Tracing the Architectural Evolution of Angkor: Part One

Last Updated on: 7th May 2019, 05:06 pm

Few places on earth captivate the imagination quite like Angkor. As stunning as the Angkor temples are today, you can’t help but picture what things must’ve looked like 1000 years ago as you make your way through the jungle ruins. But eventually, after seeing temple after temple, with little context or background info, it can all start to look like a bunch of old stones. Your experience can be greatly enhanced, however, by examining these amazing structures in chronological order, observing how they developed and changed over time.

In this guide, we’ll explain how Angkorian temples evolved from modest structures consisting of a few basic sanctuaries to the masterpieces we know as Angkor Wat and the Bayon. But as there’s so much to cover, we have to split things into two parts. Here in Part One, we’ll cover everything from the very beginning up though the ‘Banteay Srei’ style of art and architecture.

This guide focuses on the architecture of Angkor, with only a minor emphasis on history and symbolism. These other topics will be covered more in depth in future articles. Rather than a lengthy introduction describing all the elements that make up a typical Angkorian temple, let’s dive right in as if this were a virtual tour. We’ll cover the new features we find as we discover them. And as we progress through the architectural eras, we’ll go over what’s changed and evolved over time, and what hasn’t. 

For more information on how to go about visiting the temples in chronological order, check the very end of this article for a detailed explanation.

But before we get started, let’s quickly clear something up: just what is Angkor?

What is Angkor?

Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire, which lasted from the 9th – 13th centuries.

For whatever reason, ‘Angkor Wat,’ the name of a specific temple, is often used interchangeably with the term ‘Angkor,’ an ancient city consisting of roughly 70 temples in total. While Angkor Wat is indeed one of the most impressive temples of Angkor, the confusion between the two terms has left many tourists unaware of just how much there really is to see.

Kulen Style (825 - 875)

The Khmer Empire was not born at Angkor, but on top of the mountain of Kulen, when Jayavarman II declared independence from the Javanese. Today, many of these original structures are little more than piles of bricks hidden deep in the mountain jungles. Thanks to LIDAR laser technology, however, scientists have been learning a lot about these early settlements in recent years.

For now, there’s not a whole lot to see of these original structures on Kulen. Generally speaking, though, the temples from this period typically consisted of simple layouts of a single prasat. The ‘colonettes’ of the doors (more below) started to transition from their circular to octagonal shape that would be common throughout most periods of Angkorian architecture. Meanwhile, the ‘lintel’ carvings showed strong Javanese influence.

Kbal Spean Brahma
The mysterious carvings of Kbal Spean, located on Mt. Kulen

Preah Ko Style (875 - 893)

It was the third king of the Khmer Empire, Indravarman I, who decided to leave Kulen and build a new capital city called Harihalaya. Today, these temples are located in a village called Roluos, around 10km east of Siem Reap. Indravarman I would start his new city by building an ancestral temple, and shortly afterward, a large state temple – a trend that would be followed by most subsequent Angkorian kings.

Preah Ko (879)

Preah Ko Roluos
Three sanctuaries in front. . .
Preah Ko Angkor
. . . and three more in the back.

Preah Ko is a prime example of the ‘trimurti’ temple layout, a very common style up throughout the 10th century. This arrangement consists of one taller prasat, or sanctuary, in between two shorter ones of equal height. Typically, as is the case here, the taller central sanctuary represented Shiva and the two others represented Brahma and Vishnu. The name ‘Preah Ko,’ in fact, translates to ‘sacred bull,’ and numerous statues of Nandin the bull, Shiva’s vehicle, can be found around the complex.

Upon closer inspection, there’s actually another set of three prasats in the back, adding up to six in total. Together with prominent Hindu deities, the back row was dedicated to various female ancestors of the king, and the front row to males.

The bricks of the Preah Ko’s prasats are now exposed, but they were originally entirely covered in stucco. Fragments of fresco were discovered inside one of the sanctuaries, revealing how they were likely colorful and bright back in their day. As was the case in nearly all Angkorian temples, all of the prasats were built facing east.

Here’s our first close-up look of a standard prasat door. On either side are two columns referred to as colonettes. Here’s one of the first instances of octagonal colonettes, as opposed to the circular ones of the pre-Angkorian Period.

Inside those are what are known as door jambs. As in the case of Preah Ko, these sometimes bear ancient inscriptions.

At the top of the door is the lintel. These always feature intricate carvings of mythological beings, oftentimes gods on top of the demon kala, or Indra riding his three-headed elephant. These are always worth examining, as many lintels throughout Angkor are one of a kind.

Interestingly, despite being so old, Preah Ko contains some of the best examples of lintel carvings of any of the early Khmer temples.

As will be a common theme from here on out, the level of detail at this temple is striking. The purpose of the intricate carvings all over the structures was to make them resemble the abode of the gods. This would help encourage the deities to descend from the heavens and visit the temples during special ceremonies and rituals.

Preah Ko Prasat

DVARAPALAS: As was common in 10th century temples, two dvarapalas, or male guardians, are carved into the sanctuary walls. Davarapalas would remain a staple of Angkorian artwork up until the very end.

Preah Ko False Door

FALSE DOORS: In this era of Angkorian architecture, the prasats only had one entrance (facing east) with false doors on the other three sides. Here, the fake door knobs take on the form of lions’ heads.

Preah Ko Shiva linga

THE INNER CHAMBER: As this was a temple dedicated to Shiva, the interior of the prasats contained a shiva-linga which symbolized the deity. Prasats in Angkor normally contained a shiva-linga or a scultpure, whether of a deity or the Buddha. The small interiors only allowed room for a priest to conduct special rituals.

An ancient inscription in the door jamb
Preah Ko Lintel
One of many intricate lintel carvings depicting Garuda
Two lion guardians and a bull, symbolizing Shiva
Preah Ko Cylindrical Columns
This enclosure near the entrance featured round colonettes, reminiscent of pre-Angkorian architecture

LIBRARIES: Here we see the first instance of a ‘library’ at Angkor, though we have no idea what they were actually called at the time. Some scholars have guessed that they probably contained important palm leaf manuscripts, as well as idols.

Another likely possibility, however, is that in addition to the prasats, religious rituals were also carried out in these structures – probably to the fire god Agni or to worship of the planetary and directional gods.

For some reason, when there was only one library in a temple complex, as is the case at Preah Ko, it would be in the southwest corner. Later temples would consist of many more of these structures.

Bakong (881)

Only a couple years after Preah Ko, Indravarman I consecrated his state temple known as Bakong. Made of sandstone, this pyramid temple consists of five tiers that stood 14 meters high. The temple architects made the higher tiers smaller, making clever use of perspective to make Bakong appear taller than it really is.

Approaching the temple, one of the first things you’ll notice is the large moat surrounding it, meant to symbolize the cosmic ocean.

Bakong Roluos

THE MOUNTAIN TEMPLE: Bakong is considered the very first ‘mountain temple’ of Angkor. All Angkorian mountain temples featured a central prasat on top of a large tiered pyramidal structure. The central tower, surrounded by shorter towers, represented the peaks of Mt. Meru, the mythological home of the gods. What’s missing at Bakong, however, is the quincunx layout (more below).

With Bakong as his state temple, Indravarman I started a tradition of mountain temples that would develop until it reached its apex at Angkor Wat.

It seems safe to say that Bakong was influenced by the temple of Borobudur in central Java, Indonesia, which was also constructed in the 9th century. The extent of communication between Indravarman I and Java’s Sailendra Dynasty, however, remains unknown.

Borobudur, Indonesia

THE FIRST NAGA BALUSTRADE: Here we have the first instance of a naga balustrade, which stretches across either side of the causeway. 

These would persist up through the very last phases of Angkorian architecture, and are still a common feature of modern-day Buddhist temples.

Bakong Halls Angkor Architecture
Bakong Hall

Near the entrance, you’ll encounter two long halls that actually may be from a much later period. We know that the prasat at the very top of the pyramid was built by a later king, so these halls may also date from around that time. In any case, they’re fun to walk around and explore

Before or after ascending the pyramid, take some time to check out the eight prasats surrounding its base. These eight brick sanctuaries feature some excellent carved lintels (at least where they still exist). The circular collonettes are also a throwback to the pre-Angkorian era.

Bakong Sanctuary
Bakong Roluos Angkor

The central prasat was rebuilt hundreds of years later in the 12th century. However, much of Bakong, including its highest sanctuary, had to be rebuilt in the 1930’s due to being near collapse.

Lions guard each side of the central prasat, while the lintels depict scenes involving Vishnu and his avatar Krishna.

On the 4th level, each of 12 small sanctuaries housed a linga

Bakong Elephant

Of the twelve elephants which stood at the corner of each tier, only a few remain

THE FIRST BAS-RELIEF: On the fourth level of the pyramid, you can find the first example of a bas-relief at Angkor. It depicts asuras (demons) in a battle scene, with the art style showing strong Javanese influence.

Bakheng Style (893 - 925)

The Bakheng Style is defined by the works Indravarman I’s son and successor, Yashovarman I. He’s also the king to found the actual city of Angkor, then known as Yasodharapura. After constructing the ancestral temple of Lolei, located just nearby Preah Ko, he’d go on to build his state temple of Phnom Bakheng.

Phnom Bakheng (c. 907)

Phnom Bakheng

Phnom Bakheng is the second Khmer mountain temple – that is, a temple built on top of a large stepped pyramid. But what makes Phnom Bakheng special is that it’s a mountain temple… built on top of a mountain! This is the only “mountain mountain” temple to have been attempted in Angkor’s history.

THE QUINCUNX LAYOUT: Phnom Bakheng is the first example of the quincunx layout that would be utilized at all future state mountain temples. The layout is meant to symbolize the mythical Mt. Meru, which consisted of one central peak surrounded by four smaller ones. Visiting Phnom Bakheng today, only a few of these mountain-top prasats survive. The layout is much more apparent at the temples built by successive kings.

Central and tallest prasat

The central prasat at the top of Phnom Bakheng is rather unique for its era. Rather than a single eastern-facing door and three false doors, this sanctuary has four doors – one for each side. Meanwhile, the other sanctuaries at the top of the pyramid have two doors each.

Prasats with four doors would not become utilized again for about 100 years, with the late 10th century temple Ta Keo.

Phnom Bakheng

Another unique, and simply astonishing, fact about Phnom Bakheng is that all of its smaller sanctuaries added up to a total of 108! This is a highly symbolic number in Hinduism, and it also would’ve been mindblowing to look at in its prime. Sadly, Phnom Bakheng is in rather poor condition compared to the other major temples of Angkor, and most of the sanctuaries have disappeared. You’ll just have to use your imagination.

Phnom Bakheng
Phnom Bakheng is in the midst of a long restoration process
Angkor Wat in the distance: A glimpse of over 200 years in the future

Phnom Khrom & Phnom Bok

Yashorvarman I was so fond of hilltops that he built two other temples in this setting: Phnom Khrom and Phnom Bok. Neither are “mountain mountain” temples, however, but utilize the classic trimurti layout we saw at Preah Ko. This would continue to be a popular layout for smaller temples throughout the rest of the 10th century.

Phnom Krom
Phnom Krom

Koh Ker Style (921 - 944)

For reasons we may never know, king Jayavarman IV moved the capital away from Angkor to a new location around 90km away called Koh Ker. Though it was only capital for a couple of decades, the amount of temples they built in the city is quite remarkable.

The main state temple, Prasat Thom, is one of the most unique structures in all of Cambodia. It’s a tiered pyramid but with no prasats on top – only a large linga. If anything, it resembles Mesoamerican architecture more than it does your typical Khmer temple. Today, Koh Ker is mainly remembered for its sculptures, which were among the finest ever carved in the empire.

Koh Ker Prasat Thom
Prasat Thom

Pre Rup Style (944 - 968)

After over two decades of abandonment, Angkor (Yasodharapura) was finally revitalized thanks to a king named Rajendravarman II. As was the common trend, he built a public waterwork followed by an ancestral temple and a new state mountain temple.

East Mebon (952)

East Mebon was built in the middle of a large baray (artificial reservoir) that has since dried up. In fact, one could only take a boat to get there. It must’ve been a stunning to sight to witness from across the water.

While it lacks the stepped pyramidal structure of a typical mountain temple (well, it does have a couple of tiers), it features a quincunx layout that is even more pronounced than at Phnom Bakheng. Around the five prasats in the center are eight more sanctuary towers at the lower level. Additionally, the temple was home to five libraries.

East Mebon Angkor Temples
East Mebon Holes

HOLES: At East Mebon, along with pretty much every other temple, you’ll come across all sorts of holes indented in the stone. In many  cases, wooden beams were placed in these to hold up wooden structures, none of which remain.

Other times, as seen in the picture on the left, small holes were made in brick sanctuaries to allow the outer stucco layer to better stick to them.

Though not a mountain temple itself, East Mebon is a sign of things to come with future mountain temples such as Pre Rup and Ta Keo. This temple gets relatively few tourists and is fun to explore. Be sure to check out the lion and elephant statues in addition to some excellent lintel carvings.

Bat Chum (c. 952)

Built around the same time as East Mebon is the small temple of Bat Chum. It again utilizes the trimurti arrangement, demonstrating that this style remained as popular as ever. There are a few interesting details, however, that sets this one apart from our previous examples.

This is not a Hindu temple, but a Mahayana Buddhist one. And rather than the Hindu trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, this temple is dedicated to Buddha and two Bodhisattvas known as Vajrapani and Prajnaparamita. This is a slightly different Buddhist triad from the later 12th century temples of Jayavarman VII, which would replace Vajrapani with Lokeshvara.

An inscription tells us that Bat Chum was built by Buddhist architect Kavindrarimathana, the man behind East Mebon. In fact, this is the only Angkorian architect whose name has been revealed to us.

Bat Chum

Pre Rup (961)

Pre Rup, Rajendravarma II’s state temple, takes a lot of clear inspiration from East Mebn. Only this time, the temple was built on land and there were no issues constructing a pyramidal base for the uppermost sanctuaries. In addition to the quincunx arrangement at the top, there are twelve small sanctuaries at the pyramid’s second level.

Five brick sanctuaries were added to the east side at a later date. Oddly, their lintels are incomplete, while the space where a 6th sanctuary should be is entirely empty. Pre Rup also has two large libraries. Inside one of them, a tablet depicted 9 planets, giving credence to theory that these structures were used by a planetary worship cult and not houses for manuscripts.

Also surrounding the pyramid are a number of long halls which would be the precursor to the entirely connected outer galleries of later mountain temples.

One sanctuary features a rare depiction of Brahma's consort Saraswati
Pre Rup Angkor Temples
This mysterious structure in the corner was possible built to house the temple's stele. It also shows us how the halls, or galleries, were not connected with one another, something that would change at later temples

Coming straight from East Mebon, you’ll notice how similar the two temples really are. As Pre Rup is one of the only temples open for sunset, you may want to make a quick stopover in the daytime before returning in the evening for a closer look.

Banteay Srei Style (967 - 1000)

From around the year 967, two different architectural styles existed concurrently: the Banteay Srei style and the Khleang style. Banteay Srei temple, after which the style was named, is one of the most unique temples of Angkor, largely due to the intricate details which seem to cover nearly every square inch of it. But its creators also introduced a few new architectural elements that would become standard at future Angkor temples. Let’s go over Banteay Srei here before going covering the Khleang style in Part Two.

Banteay Srei (967)

Taking a break from the grandiose and imposing mountain temples, we come to Banteay Srei, one of the most eloquent temples in all of Angkor. This is a rare major temple to have not been commissioned by a king, but by a pair of Brahmin priests. Their names were Yajnavaraha, one of king Jayavaraman V’s gurus, and his brother Vishnukumara.

Their temple is clearly smaller than those commisioned by kings at the time. Perhaps it was out of fear of drawing too much attention away from the royal temples. Or perhaps it was because the brothers knew the level of extreme detail they wanted to implement in their temple, and only a smaller size would’ve made the project feasible.

Constructed out of a special pinkish high-grade sandstone, this temple is nicknamed the “Citadel of Women.”

Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei Pediment

PEDIMENTS: Above we went over the basic elements which make up your typical Angkorian door. But another feature, which became especially pronounced at Banteay Srei, is the pediment, situated above the lintel.

These crowning slabs of stone provided even more room for intricate carvings. Banteay Srei, in fact, was the first temple to portray specific scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata Indian epics.

Banteay Srei Gopura
Banteay Srei Mandapa

THE FIRST USE OF A GOPURA: Banteay Srei was the first temple to introduce a gopura, a chamber attached to the entrance of the central prasat. The gopura would later be heavily utilized in the Angkor Wat style or architecture that was prominent in the 12th century.

A miniature replica of Banteay Srei made by local artist Dy Proeung

Arriving at the temple, you’ll have to walk along a road which once featured long galleries on either side, before arriving at the moat area. Walking across the causeway, you’ll arrive at the first beautifully decorated gate. The size of the temple gates progressively diminish, giving the visitor the impression that the center is farther away than it really is.

In addition to the central prasats are two libraries which are considered to be the most impressive structures at the temple. The level of artwork is so sophisticated that experts originally assumed that this was one of the last Angkor temples ever built. Having visited all of the major temples myself, I’m still a little skeptical that Banteay Srei really is as old as 967!

The central part of the temple has been closed off and can only be viewed by walking around it. This means that they were able to leave the sculptures in place, which represent Hanuman’s monkey army from the Ramayana.

Now go on to Part Two, where we cover the Khleang style all the way up through the Bayon style of Jayavarman VII.

Additional Info

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.

Second day:

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.

Third day:

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.

Fourth day:

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.

Tracing the Architectural Evolution of Angkor: Part One

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