmic forces in the universe and the gateway to heaven in Hinduism. As such, there are five gopurams (towers) for the main temple. During the 16th century, the Siamese invasion into and battles with the Khmer empire brought with it some destruction to Angkor Wat and surrounding temple structures. Though most of it is still intact, restoration to protect existing structures is well underway at this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Definitely don’t miss the opportunity for a 5am sunrise visit to Angkor Wat. It is simply remarkable and an experience not to be missed when visiting this cradle of cultural and history.
Just north of Angkor Wat temple is Angkor Thom, the capital city that was home to the Khmer local people. Bayon temple in Angkor Thom was built after Angkor Wat during King Jaya Varman’s reign. It is a Mahayana Buddhist temple with several large depictions of Buddha’s face all around. Unfortunately, this temple has undergone quite a bit of destruction compared to other temples in the complex but there is still a considerable amount to see.
This is a nice open terrace which used to function as a viewing area in the Khmer empire. There are elephant carvings on parts of the structures from which the terrace derives its name. Mostly a set of ruins today, the trees overlaying the terrace provide a nice cool breeze that is much needed when visiting this region during the hot season.
Kulen Mountain/Phnom Kulen
Kulen Mountain or Phnom Kulen, about an hour drive from the town of Siem Reap, is home to many interesting attractions, including a large reclining Buddha temple, a waterfall, and a riverbed of 1,000 shivalingas. Located atop a hill, the Buddha temple (Preah Ang Thom) is very similar to Wat Pho temple in Bangkok Thailand, both of which represent the Buddha reclining in a state of nirvana. Preah Ang Thom is also a monastery where Buddhist rituals and ceremonies take place daily.
The 1,000 lingas relief (Kbal Spean) was built many centuries ago by King Surya Varman I’s minister and now lies below the Siem Reap River. Erosion has caused a considerable amount of damage to the lingas, many of which are small, but it is a rare and remarkable attraction to see in a majority Buddhist nation.
Banteay Srei Temple
Banteay Srei was built in the 10th century (before Angkor Wat) as a dedication to Lord Shiva. Made of a brilliant red sandstone, the structural carvings are filled with references to Hindu epics, such as Ramayana and Mahabharata. There are also scenes of Shiva and Parvathi that can be found on close examination.
Traditional Cambodian Dance
There are several places throughout Siem Reap that offer an opportunity for art lovers to catch a traditional Cambodian dance performance. We went for a dinner and dance combo at Kulen Restaurant, where the artists performed a mix of folk pieces and traditional classical dances (known as Apsara dance). The slow movements and costume (including elaborate headdress) of Apsara dance are very similar to Thai traditional dance, and performances typically feature live music accompaniment.