Cambodia is justly famous for its national icon: the magnificent Angkor Wat. This vast 12th century temple is preserved in a remarkable state of repair, contains miles of intricate bas-reliefs, and was constructed using a volume of stone greater than the Great Pyramid of Giza. It represents the pinnacle of Khmer culture and artistry, evoking a long-vanished empire that once ruled most of Southeast Asia.
The only problem is everybodys in on it. Angkor Wat and the surrounding complex is one of the worlds top tourist destinations, and sees thousands upon thousands of visitors every day. Wouldnt you like to discover a temple away from the throng and hubbub, where you can feel yourself transported back in time and explore jungle temples unimpeded by crowds? Well, you can and its easier than you think.
1. Beng Mealea
Just an hour-and-a-halfs drive from Siem Reap, Beng Mealea is a vast and impressive temple in the heart of the jungle. Whereas Angkor Wat has had vegetation cut back and galleries restored Beng Mealea remains very much in the condition it was found. A few rudimentary props and walkways have been installed to prevent further deterioration, but in general visitors are allowed to roam freely over the rubble of its collapsed galleries and vine-tangled walls.
Beng Mealea certainly isnt unknown to tourists, and is growing in popularity as a day trip destination from Siem Reap. You almost certainly wont have the place to yourself but its atmospheric disrepair and air of abandonment make it one of the finest temples in Cambodia for adventuring.
2. Preah Vihear
Preah Vihear is a little-known temple in the far north of Cambodia, on the border with Thailand. Though barely visited by travellers, its actually Cambodias only other UNESCO World Heritage Site besides Angkor which makes it somewhat surprising that its so underrated. The reason is that until 2011, Preah Vihear was the site of a border conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, who both claimed the site as their own. It was not until 2015 that the UKs Foreign & Commonwealth Office declared the temple safe for travel, putting it firmly back on the map.
Perched on a lone hill 525 metres above the surrounding plains, Preah Vihear is not just a fantastic place to see well-preserved ruins dating back to the 10th century, but has the best views of any temple weve ever been to!
3. Koh Ker
If you only make time to see tourist-ready Angkor, youll miss out on the opportunity to discover an ancient temple complex in complete solitude a thrill that cant be matched. At Koh Ker, you might see a handful of other visitors, but in many cases youll be the only person around, exploring the overgrown temples and sanctuaries of this forgotten city without another soul in sight. The highlight of the complex is its multi-tiered pyramid, which is unique amongst Cambodian temples and looks more Mayan than Khmer.
Koh Ker has for a long time been one of the remotest and least visited of Cambodias Khmer complexes. A new road, however, has made it easily accessible in just a couple of hours from Siem Reap but dont worry, travellers still rarely stray from the well-worn paths of Angkor.
4. Banteay Chhmar
The Citadel of Cats was once one of Cambodias biggest temple complexes now, its been almost entirely subsumed by the surrounding jungle and its only neighbours are sleepy country villages and farmland.
Banteay Chhmars temple complex was built by the same king responsible for the famous Bayon faces, the Terrace of the Elephants, and Ta Prohm the Tomb Raider Temple. Though this little-known citadel is not as impressive or as well-preserved as those more famous examples, it has the advantage of being a more exciting and adventurous place to explore its ruins concealed in thick jungle and vegetation, waiting to be discovered.
5. Banteay Srei
Banteay Srei is one of Angkors outlying temples, located 45 minutes drive from Siem Reap. Its out-of-the-way location means that although its actually one of the most beautiful of all the Angkorian temples, it receives far fewer visitors than the more centrally located sites.
Banteay Srei is the only known Angkorian temple to have been built from pink sandstone, and is famous for its amazingly intricate bas-reliefs. This material has proved so well suited for the job that the reliefs have hardly weathered over the past millennium, remaining almost as sharp and clear as the day they were carved. Visit just before sunset, when the dying light casts is orange glow on the pink stone, to see these ancient carvings at their best.
6. Sambor Prei Kuk
Finally, if you were impressed by the strangling roots at Ta Prohm but frustrated by the throngs of tourists queueing up for holiday snaps, Sambor Prei Kuk is an excellent alternative. Located about 50 minutes drive from the city of Kampong Thom, this complex is actually pre-Angkorian: constructed during the Chenla civilisation of the sixth to ninth centuries. There is no grand centrepiece here, but lots of small, tumbledown towers dotted throughout the forest, most of them thickly wrapped in roots and vines and in the process of being reclaimed by nature.
These temples all offer a fantastic and adventurous alternative (or addition) to the traditional Angkor circuit, and are easily accessible to tourists so go out, get off the beaten track, and discover the many secrets Cambodia has to offer.
Alastair Donnelly is Director at InsideAsia Tours.
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