When visiting Cambodia, there is one location that seems to be on most travelers’ minds: Angkor Wat. Images of the ancient temple complex are everywhere – in books, on T-shirts and postcards, even on the country’s flag. They draw more than a million visitors each year. Over-hyped? One visit and it’s obvious the mighty ruins are worth the attention they get and they’re worth more than one look.
Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire between ninth and fifteenth centuries. Angkor was home to a thriving and influential culture. Archeologists and anthropologists say during the Angkor period, the Khmer enjoyed advances in irrigation, art and architecture and ruled most of Southeast Asia. Then, around A.D. 1431, they left and the jungle reclaimed the land, growing over the temples.
All the reasons for the decline of the Khmer Empire and the abandonment of Angkor’s elaborate stone temples are still partially unknown. Amongst the ruins it’s still possible to get a sense of walking through a place of mystery. Base reliefs of daily life in the ancient capital, carved faces gazing out from the stone walls and depictions of fantastic creatures can be found on the vast exterior walls and also tucked around quiet corners within the cool passageways within the temples.
The Angkor temple ruins number more than 1,000 and are spread out within a 400 km2 area. Many travelers, especially those with limited time focus on the big or famous ones, including Bayon, Ta Phrom, Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat. During peak times, like sunrise and sunset, and also during peak season (November through February) these temples can be very crowded. This can be frustrating, especially for photographers trying to get shots without fellow tourists climbing all over them.
If it’s your first visit to Angkor, make sure you do see these famous works of art. But don’t spend all your time there.
Some of the lesser-known Angkor temples are beautiful places to explore and linger with your camera without worrying about large crowds. In some of these quieter, more secluded temples, it’s still possible to feel the sense of mystery Angkor holds.
Here are just a few of the smaller temples worth a look:
Beng Melea: This temple is mostly overrun by the jungle. Ta Phrom is the most famous of the tree-grown temples, but is currently undergoing restoration work and is covered with scaffolding and unsightly stages built for group photos. Beng Melea is a great alternative for getting shots of tree growing up through the stone ruins.
East Mebon: A tall temple with towers and might stone elephants guarding it.
Preah Khan: A beautiful temple with shaded corridors, pillars and a variety of stone carvings.