In total, the Angkor Archaeological Park is home to hundreds of monuments. And most temples, even some of the more extravagant ones, can be neatly categorized into distinct architectural styles. There are several unique temples, however, that break the mold. And, while just about every stone structure left by the ancient Khmer was a temple of some sort, there are a few special exceptions. We’ll also be covering some of them down below.
A temple like the Bayon, despite having a style named after it, is certainly unlike anything else in Angkor. However, we’ve already covered that temple in depth (here and here), so let’s instead focus on some of the more obscure hidden gems. All the structures mentioned below are located within the Angkor Archaeological Park and are easy to get to.
Baksei Chamkrong is one of Angkor’s oldest temples, dating back to the early 10th century. It was built after the first large pyramidal temples of Bakong and Phnom Bakheng. In a way, it feels like a miniature version of Bakong, but the top sanctuary takes up almost all the space at the top.
The prasat at the top is normal-sized, while the pyramid itself is smaller and steeper than any of the others at Angkor. These proportions are rather unusual and were not tried again. Therefore, despite being one of the earlier temples at Angkor, Baksei Chamkrong remains unique all these years later.
Luckily, the pyramid can still be climbed. Be careful, though. This is one of the steepest staircases at Angkor! The steps in the back are just as steep, but a little less eroded.
The prasat was built of brick, which was very typical of the sanctuaries back in those days. Walking around the top level, you can find a lintel carving of Indra on the three-headed Airavata, in addition to some beautifully carved false-doors.
The inside of the sanctuary houses a reclining Buddha statue, but this was a later addition after Cambodia switch to Theravada Buddhism. Originally, the prasat featured images of Shiva and Parvati, which were also identified with King Harshavarman’s parents.
Also on the door jamb is a well-preserved inscription, mentions the mythological ancestors of the Khmer people, the hermit Kambu and the apsara Mera.
You can find Baksei Chamkrong just outside the South Gate to Angkor Thom. As most people are eager to see the massive deva and asura statues along the road, most tourists pass right by this temple. This means that you’ll likely have it all to yourself – all the more reason to visit! It’s also right next to a small temple called Prasat Bei that’s worth a quick look.
Prasat Kravan is another early 10th-century temple that’s unique for a number of reasons. First off, the temple consists of five prasats all lined up in a row. Typically, Angkor temples from this period consisted of a single prasat sanctuary or a group of three. Later, when prasats were built in groups of five, they were laid out in a quincunx arrangement, and never lined up in a row as seen here.
Interestingly, Prasat Kravan was one of the only temples in all of Angkor to have not been commissioned by a king, but by high-ranking officials (another such temple was Banteay Srei). Furthermore, these dignitaries were part of a Vaishnava sect, making Prasat Kravan one of only several Vishnu temples in Angkor. Unlike the most famous Vishnu temple, Angkor Wat, which faces west, Prasat Kravan faces east.
The interior of the prasats also contain carvings that are unlike most others at Angkor. In the center and largest sanctuary, you’ll find large carvings of Vishnu on three of the walls.
The carvings on the left depict Vishnu as one of his avatars, Vamana the dwarf. The demon Bali had granted his request for whatever territory he could walk over in three steps. Vamana then grew to a massive size, conquering the entire world! Here he’s shown standing over Bali (the demon, not the island!).
The middle carving shows Vishnu with eight arms, a relatively rare depiction at Angkor. He’s usually shown with four arms, though the famous Vishnu statue at Angkor Wat, built two centuries later, shows him with eight as well. Don’t miss the unusual crocodile carving above his head. Meanwhile, to the right, we see Vishnu on Garuda.
Krol Romeas may be the only surviving structure at Angkor that we know for sure wasn’t some type of religious monument. Located in a forested area to the north of Angkor Thom, it’s where the city kept its elephants.
It’s shaped like an arena but probably (hopefully) wasn’t a place for people to watch elephant battles for fun. Instead, the Khmer probably kept and tamed elephants that they captured in the wild here. As seen in the bas-reliefs, elephants were often used in battle, though they were also used for things like logging and basic transport.
While Krol Romeas is not in the greatest condition, it’s still easy to make out the original walls, getting a sense of its overall size. Very few people know about this place, so expect to have it all to yourself.
Interestingly, ‘Krol Romeas’ translates to ‘rhinoceros park.’ I saw neither elephants nor rhinos during my visit, but I did spot some massive water buffalo in the nearby forest!
Despite technically only consisting of one single prasat sanctuary, Neak Pean’s surroundings help make it one of Angkor’s unique and spectacular temples. Neak Pean, which translates to “entwined serpents,” was created by Jayavarman VII sometime in the 12th century. It played a major role in his empire as a special ‘healing temple.’
Jayavarman is known to have been big on health care, and was one of the world’s first rulers to establish an organized hospital system throughout his empire. While Neak Pean was a temple and not a standard hospital, the waters around it were believed to have curing properties. Herbal medicine was likely practiced on temple grounds as well.
Neak Pean sits in the middle of the Jayataka Baray, right by Preah Khan temple. Within the baray are more man-made ponds. Supposedly, there used to be even more than the four ponds that surround the temple today. We can still see the steps that bathers would’ve used to enter the waters.
In the central pond you’ll notice a horse sculpture, which could represent Lokeshvara (Jayavarman’s favored Buddhist divinity) who once took on the form of a horse named Balaha. In the past, there were probably three other animals surrounding the central sanctuary as well.
When Zhou Daguan, the Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor in 1296, wrote about Neak Pean, he mentioned the animal statues in the water. “A gold lion, a gold Buddha, a bronze elephant, a bronze cow and a bronze horse – these are all there.”
Supposedly, the artificial reservoir around Neak Pean is meant to symbolize the mythical lake Anavatapta. Not only could it cure illnesses, but the lake also fed the four main rivers of India. And in Hindu mythology, these four rivers fertilized the lands of the lions, elephants, cows, and horses.
Srah Srang functioned as a royal bathing pond used for ritual washing. While constructed during the 10th century, it was renovated hundreds of years later by Jayavarman VII. The jetty, one of its kind at Angkor, features naga statues being ridden by Garuda – a trademark style of Jayavarman VII’s temples.
The center of the pond likely featured some kind of small temple in the middle. Those visiting the temple would likely have embarked by boat from the jetty we see today. However, nothing of this temple still remains.
As the jetty faces east, Srah Srang is now one of the most popular spots in Angkor for catching the sunrise. I decided to come here one morning instead of the incredibly crowded Angkor Wat, and was surprised to see no more than a dozen other people.
Unfortunately, the clouds blocked any view of the sunrise itself. But given Srah Srang’s proximity to Ta Prohm, seeing the sunrise there ensures you can easily get to Ta Prohm right as it opens in the morning. Conveniently, there’s a small restaurant and coffee shop nearby.
People exploring the Angkor temples will need to base themselves in the city of Siem Reap. The city is easy to get to, being served by a wide variety of Asian airlines. You can fly direct from cities like Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Of course, you can also fly domestically via Phnom Penh.
Generally, you want to avoid coming by bus from Thailand. Many of the vendors of these tickets are in on some kind of scam. There are no true direct buses, as you will always have to go through immigration at the border. I did the trip the opposite way, from Cambodia to Thailand, without any problems, but there are certainly a lot of seedy characters in the area.
Siem Reap is reachable by bus from many other parts of Cambodia. However, I wouldn’t ever want to ride a night bus, as many of the roads in the country are absolutely horrible. You want to make sure your driver has full view of all the potholes on the roads.
The best way to get around the Angkor Archaeological Park is to hire a tuk tuk. Unlike the tuk tuks in Thailand, these are basically special wooden carriages attached to a motorbike. The ride is bumpy, but definitely more comfortable than riding on the back of someone’s bike.
The standard price is generally $15 per day. Air conditioned cars can be hired for a higher price, usually around $40 per day.
Foreigners aren’t allowed to rent motorbikes in Cambodia but you can rent a bicycle from your hotel. It’s possibly to bike to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom by bicycle, though I wouldn’t recommend it for anything more distant than that.
The perfect amount of time to see the major temples in order is 5 days. This requires purchasing a seven-day pass. At $72, it’s only $10 more than the three-day pass, so it’s still a good deal even if you don’t use all the days.
There is no need to join an organized tour to visit the temples in order. What you do need to do is find a reliable tuk-tuk driver (they can also be arranged through your hotel) who understands exactly what you want to do. As most tourists only want to see the most famous temples over the course of one or two days, the driver might be a little confused at first by what you’re suggesting.
It doesn’t make the most sense logistically, but after having done it myself, I couldn’t picture exploring the temples any other way. Just give yourself enough time in Angkor and the plan below is perfectly feasible.
The following plan is largely based off the suggestion given by Michel Petrotchenko in his excellent book Focusing on The Angkor Temples: The Guidebook. Now after having done it myself, I’ve added a few small additions and minor alterations.
Pre-first day: Buy your entry pass to the ruins the day before in order to avoid having to wait in a long line the next morning. It’s only possible to do so from 5pm the previous evening. Most lines can get very long, but luckily, the booth for the seven-day passes will have almost no one waiting in them! You can kill time before 5pm hanging around Siem Reap and visiting the Angkor Museum.
Note: The standard price for a day around the ruins via tuk-tuk is around $15. However, you will be asked to pay a little bit extra for going to out-of-the-way places like the Roluos group and Banteay Srei. You will also be expected to pay a little more to include a sunrise or sunset in your schedule.
First day: Head straight to the Roluos group (Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei).
Back in the main Archaeological Park, walk up the hill to see Phnom Bakheng around lunchtime.
Nearby are a few unique temples called Baksei Chamkrong and Prasat Kravan that both date from the early 10th century.
Start the day off at East Mebon, and then Pre Rup. Then head north to Banteay Srei.
(Note: A visit to Banteay Srei can also be combined with a trip to the river carvings of Kbal Spean. Therefore, you may choose to deviate from the chronological order slightly by visiting Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and then continuing on to East Mebon).
After lunch, make a visit to Ta Keo before heading inside the walls of Angkor Thom. Make a brief stop at the North and South Khleangs (one should be enough if you’re short on time).
Still inside Angkor Thom, visit what’s left of the Royal Palace and then Phimeanakas and the Baphuon. You’ll pass by it, but resist the temptation to visit the Bayon just yet.
It’s now finally time to visit Angkor Wat. This is one of the few temples to be open for sunrise. However, the temple gets extremely crowded each morning, so you may want to come slightly after the sun has risen to avoid the crowds.
After taking your time at Angkor Wat, head over to Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda (right across the street from one another). Then, head east to Banteady Samre.
This will be your first introduction to the temples of Jayavarman VII. Start the day off as early as possible at Ta Prohm. (As an alternative to sunrise and Angkor Wat, check out the sunrise from Srah Srang which is right by Ta Prohm).
Then move on to Preah Kahn. Afterward, check out the smaller temples of Neak Pean, Krol Koh and Ta Som. Finally, end the day at Banteay Kdei.
Fifth day: Head to Angkor Thom and admire the statues of the devas and asuras outside of the South Gate. Inside the walled city, it’s now time to visit the Bayon.
Afterwards, go see the Royal Terraces (the Elephant Terrace and Terrace of the Leper King).
You can also go see Preah Palilay and the Preah Pitus complex, which are believed to be among the final temples in Angkor.
You should still have some time left over in the late afternoon. Consider revisiting the Bayon to see it in a different light, or head back again to Angkor Wat, as the temple faces west and looks best in the evening.
Beyond: If you’re like me and want to make the most of your seven-day pass, here a couple suggestions: You can try visiting some of the smaller, obscure temples (such as Banteay Thom) built by Jayavarman VII which are north of Preah Khan.
On another day, consider heading over to one of the smaller hilltop temples like Phnom Krom or Phnom Bok. Or, just return to the temples you liked best.
Remember, there are still a whole lot of amazing temples outside of the Angkor Archaeological Park, such as Preah Vihear, Koh Ker, Banteay Chmar and more. These will all be covered in their own articles, along with tips on how to visit them all on a three day road trip around the country.
If your main goal is to see the ruins, the closer you are to them the better. There’s not a whole lot to see or do in central Siem Reap other than the Angkor National Museum and maybe some arts and crafts shops. (Of course, there’s Pub Street, if that’s your thing, but it might be a little hard to appreciate the ruins while hungover.)
Understand that you need to purchase your pass before approaching the archaeological site. The ticket vending area is located on Apsara Rd., east of the main road which takes you from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat temple.
There are staff just about everywhere checking for passes, both at the archaeological zone entrances and at all the individual temples, so make sure not to forget it at your hotel. Later in my trip, I practically cycled through a jungle to get to one of the most obscure little temples in the middle of nowhere. And sure enough, there was a staff person there asking to see my pass, before asking how I ever managed to find the place!
As Cambodia can get very hot, be sure to apply sunscreen and wear a hat. Fortunately, there are vendors all throughout the archaeological zone selling water and fresh coconuts. There are also ample places to sit down for lunch.
You want to get started each morning as early as possible. One reason for this is that a large majority of the temples face east, meaning they look best in the morning light. Another reason is that due to Angkor’s massive popularity, the major temples get absolutely flooded with tourists from around 8 or 8:30am. The temples (with the exception of Angkor Wat) open at 7:30, so try to get there right around then.
Things get much quieter in the mid-afternoon when it’s hottest. If you’re able to bear the heat, this is a good time to visit some of the more popular temples, though it won’t be ideal photography wise.