solo cycling in cambodia

Cycling From Siem Reap to North Cambodia

An eight-day solo cycle adventure in the north of Cambodia

Images Of My Solo Cycling Trip To Northern Cambodia

Let’s Get This Ride On The Road

solo cycling from siem reap to north cambodia

It was a cool Monday morning in March when I pushed my bicycle out the gates of my house in Siem Reap. The moon still hung in the sky, with a glimmer of light nudging through the darkness. I was about to embark on a real adventure, an eight-day solo cycle trip that would take me north of Siem Reap close to the Thai border skirting around the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the largest protected areas in Cambodia. Along the way, I planned to visit some of Cambodia’s most remote ancient temples, hidden away in less trodden paths.

Although COVID-19 had scuppered my previous plans of cycling through Laos and Vietnam, it had provided the perfect opportunity for real exploration in Cambodia without the hustle and bustle of tourists. I had spent the last three years living and working in Siem Reap, Cambodia and was enjoying a break between jobs. It seemed like the perfect time to hop on my bike and see more of this wonderful country I currently call home.

Day 1: Siem Reap to Banteay Srei and Kbal Spean: 70 km

Exiting Siem Reap through the Angkor Wat Archaeological Park, I stopped at Srah Srang, a reservoir dug in the mid-10th century, named the Royal bath. Sitting on the stone steps to eat my breakfast as the sun rose, I saw a friendly face waving to me from the side of the reservoir. It was the bicycle mechanic who had serviced my bike before leaving. I took this to be a good omen.

Banteay Srei

After a steady 39 km ride, I reached my guesthouse for the night Villa Banteay Srei, named after the local temple. My friendly Khmer hosts surprised me with their perfectly spoken French accents, having spent forty years living in France after fleeing as refugees during the Khmer Rouge over 45 years ago.

Hindu god Shiva

Arriving just before noon, I circled back several kilometres to my first temple stop, Banteay Srei, meaning citadel of women or beauty. This 10th-century temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, is built largely of red sandstone, with intricate figures of Hindu deities carved into the walls. The temple is set amongst the rice fields, with a multitude of little wooden platforms,

I walk out to watch one of the locals farming and we exchange waves and smiles.

bal Spean

Riding back past the guesthouse, I continued another 10 km in the rising heat to Kbal Spean, quickly realising I had set myself a fairly ambitious first day. With the echo of barking dogs on my heels from the car park where I had left my bike, I began the ascent through the jungle to Kbal Spean. A series of signposts starting at 1500 metres marked the distance, counting down every 100 metres. As the heat continued to build, I could feel myself slipping into dehydration, but the thought of jumping into the cool pool that would mark the summit of Kbal Spean was enough to keep me going.

Reaching the top and greeting the local staff swinging in their hammocks, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at but there is definitely no water to sink into. I spy a roped off area, which seems to be a dry river bed. It’s the dry season. A closer inspection reveals that the river bed is in fact marked with intricate carvings. Commonly referred to as the ‘River of a Thousand Lingas’, because thousands of phallic symbols (lingas) have been elaborately carved into the riverbed, alongside carvings of Hindu deities Vishnu and Shiva.

I shuffle back down the hillside littered with boulders to my next stop, Angkor Conservation Centre (ACCB), conveniently placed at the foot of the hill. ACCB focuses on rescuing native Cambodian wildlife and raising awareness on the importance of preserving, not poaching wildlife. The friendly and enthusiastic guide takes me on a comprehensive educational tour of their rescued wildlife. I am particularly excited to see that the centre has a dedicated pangolin facility, one of only two facilities rescuing the critically endangered Sunda Pangolin. Sadly I learned that the Sunda Pangolin is under threat of over exploitation caused by hunting and poaching for both meat consumption and the scales are used for traditional medicine. It’s clear that this dedicated and knowledgeable team are very passionate about saving Cambodian wildlife.

Then it’s time to peddle back 10 km to the guest house to rest and retreat from the sun. All in all quite a long day, with around 70 km covered, I am fast asleep by 7:30 pm.

Favourite snack: half a kilo of steamed sweet potatoes

Day 2: Banteay Srey to Anglong Veng: 90 km

I’ve set myself a daily departure time of 6:00 am because the hours between 6:00-8:00 am are the most magical time of day, with Cambodian nature and people slowly coming to life. Plus it is about ten degrees cooler than midday. It’s also dog wars time. Between these hours dogs love to chase people, especially foreigners, on bikes. But luckily, having lived in Asia a while, I’ve anticipated this very issue and have what I like to call a dog buzzer hanging safely around my neck, tucked into the back of my bum bag. Once activated, this yellow plastic device emits a specific frequency that only dogs can hear, whilst flashing two laser lights. A quick press in the direction of an angry barking dog, usually immediately stops its pursuit.

bai site dtroue

Scoffing down half an omelette with french bread and tucking the other half into my pannier bag with a bunch of bananas gifted from my hosts. I set off eagerly the next morning, heading further out of familiar territory to the town of Anglong Veng in Oddar Meanchey province, a former Khmer Rouge stronghold. After a couple of hours, I stop at a roadside cafe for my daily dose of ‘bai site dtroue’, a rice and barbequed pork dish which comes with a side bowl of broth, pickles and chilli sauce. This traditional Cambodian breakfast dish, which sometimes comes with a boiled or fried egg, is the perfect breakfast for cyclists. It costs around $1.25 and is, without doubt, my favourite Cambodian dish.

The 90 km cycle ride is marked with neat triangular stacks of cassava along the roadside which have been recently harvested. Cassava is an important cash crop for farmers in Cambodia, with over 12 million tonnes exported annually to the neighbouring countries of Vietnam and Thailand, as well as to European countries.

Anglong Veng town

A side wind about four hours into the ride combined with an intensive heat brings a challenging end to the six-hour ride. I arrive at my hotel, hot, sweaty and about ready to drop. A group of young men, who look like they are in the national army, give me a friendly greeting as they tuck into their shared lunch inside the lobby hotel. Anglong Veng town is set around a small picturesque lake, which presents a relaxed vibe to this small rural town. I manage to find a good meal of tom yum soup and rice, in one of the local hotels then hurry back to lie down for as long as I can. In the afternoon the sky turns dark and after rescuing my damp hand washed cycling clothes from outside, it rains heavily for one of the first times this year cooling the air and dampening the dust.

Anglong Veng town is set around a small picturesque lake
Favourite snack: Werther’s originals.

Day 3: Anglong Veng to Sra’aem: 80 km

Sra’aem in Preah Vihear Province

The next morning, after a 5:00 am birthday call back to the UK, I headed east towards the town of Sra’aem in Preah Vihear Province, about 30 km from one of the anticipated highlights of the trip, Prasat (Temple) Preah Vihear. It’s still dark and I zap several dogs who try to chase after me as I head past the market to the roundabout which sends me east. After the rains everything feels completely different, it’s like a tiny sidestep into the English countryside, with a cool breeze, puddles on the road and a gleaming countryside cleaned from the red dust which usually glazes the scenery. Life on the road is starting to feel really good.

I stop at the small town of Trapeang Prasat, for a rice pork breakfast, which comes with an egg, then go searching for the temple. I can’t find it, but I do catch a glimpse of a western looking coffee shop on the side of a roundabout, a mobile coffee unit sitting on a square rectangle of fake grass.

Trapeang Prasat

There is no way I can pass by the opportunity to have a latte and I pull up to sit outside and watch the passersby. Gazing at the roundabout, I realise that it is a work of art in itself and it turns out to be a replica of Trapeang Prasat, which I never did manage to find.

Fuelled by the delights of my coffee I head off continuing east with still another 56 km to go. About one hour in and another headwind hits and I find myself spiralling into heat exhaustion, I’m pretty sure it’s not far to go, but I must stop to cool down. An ice cream sign draws my attention and I pull into the gas station to eat ice cream and drink ice cold water. Chatting in broken Khmer to the friendly station attendant who lives there with his wife and child, my temperature drops and my spirits soar. I check the map and it’s only another seven kilometres to go.

Favourite snack: grilled banana and sticky rice parcels.

Day 4: Sra’aem to Prasat Preah Vihear and back to Sra’aem: 50km

The next day I am happy to be travelling light with just snacks, water and a spare inner tube and toolkit. I set off excitedly to the temple ticket office. It’s a quiet road with lush green scenery and a comforting feel to it. Turning off the main road towards the ticket office, which is a further 7 km, I am greeted with diggers working on the dirt road that has just been freshly sprayed with water. It’s the worst. Mud flicks up my legs and all over the bike, landing on water bottles, gears and brakes. Not good. I’m worried about the welfare of my bike and after reaching a dry part of the road, I quickly grab sticks and leaves to undo some of this sticky mud.

temple ticket office at prasat preah vihear

Finally, I reach the ticket office where I purchase temple and taxi tickets to take me to the top. I wash off my legs in a bucket outside the bathroom as there seems to be no running water inside. After several minutes of waiting, a motorbike pulls up and after grabbing my cycle helmet, I hop onto the back. It’s a steep and exhilarating ride to the top.

Leaving the taxi driver behind and my helmet tucked into the guard’s hut, I head uphill towards the temple. I’m pleased to have reached this part by 8:30 am. There is a huge crew of workers around the place who are picking up litter, maintaining the gardens and keeping things secure.

Finding solitude on the west side of the temples preah vihear

Finding solitude on the west side of the temples, I dangle my legs off the hillside and drink in what lies before me. It’s a pinnacle moment of the trip, as I take in what I’ve achieved so far, the amazing view of the surrounding area and ancient temples. I try to imagine what has occurred here over the centuries since the temples were built in the first half of the 11th century. With Preah Vihear Temple and the surrounding area meeting the Thai border, ownership of the Temple has been the subject of much debate since the 19th century. Official ownership was only awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962. The Temple is dedicated to the Hindu deity Shiva and consists of a causeway and a series of staircases rising upwards to the sanctuary. The path is punctuated by five ornate monumental entrance towers, or gopuras, which increase in size and grandeur as the journey upwards continues.

There is an incredible sense of peace, stillness and being that can only be found in an incredible setting like this.

I buy a coconut from a tiny shop at the top. The shop owner informs me that she has lived at the back of the shop in this wooden shack for ten years, which I find fascinating.

Wandering back down the steps to the causeway I am greeted by a rotund fella, he hands me something that looks like a small slither of wood and some tobacco and instructs me to chew and not spit, which I do. It’s quite revolting. But I carry on chewing, it reminds me of the betel leaf I tried in Nepal that turned saliva to red. The motorbike taxi ride down to the bottom is exhilarating and I deeply regret, to this day, having not cycled up there purely to enjoy the thrill of freewheeling down the steep hill in the wondrous setting. Another time

Day 5: Sra’aem to T’beng Mountain: 75 km

The next morning I set off feeling refreshed and almost with itchy feet having stayed in the same guest house for two nights. I am heading directly south, heading back towards home, it’s a really good feeling. The ride is incredibly peaceful, with the road cutting close to the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary, it feels like there is no one here. As I carry on cycling I see that the fields are lined with identical small white houses on stilts, about 25 metres apart. Hundreds and hundreds of them emerge along the roadside, sometimes in double lines. Occasionally, I see some that are occupied and have been personalised with a fence and garden around or a modification of some type. I find out later on that these are designated houses for retired army officials.

Koh Ker Siem Reap

Arriving at road 64, I see the signpost Koh Ker Siem Reap to the right and turn left towards the foothills of the Tbeng MeanChey Mountains.

It feels comforting to cycle so close to the shadows of the mountains and there is a special feeling along this road. Cycling cheerily the last 10km, I spy the only foreigner I’ve seen all trip driving towards me in a tuk-tuk, with his dog in the back seat. We greet each other with smiles and waves of appreciation and carry on our separate journeys. I stay at Phnom Tbeng Resort, which is set at the bottom of the side of the mountain. To my delight, there is a coffee shop and a restaurant. I can see that a lot of love, creativity and imagination has gone into this place. It is decorated with stylish vintage vehicles, graffiti on the rocks and random playthings made out of recycled tires. I’m impressed.

Tbeng MeanChey Mountains
Phnom Tbeng Resort
Favourite snack: grilled corn of the cob

Day 6: Tbeng Mountain to Koh Ker: 47 km

My journey is nearing the end with just one final stop, Koh Ker Temples complex. Today is a short journey of just 47km but I leave at the usual early time nonetheless. I feel so fortunate to be able to watch the sunrise once more whilst riding through the beautiful Cambodian landscape, with people on occasion waving and cheering me on as I go.

Koh Ker Temples complex

Cycling past the entrance to Koh Ker Temples I head on towards Koh Ker Garden Hotel where I will stay for the final two nights. It’s only 9:30 am, but when I glimpse a pizza sign out of the corner of my eye, I think well why not and order a ham and tomato pizza.

Favourite snack: red seedless grapes

Day 7: Day Trip to the Koh Ker Temples: 34 km

I’m excited to visit the Koh Ker Temple complex, partly because it’s only a 34 km ride, but more importantly because I’ve heard great reviews of this place. Within this temple complex are 169 archaeological remains which include 76 temples nestled within forest grounds, dating back to the 10th century. Koh Ker was in fact for a brief time the capital of the whole empire between 928 – 944, under the reign of the kings Jayavarman IV and Harshavarman II.

My first stop is Pram Temple. I am fortunate to have it all to myself as there are no guards or tourists around yet. It’s like something out of a fairytale, the ruins which consist of five small buildings, are slowly being consumed by nature, with the roots of the trees falling around the entrance like strands of hair. It’s a truly magical experience.

Hopping back on my bike and heading anti-clockwise around the temple complex, which is centred around a reservoir, I stop to inspect each ancient temple ruin. I can see that some of the temples are undergoing restoration work, as abandoned scaffolding and even parts of temple ruins hang hoisted in the air.

Eventually, I stop at the grandest temple, which I had previously thought of as Koh Ker Temple, however, it is called Prasat Thom. Leaving my bike unlocked, I wander through the stone pathway until I can finally see the magnificent pyramid stone temple. The prang, or temple tower, is the highest ever constructed by the Khmer, rising 36 metres from the forest floor. Not surprisingly I am joined by other domestic tourists who have also travelled to visit Prasat Thom and slowly we climb the steep wooden stairs to the top of the pyramid. On the way up I meet a fellow cyclist also from Siem Reap, who reassures me that tomorrow’s journey home is not that far. The feeling at the top is one of peace and tranquillity, and the last peak I will reach on this trip.

Cycling back feeling a sense of achievement and in a way sadness that the journey is nearly over, I stop to buy water and feel lucky to find large bottles available instead of all the small ones I’ve had to purchase that are such a waste of plastic. One more stop before heading back to the guest house, it’s time for another pizza.

Favourite snack: bananas

Day 8: Koh Ker to Siem Reap: 104 km

I’ve timed my last ride of 104 km, to coincide with International Women’s Day. I think it’s important to show women solo cycling and for me, this is the longest ride I’ve ever done. I set off at 5:15 am, in anticipation of a six-hour journey ahead. Its pitch black and even with my cycle lights on I can’t see very well, but the echoing of dogs barking around the land resonates very well. It’s a wonderful first hour of cycling as I whiz freewheeling downhill through the countryside trusting the roads to guide me through the darkness and with the song of the dawn chorus reassuring that I’m on the right path.

Koh Ker to Siem Reap

I plan to smash it back to Siem Reap by noon, with just a few breaks and no sightseeing. I glide past Svay Leu pagoda and see someone selling waffles for the first time on this journey. I circle back to purchase two giant waffles which are shaped into pentagons, with each side cut into hearts. These coconut tasting delights are scoffed at regular intervals with the motto, ‘waffles go in, pedals come out’.

Heading further south past Boeng Mealea temple, which I’ve visited before, I turn off Road 64 and head across the country on dusty back roads, a welcome change from the main roads. Crossing over Road 66 I’m back in familiar territory and very soon I find myself sitting back in Preah Dak drinking ice coffee and eating steamed pork buns with a boiled egg in the middle. The refreshing break gives me the final push home through Angkor Wat complex, back past Srah Srang where I had my first breakfast eight days before at sunrise and then homeward bound through Siem Reap, back to my front gate. Sliding open the gate, I cannot believe I’ve just cycled 550km.

Until my next adventure.

Favourite snack: waffles = peddle power. Waffles go in, pedals come out.

Phimeanakas Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom | as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato

Angkor Thom | As fantastic As The Atlantis Of Plato

“I confess I hesitate to write this, it appears as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato.”

Friar António da Madalena 1609

Angkor Thom, located just outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, was the former heart of the Capital City of the Khmer Empire.  Today taken over by the jungle, it was once absolutely spectacular.

map of angkor thom
Map of Angkor Archaeological Park and Siem Reap

The larger metropolitan area was the city once known as Yashodharapura, although it is now referred to as Angkor. It covered what is now the entire Angkor Archaeological Park and was the largest city in the pre-industrial world.

Angkor Thom today refers to the walled inner city where the State Temples, Royal Palace and the Ceremonial center of the Empire lay. In its heyday its name was Indrapattha, the city of the God Indra. It’s modern name, Angkor Thom translates as Angkor – city, Thom – big, just as Angkor Wat translates to City Temple. Angkor Wat is not inside Angkor Thom, but was part of the larger city surrounding it and about 100 years older.

Background History To Angkor Thom

Angkor thom Map
Figure 2. Angkor Thom

Yashodharapura became the city of King Yashovarman I in 889 when he built his State Temple, Phnom Bakeng in the Angkor area. But there was probably rice growing villages on the site previous to any of the early Kingdoms. The ruins of 6th century temples nearby indicate there was a significant community a hundred years before the Khmer Empire at least. Lovea, a village less than 20 kms away has been occupied for at least 4000 years.

Later rulers constructed their State Temples in the area and the Baphoun and Phimeanakas were built inside the future Angkor Thom. After the city was sacked and burnt by invading armies in the late 12th Century it was rebuilt by King Jayavarman VII and he constructed Angkor Thom as his administrative, ceremonial, religious and royal center.

King Jayavarman VII. Lived c1123-1218, Reigned 1181-1218

Jayavarman VII angkor thom
Figure 3. King Jayavarman VII (c1123-1218)

Jayavaman VII[1] recognized as the Khmer Empire’s most powerful King, and one of the most prolific builders in history. Yet, he is also suspected of initiating the decline of the Empire by over stretching its resources.

Jayavaman VII is a complex character about whom little is known. Even his date of birth is unclear, some sources cite 1120, some 1125 and others settle somewhere between.

In his 30s and 40s he lived in Champa, now Central Vietnam. The Cham were traditional enemy of the Khmer Empire since 950 although their culture appears very similar. Jayavarman may have been captured in battle in 1149 when the Khmer were forced out of northern Champa which they had occupied in 1145. In 1166 Jayavarman returned to Angkor when a usurper took the Khmer throne from his brother. He arrived too late to prevent the overthrow and didn’t challenge the new leadership.

The Cham invaded again in 1177 and 1178 and defeated the new King. The city was sacked and burnt, Angkor Wat and other temples looted and the Empire humiliated under foreign rule. Jayavarman organized resistance and independence movements and drove the Cham out after a Naval battle on the Tonle Sap. He was crowned King in 1181 and brought all the warring factions under control. By this time, he was in his late 50s and began a prolific building program which included rebuilding the Capital City.

Bayon Temple Reflection at Sunrise
Figure 4. The Bayon Temple at sunset
 Bayon ancient and present
Figure 5. The State Temple of Jayavarman VII, the Bayon. Ancient and Modern views. Angkor Guide Book

Many of his temples, including the Bayon were built rapidly and never fully completed.  It is said he may have also been suffering from leprosy and combined with his advanced age when he took the throne, prompted this rapid building spree.  He constructed the Terrace of Leper King, and the story of its name may refer to him.

Bayon from the Southern Entrance
Figure 6. Bayon from the Southern Entrance.

Bayon bas relief showing incomplete carvings
Figure 7. Bayon bas relief showing incomplete carvings

He named Angkor Thom Indrapattha, the city of the God Indra. He mixed Hindu and Buddhist iconography in his building works, smoothing the transition of religion from Hindu to Buddhism.   He was only the second Buddhist King of the Khmer Empire and may have converted under the influence of his wives.

The bas reliefs around two levels of the Bayon, his State Temple, tell his story from his return to Angkor, the land and military battles against the Cham and the Victorious Parade afterwards.  They also show daily life and temple building; it was the bas relief which answered the question of how the stones of the temples fit so well together and how the temples were constructed.

Bayon Bas Relief showing workers tamping the ground prior to construction.
Figure 8. Bayon Bas Relief showing workers tamping the ground prior to construction.
Bayon Bas Relief showing workers rubbing stones together to ensure a perfect join
Figure 9. Bayon Bas Relief showing workers rubbing stones together to ensure a perfect join.

Jayavarman’s works reflect his philosophy of feeling the pain of his subjects as if it were his own and he looked after his people’s spiritual and physical needs. He built 102 hospitals open to all during his reign and expanded the educational centers, one of his most remarkable temples, the Preah Khan was built as a university. He built highways to connect his expanded empire with rest stops placed at a day’s travel apart.

The five gates into the city are topped with faces looking in the four cardinal directions. The faces represent the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Lokeshvara. King Jayavarman identified with this Bodhisattva and the faces bear his likeness.   The Bodhisattva are supported by the three headed elephants which are associated with Indra. 

Angkor Thom Gates, Louis Deporte 1824
Figure 10. Angkor Thom Gates, Louis Deporte 1824. Note the four heads supported by the multiheaded elephant.

Until recently it was accepted that the faces on the Bayon towers were similar, until the University of Tokyo took 3D scans of the temple and examined the library of faces.  What they found suggests there is much more to these faces than was known, they have been grouped into 3 categories which have been interpreted as Devata (Goddesses), Asura (Devils) and Deva (Gods).  The meaning behind these groupings is still being researched.

the bayon faces
Figure 11. The Bayon faces
3D images of the Bayon faces, University of Tokyo
Figure 12. 3D images of the Bayon faces, University of Tokyo.

Jayavarman also built monuments and temples outside the walled city, indicating that the walls he built were not for military defense or protection of wealth or citizens. Angkor Wat is outside the walls; a temple so richly decorated that looting it became the pastime of every army who took control of the area right up until the 1990s. His walls were built for spiritual defense and although they may have slowed an Army, they wouldn’t stop it. 

The City Layout

The city is divided into four quadrants with five gates, four of which are arranged centrally in the cardinal directions. The roads from these gates lead directly to the Bayon, Jayavarman’s state temple mountain.  The fifth gate, the Victory Gate leads directly to the Royal Palace and the Ceremonial area of the Terraces of the Elephants and Leper King.  The Eastern Gate is the Gate of the Dead, and there are several explanations for the name. One is that the dead soldiers from the battles were brought through this gate, the other is that it is where criminal were escorted to their executions.

The Gate of the Dead, Angkor Thom.
Figure 13. The Gate of the Dead, Angkor Thom.
Central Angkor Thom and the Ceremonial Area
Figure 14. Central Angkor Thom and the Ceremonial Area

Each of the gates is at the end of a bridge over the 100m wide moat. The bridges are lined with the myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. On each side a Naga is being used in an eternal tug of war with the Devatas on one side and the Asura on the other, each stone statue was carved with a unique face.  The bridges and their iconography also provide spiritual protection to the city.

Carte De Poste D'Angkor
Figure 15. Carte De Poste D’Angkor. Antique French Postcard. Note the celestial tug of war lining the bridge
Angkor Thom South Gate. Note the Gods and Demons lining the bridge
.Figure 16. Angkor Thom South Gate. Note the Gods and Demons lining the bridge.

The vast Royal Palace was built on the Ceremonial terraces. Nearby lay the former State Temples, the Baphoun beside the Palace and behind is Phimeanakas.  A vast parade ground was between the Ceremonial Terraces and the Prasats of Khleang and Suor Prat Towers.  These towers were used for punishment according to a Chinese account of the late 13th Century:

“In front of the palace there are twelve small stone towers. When two men dispute over some unknown matter, each of the contestants is forced to sit in one of them while the relatives stand watch at the base. After three or four days, he who is wrong shows it by suffering some illness – ulcers, or catarrh, or malignant fever – while the other remains in perfect health. Thus right or wrong is determined by what is called divine judgment.”[2]

The city has a moat around the outside of the walls and a reservoir on the interior. The moat keeps the water table high and supports the walls, if it begins to drop, it is filled from the reservoir.  This reservoir was also used to take waste water and sewage out of the city.

The city supported a large population and also held a bronze, stone and other workshops as well as a large residential area.  As everything but the temples and ceremonial terraces were built of wood, they haven’t survived the ravages of time.  The Royal Palace was also wood and archaeologists have been able to estimate its size and layout from the postholes and some remaining beams. 

The Lidar scans of 2013 and 2015 showed that the inner city was built up with roads and canals with a huge urban area.  The citizens in the city had an urban infrastructure that contemporary European Cities would not achieve for another 700 years. They had an effective transportation system, water and drainage, including the removal of sewerage and waste, and agricultural system that produced three rice crops a year and the huge bounty of the Tonle Sap. They also enjoyed a low-density urban area which allowed families to live in individual separate homes with enough garden space to grow vegetables and raise small livestock. 

Figure 17. Plan of the canal and other infrastructure of Angkor Thom from Lidar images.

The city was abandoned by the Royal Court and elite in 1431 but some people remained in the area.  Jayavarman’s building projects and expansion of territory may have stretched the Empire beyond its capabilities and contributed to the eventual decline of the Khmer Empire.  Certainly, much of the new territory he conquered was lost soon after his death and no other large Temple was built after his reign. The population of the city had started to drift away over the decades prior to 1431 as the power of the Empire declined.

Gates to Angkor Thom

Figure 18. The first photograph of the Gates to Angkor Thom taken by. John Thomson 1865.

There is some evidence of Angkor Thom being reoccupied at later dates.  A Portuguese Friar visited in the 16th century (discussed below) and Japanese inscriptions indicate a community was there in the 17th Century.  The French in the 19th century was just the last in a long line of ‘discoverers’ of the city in the jungle.

Descriptions of Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was certainly one of the most magnificent cities of its time. Descriptions of the city when it was at its height come to us through the pen of a minor Chinese Diplomat who lived there for a year in 1296.  Zhou Daguan (c 1266 – 1346 CE) was part of an emissary of the Emperor Temür Khan, the second Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and the 6th Mongol Emperor.  His part in the diplomatic mission between China and King Indravarman III is unknown. When back in China in 1309 he wrote a book, The Customs of Cambodia which describes the city and daily life in the Khmer Capital.  He was especially impressed with the Royal Palace and regretted he was not allowed to visit it.

“The Royal Palace stands north of the Golden Tower and the Bridge of Gold: it is one and a half mile in circumference. The tiles of the main dwelling are of lead. Other dwellings are covered with yellow-coloured pottery tiles. Carved or painted Buddhas decorate all the immense columns and lintels. The roofs are impressive too. Open corridors and long colonnades, arranged in harmonious patterns, stretch away on all sides…

The dwellings of the princes and principal officials have a completely different layout and dimensions from those of the people. All the outlying buildings are covered with thatch; only the family temple and the principal apartment can be covered in tiles. The official rank of each person determines the size of the houses.”

Figure 19. Royal Palace  area. Key: 1.  East gopura 2. Sanctuary remains 3. Remains of four sanctuaries 4. Cruciform terrace 5. Phimeanakas 6. East pond 7. Large pond (Srah Srei) 8. West pond and Queens Terrace 9. Wall, basin and base structure remnant 10. Annexe with basin. Courtesy Ron Charles L Huillier  

Recently a project entitled “Virtual Angkor” has reimagined the city and temples from the time the Empire was flourishing. Their images are based on archaeological and architectural evidence and eye witness accounts.  They show a magnificent Imperial City which stunned visitors, even those who had been to Chinese Imperial cities.  To see the images, please go here.

King Satha, King of Cambodia discovered giant statues and walls on a hunting trip deep in the forest near Angkor Wat in the 16th Century.  It is said he employed over 6000 workers to clear the encroaching forest to reveal the walled city of Angkor Thom. He may have reoccupied the city for a time during his reign in the 1580s.

Portuguese Friar António da Madalena was part of the entourage of King Satha when he visited Angkor Thom.   Madalena was well travelled and had seen some impressive cities, including Rome. He was one of the earliest European Christian Missionaries into Southeast Asia and had travelled overland from the Siamese Court at Ayutthaya. 

The Portuguese Empire in the 16th Century were just as enthusiastic missionaries as they were merchants.  They had a presence, grudgingly in Japan and China, but also in Thailand, Myanmar and India. They saw Asia as millions of lost souls ready for conversion to Christianity.  Friar Madalena’s Christianizing mission in Cambodia failed, although he did ingratiate himself enough with the King to be invited to visit Angkor Thom. 

The Portuguese Capuchin Friar amazed description of the city he witnessed in 1586:

“I confess I hesitate to write this, it appears as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato. Today the city is uninhabited. A learned man supposed these to be the works of Trajan.…the finest, the best regulated, and the cleanest of all [cities] in the world…On one of the sides of this town there were incomplete monuments which seem to have been the palaces of kings, because the workmanship, sumptuousness and grandeur immediately look royal in their numerous cornices, leaf decoration, figures and other ornamentation which delight the eye and witness to the skill of their sculptors.”

Angkor Thom Today

Angkor Wat lays directly to the south of Angkor Thom and a little closer to Siem Reap. Therefore, most visitors enter Angkor Thom through the South Gate.  The sealed road leads directly to the Bayon Temple and the ceremonial and former Royal Palace area just beyond.  Nearby are the former State Temples of Baphoun and Phimeanakas.  These are the major sites in the city and are the easiest to access.


More than 75% of the former city is still covered in forest.  Many of the ancient monuments remain, most of which can be accessed via the dirt tracks throughout the forest.  Some can be reached via motorbike, but others require hiking. For the adventurous you can really get into your jungle explorer vibe and be richly rewarded by ‘discovering’ these lost temples in the jungle for yourself!


Local Guardian of Angkor Thom

Local Guardian of Angkor Thom
Figure 20. This friendly boy lives near the southern entrance to the Bayon, he may join you on your visit.

Kampong thom cambodia

Kampong Thom | An Amazing Bus Stop

Kampong Thom | An Amazing Bus Stop

Kampong thom cambodia

People rushing from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap usually miss Kampong Thom even though the bus stops here for one of the many breaks the bus driver enjoys taking: Maybe that’s is why people miss it. Here there are exotic lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, and more than 200 ancient temples. This place is Kampong Thom and is definitely worth staying a couple of days to see what’s going on.

At first Kampong Thom Province might seem unassuming. The bus dumps you off in front of a glitzy hotel full of Cambodian diners. Its best feature is the toilet! Near the hotel are a couple of cheap and cheerful guesthouses if you choose to stay overnight.

The Old Governors House

Kampong Thom town itself has a few places of interest. The old governors house from the French colonial era can be visited. It is an old house rather than a house full of old governors. This colonial building can be found behind the market. To get in, you have to squeeze through the main gate and with a bit of luck the front door will be unlocked: it does happen. The house is empty with only a few fittings remaining. However, the house has a Sleepy Hollow feel to it. To add to the eeriness, there is also a colony of fruit bats that roost in the grounds.

Kampong Thom Museum

Another place worth a visit is the Kampong Thom museum, if for no other reason, it will give you an interesting introduction to Khmer architecture. As you try to find it, don’t blink because you might miss it. It is on the main drag near the main temple. I went there one blistering hot afternoon and the door was shut. I was sure I had the opening times right. I was about to leave when a voice blurted out of the shadows, “Do want to go in?”

The man was Virak the museum attendant. He and his mates were having a siesta. For a small museum, it is packed with artefacts and information. A lot of the stone works were lintels and Virak explained that from the lintels a person can determine during what period the building was constructed. One wall had a giant map stuck to it, and it was peppered with red dots.

“They are the sites of temples. You know, Cambodia has more than eight thousand temples,” explained Virak.

He let that sink in then added, “Although there are a lot of big ones, like Angkor Wat, but a lot are just a pile of bricks in a rice field.”

The French Influence?

I landed him a question about the French discovery of Angkor and he replied, “The French discovered nothing, the Khmers have always been at Angkor.”

Kampong Thom Temples

Although 200 temples would drive the keenest archaeologist mad, there are a few a visitor can see and enjoy, and there is an Angkorian bridge in the neighbourhood. Nearby Prasat Sambor Prei Kuk is definitely worth a visit and the mountain-top Phnom Santuk is another worth taking the time to see. There are also the Praying Rain temple and the Floating Temple, but I’ll let the inquisitive investigate those two.

Sambor Prei Kuk


Sambor Prei Kuk is a pre-Angkorian site with temples scattered about a large area. Sambor Prei Kuk was built during the Chenla Kingdom (late 6th to 9th century), established by king Isanavarman I as a central royal sanctuary and capital, known then as Isanapura. It is a good 30 kilometres out of town, so take at least half a day to see Sambor Prei Kuk. As a Chenla and pre-Angkorian temple, Sambor Prei Kuk will whet your appetite for the monumental buildings at Angkor.

Phnom Santuk

Phnom Santuk is a clash of kitsch and tasteful, a recurring theme at many of Cambodia’s temples, as the colourful, maybe hand-sculptured, concrete statues peppered around the place add a macabre atmosphere to Phnom Santuk. The best time to go is late afternoon so you can catch the sunset. The view and the sun setting over the rice fields is spectacular. There are quite a few statues of Buddha on the mountain. One is 10 metres long and quite impressive. Next to Phnom Tantuk is Phnom Srah Kmao, which has a brick temple and a bat cave.

Spean Preah Toeus

One other Angkorian site to visit is the bridge Spean Preah Toeus. It is a bit of a hike northwest of Kamphong Thom. It is still used today by local traffic; although, I’m not sure how the bridge would handle a semi-trailer. The bridge is on the 5,000 Riel note. An interesting side note is that King Sihanouk is on the other side.

On the way back from the bridge you can enjoy relaxing at a lake. Here there are huts where you can kick back for a few hours and be served cheap food and drinks.

Pol Pot’s Birth Place

One of Kampong Thom’s more notorious sons is Saloth Sar, or Pol Pot, former Khmer Rouge dictator and Prime Minister. Just outside of the town is the unassuming village of Prek Sbauv. It is like any other village in Cambodia except it was the birth place of Pol Pot. It is possible to go there on a motorcycle.

Kampong Thom Boat

One way to leave Kampong Thom is by boat. The boatman waits under the main bridge; time unknown but in the morning at some point. He goes to the Ton Le Sap along the Steung Saen river and is reported to dock at Kampong Chhnang.

Kampong Thom to Siem Reap

For those seeking an alternate route to Siem Reap from Kampong Thom, there are motorcycle riders who wait at the bus stop and will take you north through the jungle, rice fields and villages. With you sitting on the back of the bike, your driver will take you to a village where you spend a night with a family and visit the temples of Preah Khan and Koh Ker on your way. Part of the journey leads you along an old Angkorian road and over its ancient bridges. The ride itself is tough and takes a couple of days. Then onto Preah Vihear, and from there you will head to Siem Reap via Anlong Veng,

And those heading to Phnom Penh, have a pleasant journey.

siem reap province

Siem Reap Province A Brief Guide

Siem Reap Province

In Khmer, the Siem Reap in Siem Reap Province means “Siam Defeated”, or more accurately “Siam Kneel”. Not a happy entry point into Cambodia if you are Thai. Siem Reap is also the name of the province the town is located in. Siem Reap Province is famous for the ancient city of Angkor; however, the province is full of places to visit. After all, this is the centre of the former Khmer Empire. So, let’s start with some temples.



The big draw card to Siem Reap Province is the World heritage centre of the ancient city of Angkor and its temples. The sheer size of the place can make it a bit overwhelming. However, there are two main routes you can follow which will take you to a lot of the better-known places of interest. Conveniently known as the small loop and big loop.

You can start on either side of Angkor Wat, but most people visit Angkor Wat first, especially at sunrise. It can be a bit crowded with all the tour buses that descend on the temple, and there so much to see that you’ll want a return visit to Angkor Wat. You can opt for a 3-day pass which you can use over a 1-week period. You do not need to use the Angkor Wat pass on consecutive days; allowing you time to reflect on what you have experienced.

Oh yeah, make sure you enter the park via the main road. This is where you buy your tickets. However, there other ways to get in and avoid the park’s minders. Park rangers will ask to inspect your Angkor Wat Pass, so you might be as well to buy a proper ticket. By the by, Khmers are allowed in free of charge.

Angkor Temples Big Loop

There are two loops you can follow: the big and small loops. First, let’s follow the big loop. This will take you past Phnom Bakheng and through Angkor Thom’s South Gate. Eventually, you’ll come to the Bayon.

After the Bayon you can visit places such as the Royal Palace, Terrace of the Leper King and Terrace of the Elephants. Onwards you go passing through the north gate.

Other temples on the big loop include Preah Khan and Ta Som. The path cuts across the East Baray, past Pre Rup then back to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Temples Small Loop

Preah Khan

The small loop starts like the big loop but after the Bayon turn right and head through the Victory Gate. This path takes you past Ta Keo, Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei. It eventually joins the Big Loop and back to Angkor Wat.

This is a small list of places to visit. It is exhausting trying to see everything, but there is a lot to see, so much in fact, that many people return.

In addition, if you already have your ticket then enter Angkor via the smaller road to the west of the main entrance road: less traffic and cooler.

Roulos Temples

The Roulos temples are about 14 kilometres east of Siem Reap. The Roulos Group is some of the earliest Khmer temples and marks the beginning of classic Khmer civilisation. The three main temples are Bakong, Lolei, and Preah Ko, along with the tiny Prasat Prei Monti. Entrance to Roulos is also included on your Angkor ticket. It is rarely crowded and a different take on Khmer civilisation. This is an often-missed area of Siem Reap Province and we believe that you will find the area enchanting and relaxing.

Banteay Srei

The extraordinarily beautiful Banteay Srei tenth-century temple is in the norther part of Siem Reap Province. Located about 30 kilometres northeast of Siem Reap you will need to hire a taxi or mini bus to get there. For the more energetic you can join in a Cyclebodia group from Siem reap city

Banteay Srei has many intricate and exquisite carvings and the red sandstone is stunning in the early morning or late afternoon sunlight as it takes on a rose-pink hue.

The name Banteay Srei means “Citadel of Women” or “Citadel of Beauty” and is probably related to carvings found on the walls. The temple is small by comparison to most other monolithic Angkorian structures.

Visitors often drop by this temple on their way to Phnom Koulen. It is easy enough to organise transport for the trip, and your hotel will be able to assist you with this.

Phnom Koulen

The enigmatic Khmer Empire had such a profound impact on the region, yet, in comparison to this impact, so little is known about the Khmer society.

After you visit Banteay Srei, head to Phnom Koulen which is about 50 kilometres north of Siem Reap. Originally a sandstone quarry for building Angkor, this mountain is rightly considered the birthplace of the Khmer Empire. It is also a sacred site for Cambodians: no littering.

Here you will find the Chup Preah and a giant who is reclining. Nearby Kbal Spean’s waterways have more than a thousand carvings on the riverbed. You can go swimming at a nearby waterfall. A refreshing way to wash off the heat of the day to meet fellow adventurers or volunteers on their day off.

Beng Mealea

The Beng Mealea structure is very impressive and if you only visit one other place outside of Angkor then this should be it. It is about 65 kilometres from Siem Reap. Book an early taxi to get there early to avoid the tour buses.

Beng Mealea is an Angkorian-era temple believed to have been built the same time as Angkor Wat. However, like so much about the Khmer Empire, little is known about Beng Mealea.

There are balustraded causeways leading into the temple. You can wander through galleries and passageways, or scramble over the many piles of sandstone.

If you go, try a side entrance to avoid the expensive entrance fee.

Tonle Sap

For many people the Tonle Sap and its busy and grimy port of Chon Cheas is their introduction to Siem Reap Province. However, beyond the port, which is 15 kilometres from the Siem Reap, the lake has quite a few places to visit.

Of course, if you are leaving Siem Reap by boat to Battambang or Phnom Penh then you will use Chon Cheas. Travelling by boat gives you the chance to see Cambodian life and wildlife along some of its waterways.

kompong phluk village siem reap

Hire a boat and visit ethnic Vietnamese or Khmer houseboats. You can go further and visit the impressive Kampong Phluk floating village. There is also the Preah Toal bird sanctuary. It is popular to take sunset boat trips. Perhaps take a bottle of Sombai with you.

Sombai is a popular local beverage. There are many flavours, such as lemon-lemongrass, green tea-orange, ginger-red chili, and pineapple-lime. The wine comes in hand-painted and scarf-wrapped bottles.

Another way to see the Tonle Sap lake is hire a Tuk Tuk and get the driver to take you along the shores and visit places less travelled.

Siem Reap Province

This is by no means an exhaustive list of places to visit in Siem Reap Province, but it will get you started and along the way you will discover other places to visit, especially the less visited ones. And remember, at the end of the day you can try the famous rice wine that is produced and widely consumed in the Siem Reap Province.

French Archaeologists surveying Angkor Wat c1930s

Be Your Own Archaeologist In The Siem Reap Temples

Be Your Own Archaeologist In The Siem Reap Temples

French Archaeologists surveying Angkor Wat c1930s

Don a dashing French Colonial Explorer vibe for an adventure into the past and archaeology of the Siem Reap Temples. Let’s do some amateur archaeology to uncover the remarkable story of this area for yourself.  A bullwhip is not necessary, but a Fedora is acceptable.

Guy Pearce 2 Brothers exploring the temples of siem reap
1. Guy Pearce in 2 Brothers. You can still get around on a water buffalo cart if you like.

We are going to explore the archaeology of the area in and around the temples of Siem Reap.  Not through excavating, that’s too hot and dirty, but through the physical clues and evidence that remains today.  Evidence you can discover, to appreciate the layers of history of this amazing country and which will enrich your visit far beyond a few social media posts and eating a spider.

Shaun Mackay Archaeologist in old angkor wat complex
2. Shaun Mackay, a real archaeologist in Fedora waiting for his ride to the excavation site. Photo Courtesy Shaun Mackay

Archaeology is the study of material remains of human activity. Basically anything that humans have used, modified or done something with is archaeology. It is multidisciplinary, so we are going to be historians, landscape analysts, heritage architects and art historians on our journey.  Not one of them requires a bullwhip.

3. The Original French Mekong Exploration Team, 1866 on the steps of Angkor Wat

The Khmer Empire

Cambodia’s Khmer Empire lasted from 802 until 1431 and at its height covered most of South East Asia. 

Khmer Empire Extent
4. French Colonial Map of the extent of the Khmer Empire

The Khmer Capital city at Angkor had a population estimated to be about 1 million people, at a time when London and Paris were muddy towns holding a maximum of 30 thousand. Even many of the temples supported a population much larger than any city in Europe at the time.  But the magnificence of Khmer Empire was completely unknown to the French when in 1863 Cambodia became another of France’s colonial possessions.

5. French Colonial Explorers Cambodia c1860s

Background and History Of Siem Reap Archaeology

When Henri Mouhot was guided through the forest by local Khmers and shown Angkor Wat in 1859 he was stunned.  It was completely unexpected. He could not have known that he was also standing in a former city that was the largest in the pre-industrial world. 

It was built by a civilization which at its height, was more advanced and grander than anything in Europe at the same time since the Romans. It was larger than the contemporary Byzantium Empire.

First photo of Angkor Wat, John Thompson
6. First Photograph of Angkor Wat. John Thomson 1866

However, it took around 150 years after the French explorer first laid eyes on Angkor Wat to begin to understand just how large and sophisticated the Khmer Empire really was. Without the advances in the 21st century in radar technology and its first application to an archaeological use, there would still be little idea of the extent of the Khmer Empire.

It is the equivent of the Roman Empire disappearing. In many ways the Khmer Empire and the Roman Empire were similar, especially in their engineering and building of great monuments, as well as the sheer size of the Empire at its height. Unlike the Romans, other than bridges, the Khmer Empire only built Temples and Sacred Monuments in Stone, even the Royal Palaces were wooden. As a result, Temples are the only buildings which remain visible, but other clues exist.

Lidar Scans 2013 and 2015
7. Lidar Scans 2013 and 2015. The Capital City founded by Jayavarman II on Phnom Kulen is outlined. It held 800 thousand people.

Siem Reap City – Hiding Hints Of History In A Modern Metropolis

If you ever fly into Siem Reap, look out the window at the rice paddies. At certain times of the year, you can make out the grid pattern of the former city under the paddies.  This is a great way to get an appreciation of the size of the former capital and how closely settled it was. On the ground, it cannot be seen.  

Grid of former Capital of Angkor in rice paddies
8. Outline of the features of the Capital City of Angkor are still visible in rice paddies from the air.

Siem Reap is a modern city, most of the buildings are less than 20 years old, however, it’s because of the infrastructure built by the Khmer Empire a millennium before that the city exists at all.  The river that runs through Siem Reap is not natural, it is a canal that was hand dug to connect the Khmer Capital city with the great lake of Tonle Sap. It was a highway used to transport people and resources into and out of the city.  The river has changed course in some sections now and is no longer straight.  A dramatic illustration of how far it has moved is Wat Athvea. This temple and monastery was built on the banks in 12th century about the same time as Angkor Wat. 

Siem Reap River
9. Siem Reap River. Wat Athvea marked with red arrow. The river formerly ran to the left of Wat Athvea

When the canal first came into use, small docks were built along its banks. They were the local centers where the rice and other produce was collected for transportation.  This prompted the building of small villages and eventually Wats near these docks.  The oldest Wats in the city were established in this way, they are all built near the river. 

Siem Reap River 1948
10.Market Dock, Siem Reap, 1948

Siem Reap was originally just one of these small villages.  The name is said to be a celebration of the victory in a legendary battle by the Khmer over a Kingdom of Siam, now modern Thailand. According to this tradition, the name means Siam Defeated.  This another clue to the past, it hints at traditional enemies and the political situation.

Siem Reap Grows to a City

Siem Reap grew and swallowed the surrounding villages as the French, stunned and delighted by the awe inspiring temples, began to travel here to explore.  Soon they began promoting the area for adventurous tourists, tapping into the 19th Century equivalent of a Gap Year, the Gentleman’s Grand Tour. 

First Tourists Angkor Wat 1866
11. First Tourists at Angkor Wat 1866

This prompted the expansion of the local market and the village grew into a town. By 1925, the Raffles Hotel had opened, the old market was provided with a building, and a town center with brick buildings had begun to spring up.  Some of them survive and can be found around the perimeter of the Old Market.

Siem-Reap-market 1921-35
12. The ‘Old Market’ when new in 1925. Note buildings behind, they are still there.

Today you can see people using the river much as they did for hundreds of years in the past. If you go down there early in the morning, you may see men setting out nets in wooden boats.  If they are dressed in a sarong and krama[1], you are seeing a sight that hasn’t changed for generations, it is living history. Watch the monks walking around collecting alms of a morning for another example of the ancient and modern co-existing in this remarkable city.

13. Monks walking along the river, Siem Reap

There are other clues to the history of the city remaining, mostly in the Wats. They are all interesting and worth a visit, most have beautiful gardens and ancient trees.  Many still have historic buildings giving you a glimpse into the architectural traditions of the past.

Wat Danmak was built for King Sisowath in 1904, it held the Royal Palace in the largest Pagoda in Siem Reap. In the years 1975-79 the Khmer Rouge used it as a military depot.   

In here you can find a reminder of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge and their desecration of the Wats in the Khmer Cultural Center.  Now used as a library, the building has a mural painted on the interior wall. The mural depicts a bucolic countryside with animals on the banks of a river and sacred icons painted in the sky.  The painting was used as target practice by the Khmer Rouge. However, it gives us a remarkable insight into the thoughts of the individual soldiers doing the shooting.  Animals and other mundane features of the painting have bullet holes in them. Not one is in any of the sacred images.  Despite the ideology of the Khmer Rouge and the fact that when this occurred, they were  actively sacking the Wat, no one was brave enough to shoot anything sacred. We must remember that the vast majority of those soldiers were very young and from rural villages, but it shows that the brainwashing didn’t entirely work.

Wat Damnak Mural
14. Mural in Wat Damnak Khmer Cultural Centre
amimals as target practice khmer rouge
15. Detail of mural showing bullet holes in animals.
Sacred Images Mural Wat Damnak
16. Detail Mural, Directly above the animals, no scared icons were shot.

Finding the Khmer Empire in Siem Reap

Wat Athvea, mentioned above, is still a working monastery, it has been in continuous use since at least the 12th century. However, that date is when the temple in the Angkor Wat style was constructed, it is likely it was an operating Wat prior to that[2]

Wat Athvea Khmer Empire
17. Wat Athvea built in the 12 century around the same time as Angkor Wat.

Another of the Wats, Wat Enkosei has the ruins of Brick Prasats built in the 10th century in the grounds. It is probably the earliest Wat in Siem Reap.

Khmer Empire Prasats Siem Reap
18. 10th Century Brick Prasats, ruins behind indicate it was once a much larger temple complex

If you enjoy a round of golf, you can play on a course that has an 11th Century Roluh Bridge between the 9th tee and 10th hole.

Khmer Empire Bridge Phokeethra Golf Club
19. 11th Century Roluh Bridge at the golf course Phokeethra Country Club. Photo Phokeethra Country Club

How to Read the Temples

The progression of building materials and the layout of the temples helps us to put them into a timeframe and understanding this will show you how to ‘read’ a temple.  The progression of building materials is our first big clue as to when a temple was constructed. 

Prior to the Khmer Empire there were two Chenla Kingdoms and Jayvaraman II united them to form his Empire.  The Chenla Kingdoms also built many temples and some of those survive as well.  They built their temples in brick, as did the early Khmer Empire, so when you see a brick temple, you are seeing a Chenla or early Khmer Empire temple. 

chenla temple
20. Chenla Temple c8-9th centuries

The foundations were made of Laterite. Laterite is a soft stone with a high iron content, when it is cut and exposed to the air, it hardens dramatically due to the iron and makes great foundations. It is a red colour and resembles swiss cheese.

The next progression of the materials are Sandstone and Laterite.  The temples were clad with sandstone over laterite and carved into wonderful images and patterns.  The best example of Khmer sandstone carving is arguably the Banteay Srei temple. This temple uses pink sandstone, and it is so magnificently carved, the reliefs stand out in 3D.

Banteay Srei
21. Banteay Srei intricate carvings into pink sandstone

Layout of the Temples

The earliest temples built by the Khmer Empire resemble those built by the Chenla, there was no dramatic stylistic change, it happened gradually.   These were brick stupas built in lines, with carvings directly into the brick. Many were covered with lime mortar and brightly painted. 

22. Kravan Temple. Brick carved temple 10th Century

However, once more than five stupas were needed, they began to be arranged with a central stupa and the others around the four cardinal points; North, South, East and West.  The next step was arranging the temple buildings on eight points to represent the Hindu universe.  Angkor Wat and the Bayon are the pinnacle of these temples.  The three temple plans below illustrate this growing complexity.

23. Phnom Bakheng Temple Plan built late 9th century. The central Stupa is surrounded by four more on the Cardinal Points.
24. Temple Plan of Ta Keo built late 10th Century. Stupas become more ornate and larger, outbuildings (called libraries) begin to be constructed in the grounds.

25. Temple Plan  of Angkor Wat (inner temple only), built early 12th Century. Stupas are connected, more outbuildings (not shown) and covered galleries are included.

State Temples are all built to represent the scared Mount Meru. They become Temple Mountains, Angkor Wat is the best example. But there are many others, the first being Phnom Bakeng which incidentally is a great place to see sunrise or sunset.

26. Phnom Bakheng, built for Yashovarman I in late 9th century.

Temples built for other purposes like universities, or by non-royals are flat, and do not rise with a central tower.  The most beautiful is probably Banteay Srei, the only temple not built by Royalty. The most well-known is Ta Phrom, built to be a temple monastery that supported around 80 thousand people. Another great example is Preah Khan, a temple that most tourists miss but would be a national monument in any other country.

Preah Khan
27. Preah Khan built late 12th Century as a university temple. The only two story library that survives is on the left.

Buddhist Temples were built beginning with the reign of Jayavarman VII. However, his State Temple, the Bayon, built in the center of Angkor Thom still represents the sacred mountain.

Bayon Angkor Thom
28. Bayon, Angkor Thom, State Temple of Jayavarman VII the first Buddhist King. Built 13th Century.

Landscape Archaeology For The Wider Picture

Now we are going to take our archaeological journey a step beyond and look at the wider area. We are going to do Landscape Archeology to understand how it all fits together.

The sheer number of Temples and monuments around Siem Reap is bewildering, there’s more than 50 in the Angkor Archaeological Park alone.  Then there are many more outside the Park.  Without a big picture, these amazing temples and sites will become a confusing blur jumbled together. 

Phnom Kulen, Where Your Investigation Begins

In 802CE when King Jayavarman II founded the Khmer Empire he held a ceremony on Phnom Kulen which proclaimed him a God-King.  This event is considered to mark the beginning of the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman then established his Capital City here and today it is difficult to believe that around 800 thousand people called it home.

It’s difficult to believe unless we look at it through our archaeology lens and travel a bit further than the waterfall and village. Off into the jungle and down dirt tracks we will find the evidence we are looking for. Throughout the jungle are monuments and temples, attesting to a large population capable of building them. 

Rong Chen Phnom Kulen
29. Prasat Rong Chen, Phnom Kulen. One of the many treasures in the jungle of the sacred mountain.

Let’s look at the shape of the mountain, it has a large plateau capable of supporting a huge population.  Next look out from the mountain, it has a 360 degree view over the immense plain below. Imagine the military advantages for a new King in a new Empire which he was still subduing.

Shaun Mackay, David Brotherson, and Tse Siang Lim. Photo Rothsophal Nguon
30. Archaeologists Shaun Mackay, David Brotherson, and Tse Siang Lim and photographer Rothsophal Nguon inspect the views from Phnom Kulen. Photo courtsey Shaun Mackay

However, Jayavarman II had more important reasons for choosing Phnom Kulen for his ceremony and coronation than the mundane of food and defence. Phnom Kulen was also known as Mount Mahendr, the representation of the sacred mountain where Hindu Gods lived.  By choosing this location he was legitimizing his rule and in turn adding another layer of significance to the mountain.

Today it is still the most sacred mountain in Cambodia, and the monuments to that reverence lay everywhere on the mountain.  The river is carved with thousands of sacred Yoni and Linga; creative fertility icons. This makes the water sacred and fertile before tumbling over the waterfalls and eventually reaching the plain of Angkor. These carvings are estimated to be around 1000 years old.  The huge reclining Buddha in the temple in the village was consecrated in the 14th century.  This indicates that a large population were still invested in the site 500 years after Jayavarman II and a century after the decline of the Empire when Royal Court moved south of the Tonle Sap.

31. Preah Ang Thom Pagoda, Phnom Kulen. 14th Century Reclining Buddha

If you look closer at the rocks around Phnom Kulen, you will find the individuals who have left their mark here. And there is some remarkable ancient and modern rock art on the mountain.  We are going to look at the modern, as it records events of the last century.  Phnom Kulen became a Khmer Rouge stronghold, they too recognized its defensive advantages.

This art is naïve, it was done by people not trained in art or rock carving, and it was done by people caught up in horrendous events. Individuals who were trying to understand the events taking place around them left this poignant record for future generations.

Rifle Rock Art Phnom Kulen
32. One of many images of rifles and weapons etched into the rocks of Phnom Kulen

Cambodia was bombed during the Vietnam War by American B52 bombers.  Someone has etched a image of these aircraft and other aircraft overhead. Other rock art has depictions of a rifles.  

Bombing Rock Art Phnom Kulen
33. Aircraft shown overhead, a possible record of the secret bombing campaign by the USA.

The mountain was quarried for the sandstone to build many of the temples, including Angkor Wat.  Look out for the quarry marks on the sides of the mountain.  Those sheer cliffs are not natural.  There is a site in a riverbed near the base of the mountain which was obviously a quarry.

Quarry Site PK
34. Ancient Quarry, Phnom Kulen

Red Jungle Bananas
35. Insiders tip; when you visit Phnom Kulen try the Red Bananas that only grow here, they are delicious.

Rolous Group – The First City On The Angkor Plain

The next Capital of the Khmer Empire was built at Rolous, at the foot of Phnom Kulen.  From our archaeological landscape analysis, we can see that it was built next to the floodplain of the Tonle Sap and close to the conjunction of several major streams coming off the Kulen Hills.  By the time the first temple was built here, the Khmer Empire was secure. The change in temple architecture happened here. Preah Ko and Lolei follow the linear arrangement and are brick temples, but Bakong is a temple mountain built of sandstone.

Preah Ko
36. Preah Ko built 879

37. Lolei built 893
Bakong Rolous
38. Bakong built 881, the first State Temple Mountain

Angkor Archaeological Park

Then the Khmer Empire settled into the Capital City in today’s Angkor Archaeological Park and built a plethora of temples and monuments.

As you travel around the park, you should now be able to make sense of the enormous number of temples and place them in a general timeframe. So now let’s zoom in on one temple to find the archaeological evidence of individual people, Angkor Wat.

The Snapshots In Time Left By People Of The Past On Angkor Wat.            

Angkor Wat was never abandoned, it remained a living building used since its dedication in 1150, to the present day.  Millions of people have been through the temple, and some have left evidence of their visit behind. Now we become architectural archaeologists to look for the evidence of individuals in this amazing edifice.

The Craftspeople

Incredible as it may seem, Angkor Wat was not completely finished, and you can find the evidence in the artworks decorating the building.

Unfinished columns decorations. Look at the base of the columns as you walk around the temple. You will see how they were done, step by step as there are many in different stages of completion.

Unfinished bas relief.  If you look closely, you will find evidence of where the bas relief was unfinished or the carver changed their mind. Or possibly in this case, was trying to insert a joke and was stopped?

Incomplete monkey warrior
39. A monkey warrior who was going to bite his enemy on the behind.

Bored Novice Monks?

Look for the amateur depictions of sacred icons and animals etched into the walls and columns.  These must have been made by someone who spent a lot of time in the temple. The people who carved these were interested in the myths, legends and icons already carved into the walls of the temple, so they were most likely religious.  The guess, and it can only ever be a guess, is that these were made by novice monks.

Apsara graffiti Angkor Wat
40. Amateur Apsara, Angkor Wat

Buddha graffiti Angkor Wat
41. Buddha?

Deer graffiti Angkor Wat
42. Deer with possible target practice marks.

French Colonization Of Cambodia

The French Colonial period is also evident on the walls of Angkor Wat.  Some left beautifully carved memorials of their visit. There is a French Solider head depicted wearing a Kepi Cap, and some beautifully done inscriptions.

Kepi cap graffiti Angkor Wat
43. French Soldier in Kepi Cap, possibly by DB in 1929.
French graffiti on a column in one of the courtyard galleries of Angkor Wat 1993
44. French Colonial Graffiti. Image Australian War Memorial


Conquering Armies like to leave their mark behind and show their superiority by desecrating sacred sites of the vanquished. Angkor Wat is no exception.  There is graffiti left by armies from the Cham 1000 years ago, through to UNTAC in 1993.

The Japanese also left their mark during their occupation of South East Asia in World War 2.  In the central tower, the holiest of places, you can see the Imperial Red paint and Japanese text painted and etched into the walls.  There is a great deal of Japanese writing etched into the walls.

Japan WW2 Graff AW
45. Japanese text possibly WW2

Evidence Of A Battle

On the southern side of the temple is evidence of a battle. This side of the temple was restored with concrete in the 1950s and 60s. There is bullet holes in the concrete and this tells us that the battle happened after the restoration works. So we can rule out WW2.  

After the military coup of 1970, the Khmer Rouge took over the Park, five years before taking the entire country.  The battle could have occurred then, or during the Vietnamese invasion of 1989, or during the clearing of the Khmer Rouge entirely from the temples by the UN in 1993.

Bullet holes sth side AW
46. Scars in the temple from a battle. Bullet holes
mortar scars sth side AW
47. Scars in Angkor Wat from a battle. Possible mortar, grenade or booby trap.

The Khmer Culture

The biggest and most wonderful artefact of the past you will find is the culture of the Khmer. They blend their ancient past with the modern day gracefully. The exquisite hand gestures of the Apsaras carved into the temple walls can also be seen in the most trendy dance clubs being made by thoroughly modern women.  Monks, dressed as they have been for time immemorial using the latest tablet or mobile phone.

The Khmer were noted for their hospitality by Chinese merchants who left journals of their visit here in the 11th century. You will still find that friendly hospitality in Cambodia in the 21st Century. This unique and stunningly beautiful place deserves exploring.

Friendly Monk Photography Teacher
48. One of the friendly modern monks you will meet in any of the modern Wats of Siem Reap. This Monk was teaching a child photography and their history.

Insider’s Tip: It is not compulsory to eat a spider, but silkworms go well with a beer.

[1] Krama is a Cambodian cotton scarf that Cambodian put to an amazing array of uses.

[2] Insider’s Tip; don’t try to play with any puppies you find here, the mother dogs don’t like it and you may have to be rescued by the monks.