Everywhere you look, the Angkor temples are teeming with symbolism. Thanks to the master artists who constructed and carved the temples, the vivid imagery is bound to captivate even those with little knowledge of its deeper meanings. Familiarizing yourself with the deities, mythological beings and basic concepts of Angkorian religion, however, can make exploring the temples so much more engrossing.
Unfortunately, the Angkor Archaeological Park is sorely lacking when it comes to informational signage. Without a guidebook or guide, there’s almost nothing to tell you what the carvings or sculptures are supposed to represent. But you might also not feel like reading through an entire complex book before your trip, either. The following guide, then, is meant to help fill in the gap.
Understand that this is not a guide to the various art styles of Angkor. The focus is the meaning behind the art. And as you explore the temples, remember that there was once a lot more imagery in the form of various statues. Most of these, of course, are now kept safely at museums. Therefore, this guide will only focus on what you’ll be seeing nowadays at the temples themselves.
Main Hindu Deities
As the Khmer Empire was a Hindu kingdom for most of its history, the temples are abound with depictions of major Hindu deities. In Hindu mythology, the major male deities have female consorts as well as a vahana, or animal vehicle. Therefore, there have always been number of different ways to symbolize each deity.
While not a complete list, let’s go over some of the most common gods and goddesses you’ll encounter at Angkor.
Shiva was the most prominent god worshipped during Angkor’s Hindu era. He is known as the “destroyer,” but this could also be interpreted as the destruction of ignorance. He is symbolized in some shape or form at nearly all Angkor temples – even at the later Buddhist ones.
In Angkor art, Shiva is often depicted as a bearded old man, or sometimes as a multi-armed being. More often, however, he was represented by other, more abstract symbols.
Shiva was typically worshiped in the form of a shiva linga, which is typically placed on a yoni. The linga is a phallic symbol representing masculine energy, while the yoni symbolizes the feminine. Therefore, the two together could be likened to the yin yang symbol of Taoism.
Shiva’s consort is Parvati. His vahana, or animal vehicle, is the bull Nandi. Especially at the early Angkorian temples, bull statues were a common sight, often sat facing the prasat that had a shiva linga inside.
Vishnu is nicknamed the “preserver.” However, he often carries out acts of both creation and destruction to maintain proper balance and harmony in the world. He usually does so by coming down to earth in human form. As will be detailed below, these are called his avatars and they’re the protagonists of many of the famous Hindu legends.
At Angkor, Vishnu is depicted as a four-armed being, though sometimes he has eight arms. His consort is Lakshmi and his vahana is Garuda, who’s half man, half eagle. And Vishnu is also the star of many lintel carvings in the form of Krishna.
While most Angkorian Hindu temples were primarily dedicated to Shiva, a major exception was Angkor Wat. Its builder, Suryavarman II, was a Vishnu devotee and therefore Vishnu-related imagery is everywhere.
Brahma is the four-faced “creator god.” However, as will be detailed below, he himself was actually created by Vishnu. This origin story is depicted numerous times at the mysterious river carvings of Kbal Spean.
Otherwise, depictions of Brahma are quite rare, as few Hindus worship him directly. There were a number of sculptures made of him, but you’ll no longer find these at the temples. The face towers of the Bayon were originally assumed to represent Brahma, but they likely depict a divinity from Mahayana Buddhism instead (more below).
Indra is “king of the gods” and is one of the most prominently featured deities in many myths and legends. Accordingly, he is also one of the most widely represented gods at Angkor. Indra is most easily recognized by his vahana, the three-headed elephant named Airavata.
Indra riding Airavata was especially popular in lintel carvings at pretty much all Angkorian Hindu temples. Arguably the best depictions of him can be seen at Banteay Srei.
Indra, while a benevolent god at heart, is also known for his jealousy and hubris. Therefore, in many Hindu myths, he actually takes on the role of the antagonist. However, he usually gets humbled by the more powerful Vishnu, after which he learns to change his ways.
Yama is the god of the underworld. Depictions of him at Angkor are not all that common, but he’s almost always seen riding a buffalo.
One of the most vivid depictions of him, in his multi-armed form, is at the bas-relief carvings of Angkor Wat. This section of the reliefs shows the 32 levels of hell and the 37 levels of heaven. Yama is the judge, deciding where the deceased souls will end up.
Kubera, the god of wealth, is a common character in many famous myths, but he doesn’t appear too often at Angkor. However, the famous ‘leper king’ statue at Angkor Thom may actually be of Kubera and not of a former king, as was once widely believed.
Rishis are vedic sages. In mythological stories, they are typically wise old men who can sometimes travel through different realms and even see into the future. Carvings of rishis are common at Angkor, though Shiva himself is often depicted as one. It’s not always easy to tell which is which.
Hindu Myths & Legends
At many of the major Angkor temples, mythological scenes from Hinduism are depicted in detail. While pretty to look at regardless of your background, a basic understanding of some of these stories can really enhance your experience at the temples. Let’s go over several of the most common ones.
The Ramayana is an Indian epic poem about the adventures of Rama, one of Vishnu’s avatars. Though Rama was next in line to rule the throne, the mother of one of his half-brothers convinced the king to let her son rule and send Rama into exile.
Rama left his capital city of Ayodhya with his wife Sita and his other brother Lakshmana. While in exile, they rescued a number of villages from rakshasa monsters, thus angering the king of all rakshasas, Ravana.
This evil king, who ruled the island of Lanka (Sri Lanka), traveled north, where he tricked Rama’s family and abducted Sita. The rest of the epic details Rama trying to figure out where Sita was taken. And when he eventually does, a great war ensues at Lanka.
While Rama is a very powerful archer, he doesn’t act alone. He makes friends with the monkey king Sugriva by helping him take back the throne from his brother, Valin. Sugriva’s subordinate Hanuman then becomes one of Rama’s closest friends and allies, and he also plays a major role in bringing Sita back.
Pretty much any time you come across depictions of monkeys at Angkor, it’s very likely to symbolize scenes or characters from the Ramayana.
The Battle of Lanka
One entire section of the Angkor Wat bas-reliefs depicts the Battle of Lanka on a massive scale. In addition to the huge army of monkeys, don’t miss Ravana with his many heads and arms.
A popular scene from the Mahabharata is depicted at Banteay Srei: Krishna and Arjuna attempt to burn down the Kandhava forest, which was home to all sorts of evil creatures. But Indra, the protector of the forest, sends down heavy rains to put out the fire. Arjuna, the world’s most skilled archer, then shoots a barrage of arrows in the sky to prevent any rain from hitting the ground. Afterward, Arjuna holds his own in a battle against Indra, who, despite being a god, is actually Arjuna’s biological father!
The Mahabharata is India’s other grand epic, and is believed by some to take place a few thousand years after the Ramayana. One of the main characters of the story is another avatar of Vishnu, Krishna. However, the main focus of the epic is really the group of five Pandava brothers, who also happen to be Krishna’s maternal cousins.
The main conflict of the story is between the sons of Pandu (the Pandavas) and the sons of Pandu’s brother, the blind king Dhritarashtra. The final war that takes place between the two sides is foreshadowed from the very beginning, but there’s a lot that happens along the way. In fact, the Mahabharata is the longest epic poem ever written!
While we know who the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides are, everyone in the Mahabharata shows both positive and negative traits. There are elements of humor, romance, suspense and plenty of violence. Reading it today, it feels surprisingly contemporary, but it’s clear that the ancient Khmers were big fans as well.
The famous religious text known as the Baghavad Gita is actually just one small section of the Mahabharata, and it’s comprised of a conversation between Krishna and Arjuna (one of the Pandavas) just before the great war begins.
The Battle of Kurukshetra
At the Angkor Wat bas-reliefs, one of the other major scenes depicted is the Battle of Kurukshetra. As the story goes, the battle took place over the course of 18 days, during which armies of millions were reduced to mere dozens. The battle also marked the dawn of our current era according to Hinduism, the Kali Yuga.
Vishnu, Ananta & The Cosmic Ocean
Vishnu is the center of Hinduism’s popular creation myth. At the beginning of time, or rather, in between cycles of destruction and creation, Vishnu sleeps on a serpent named Ananta. This serpent is of infinite length, and he lays upon the primordial waters of the cosmic ocean.
Upon awakening, a lotus flower sprouts from Vishnu’s naval, on top of which sits the four-faced Brahma. Brahma is then tasked with creating the world anew.
The scene is a popular one at Angkor. It’s carved several times at the river of Kbal Spean, and it also appears in temple lintel carvings. Vishnu’s consort, Lakshmi, is also often shown massaging Vishnu’s feet as he reclines.
The Churning of the Ocean of Milk
‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ was a favorite story of many Khmer artists and kings. It begins with the devas, or gods, being cursed by a powerful sage, leaving them as easy targets for their arch-rivals, the asuras (see above). They soon learned, however, that amrita, or the elixir of immortality, lie at the bottom of a milky ocean.
As the ocean needed to be churned to obtain it, the devas and asuras had no choice but to cooperate with each other to get it out. The ocean was so big that the peak of Mt. Mandara was used as the churning rod. For stabilization, Vishnu transformed himself into a turtle named Kurma, on top of whom the peak was placed.
And to spin the mountain peak, the devas and asuras used the naga king Vasuki as a churning rope. He wrapped himself around the peak as the two teams each took one side of his long body and began to pull.
As they started to churn, dangerous poison spewed out of Vasuki’s mouth, but Shiva came to save the day by drinking it. Afterward, many miraculous treasures popped out from the ocean, though Vishnu had reminded the devas to stay calm until the object of their desire, the amrita, finally emerged. (One of these treasures was actually Vishnu’s future consort, Lakshmi.)
Finally, a being called Dhanvantari (the mythical founder of Ayurveda) emerged with the amrita. After fighting between the devas and asuras ensued, Vishnu’s eagle mount Garuda came to lift it up in the air. Later, Vishnu transformed himself into a beautiful woman to distract the asuras, and the amrita was then distributed amongst the devas.
The story is represented throughout Angkor in both three-dimensional and two-dimensional forms. Outside the South Gate to Angkor Thom, visitors are greeted with large statues of the two teams on either side of the road. You can find similar statues at the Angkor Thom North Gate, outside Preah Khan temple and also at Banteay Chhmar, all creations of Jayavarman VII.
Suryavarman II, the creator of Angkor Wat, was also very fond of the story, as an entire bas-relief section is dedicated to it.
The Significance of 108
The story also contains significant numerological symbolism. The two teams consisted of 54 devas and 54 asuras. The number 108 is highly important in Hinduism. All Hindu eras, or yugas, are comprised of large numbers divisible by 108, while mantras are often repeated 108 times. The number is considered as a ‘building block’ of the universe.
Thanks to modern-day science, we know that the sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth, while the moon’s diameter times 108 is the distance between the moon and the Earth.
At Angkor, the early mountain temple of Phnom Bakheng had its central sanctuary surrounded by 108 smaller ones.
Shiva, Ravana & Mt. Kailasa
This popular story is sort of a prequel to the Ramayana, but it’s also commonly told as a standalone tale. While Shiva and Parvati were enjoying some alone time in their abode of Mt. Kailasa, the demon Ravana was passing through the area. But when Nandi the bull informed him that he couldn’t proceed, Ravana insulted Shiva and his entire crew.
Nandi then put a curse on Ravana which meant he would eventually meet his demise at the hands of monkeys. Ravana got so angry that he lifted up the entire mountain, shaking it violently.
Shiva easily squashed Ravana by simply putting down his big toe. Ravana couldn’t move, and figured that the only way to escape would be to sing Shiva’s praises, which he did for 1,000 years straight. Eventually, Shiva not only released him but blessed him with a special shiva linga.
Various Krishna Legends
Though Krishna is a major character of the Mahabharata, most of the stories from his youth are part of a text called the Bhagavata Purana. Stories from this work are depicted at temples all over Angkor, even the ones dedicated primarily to Shiva or Buddha.
Various lintels show Krishna slaying demons. A popular one is of him splitting the venomous snake Kaliya in two, while another common scene shows him killing a horse which was really a demon in disguise. Krishna is also often shown holding up a mountain, which represents Mt. Govardhana. In the story, Krishna does so to protect his village from Indra’s torrential rains.
Kama Reduced to Ashes
Another popular scene depicted numerous times throughout Angkor is that of the god Kama being reduced to ashes. Kama, the god of love, was asked by the other devas to awaken Shiva from his deep meditation. Shiva was in mourning after the death of his consort, Sati.
Sati had been reborn as Parvati, but Shiva was so deep in his meditation that he neglected her. And it wasn’t only Parvati whom he neglected – his failure to tend to the universe set things off balance. The other gods requested for Kama to shoot an arrow at Shiva in an attempt to get him to fall for Parvati.
Kama succeeded, and Shiva ended up falling for Parvati. After realizing he’d been manipulated, however, Shiva shot a beam out of his ‘third eye,’ turning Kama into a pile of ashes. But once his rage finally subsided, he promised Kama’s widow, Rata, that Kama would one day be reincarnated as Krishna’s son, sometime well in the future.
The next part of the story takes place during Krishna’s time. Rati herself had died and reincarnated as a woman named Mayavati. She was the maidservant of a demon named Shambara, and this demon was aware of a rumor that a future son of Krishna was fated to slay him.
When the baby, Kama’s reincarnation, was born, Shambara threw him into the sea in an effort to kill him. But the baby was devoured by a large fish, which was then caught by a fisherman who sold it to Shambara’s own cook!
The baby was discovered inside, and ended up being raised by Mayavati (Rata, Kama’s former wife). The young child grew up confused as to why Mayavati treated him more as a romantic interest than as a child. But Mayavati explained to him who they really were, and that anyway, his biological mother was Krishna’s wife Rukmini.
Mahayana Buddhist Divinities
Despite the Mahayana Buddhist temples of Jayavarman VII being so great in number, depictions of Buddha, Avalokiteshvara or Prajnaparamita are surprisingly rare to come by. The reason is that sometime after his reign, most of the Buddhist iconography around Angkor was destroyed by 13th-century vandals.
Many of the Buddha carvings were either chiseled out altogether, or converted into Shiva imagery.
To get a better idea of how Jayavarman VII’s temples originally looked, at least as far as symbolism is concerned, you’ll need to travel to former outpost temples such as Banteay Chhmar. The temples outside of Angkor survived this iconoclastic period unscathed. Phimai in Thailand is also another place to see a Khmer Buddhist temple that was untouched by vandals.
The Buddha was a historical person named Siddhartha Gautama, who developed a method to reach enlightenment and avoid an endless cycle of death and rebirth. Current-day Cambodia is majority Theravada Buddhist, which places a major emphasis on the life of Siddhartha Gautama and his teachings.
The Mahayana Buddhism of Jayavarman VII, on the other hand, reveres the Buddha but places an equally important emphasis on Bodhisattvas (see below) of the past and future. Siddhartha Gautama is considered to be just one of many Buddhas throughout history.
As mentioned, unscathed original carvings and statues of Buddha are fairly rare at Angkor. Many of the Buddha images seen at temples today were placed there later by Theravada Buddhists.
Avalokiteshvara, also known as Lokeshvara, is the Bodhisattva of Compassion revered by Jayavarman VII. Bodhisattvas are not quite gods, but being who were able to attain enlightenment but elected to wait in order to help humanity along the same path.
Avalokiteshvara was usually carved with four arms, though most of his carvings were altered during the iconoclastic period. Many carvings of him still survive but only with two arms. Perhaps the zealots thought this made him look more like Shiva.
This Bodhisattva is male, but is generally considered to be a different version of Guan Yin, the Godess of Compassion revered by Mahayana Buddhist sects of China.
Prajnaparamita represents female Bodhisattvas and motherhood in general. In relation to Avalokiteshvara, she takes on a role similar to Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi or Shiva’s Parvati. The famous temple of Ta Prohm is actually dedicated to Prajnaparamita, as well as to Jayavarman VII’s own mother.
Popular Buddhist Tales
According to legend, the Buddha’s previous incarnation before he was to become the Buddha was as a wealthy prince named Vessantara. An extremely generous prince, he gave away a white elephant which had the power to bring rain to a neighboring kingdom. This greatly angered his father, who sent him into exile.
While in exile, the prince even gave away his own two children to a Brahmin priest. Fortunately, the priest was really Indra in disguise, and he returned the children to Vessantara. Eventually, the prince gets invited back to his kingdom to the joy of all.
The Great Departure
The Buddha in his final incarnation (Siddhartha Gautama) was again born as a prince. But he already had a wife and son when he decided to embark on his quest for truth.
According to legend, gods arrived to help lift up his horse so that nobody would awaken when he left in the middle of the night.
Buddha Subdues Nalagiri
The Buddha was the target of a number of assassination attempts at the hands of his jealous cousin Devadatta. One time, Devadatta sent a fierce elephant named Nalagiri to run through the streets and charge at the Buddha.
As the elephant got closer, however, he immediately grew calm in the Buddha’s presence. Nalagiri bowed down to the Buddha and the Buddha blessed him.
Buddha Subdues Mara
One of the most famous stories in Buddhism takes place just before Siddhartha Gautama attains enlightenment. As he meditated under the bodhi tree, a demon called Mara did all he could to distract the Buddha from achieving his goal.
Mara sent minions to attack the Buddha, as well as his beautiful daughters to try and seduce him. But the Buddha remained resilient. Mara then challenged the Buddha to call upon a witness to decide which of them was more powerful.
The Buddha touched his right hand to the ground, signaling for the earth itself to act as a witness. In both Hinduism and Buddhism, the earth goddess is known as Bhumi, who soon arrived at the scene.
Bhumi then wrung out her hair, out of which the world’s waters flowed out and washed Mara and his minions away. Shortly afterward, Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment and became the Buddha.
Architectural Symbolism at Angkor
As noted in a previous article, the layout and structure of the temples themselves were highly symbolic. The state ‘mountain temples’ built by each major Angkorian king, for example, were meant to symbolize Mt. Meru.
Also referred to as the ‘abode the gods,’ Mt. Meru is the most significant mountain of both Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The mountain is described as having one main peak surrounded by four smaller ones. This explains the popular quincunx layout of many Khmer temples, which consist of a tall prasat sanctuary surrounded by four smaller ones.
Mt. Meru is also associated with the concept of the three worlds: the heavens, the earth and the underworld. To symbolize the underworld, major temples such as Angkor Wat and the Bayon even had pits descending from the base of the central prasat all the way down to the ground. Meanwhile, most temples were surrounded by moats, which represented the cosmic ocean.
Individual sanctuaries, as well as entire temple complexes, were derived from Hindu mandalas. And both temple and city constructions were often based off of Hindu architectural treatises which specified the exact proportions to be utilized in construction.
Furthermore, kings commonly consulted with priests and astrologists before embarking on major construction endeavors. Needless to say, temple and city layouts were considered highly important. They could be likened to special ‘codes’ necessary for fortifying the link between the human and godly realms.
Just like at many other ancient archaeological temples around the world, many Angkor temples were built in alignment with astronomical occurrences, like solstices and equinoxes. And according to some researchers, they may have even mirrored constellations in the sky above.
If you’re looking for even more information on the symbolism detailed in the article above, as well as a guide to the temples in general, there’s probably no better book than Michel Petrotchenko’s ‘Focusing on the Angkor Temples: The Guidebook.’ (Ignore the price on Amazon – you can find it for a normal price at the Angkor National Museum or at bookstores in Thailand.)
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.