Which Wat? Choosing your Angkor Adventure

If you are visiting Angkor Wat for the first (or even the second) time, you may be wondering which temples to visit. The usual options are to do the Small Circuit if you have just one day and the Grand Circuit if you have two, but you can get more creative in your decision-making process. Here are some options if you want to choose your temples more strategically.

For Views

Want to climb up a lot of narrow, steep stairs and look down on the jungle from on high? Visit:

Ta Keo

This unfinished temple has death-defying steps up to the top.

Pre Rup

This was once a popular spot for sunset viewing, but at the moment, COVID restrictions have the temple closing too early for that.

Baphuon

Great rubble and jungle views!

Angkor Wat

The tallest tower in the temple complex has vistas out in every direction — and they can be particularly dramatic just after sunrise.

For Peace and Quiet

It’s not always easy to get off the beaten path and find time alone at the Angkor complex, but it can be done. Two of my favorites for this are:

Ta Nei

Ta Nei is not on any of the usual tour routes, so the chances are that you’ll have this tiny tree-covered temple all to yourself.

Banteay Samre

You’ll have to work for this one, because it’s a 25 minute tuk-tuk ride away from the central temple complex. But you might be the only one there once you arrive.

For Bas-Reliefs

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat boasts 1,200 square meters of stone carvings, most of them about various battles (though the one above depicts the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk). It’s an impressive array.

Bayon

The bas-reliefs at Bayon depict battles, yes, but you’ll also find lots of scenes of processions and daily life (those folks above are roasting fish skewers). And I would be remiss if I failed to mention the fifty-four head-topped towers:

Kravan

The bas-reliefs at Kravan are giant and impressive — and very few people seem to stop to see them.

Terrace of the Leper King

No one is sure exactly what this maze-like structure was used for, but the six-meter high walls — covered tip to toe in bas-reliefs of nagas, asparas, and the god of death — are not to be missed.

For Bigger Sculptures

Eastern Mebron

There are elephants! Need I say more?

Angkor Thom, South Gate

It’s not a temple per se, but the Angkor Thom complex is guarded by some pretty impressive sculptures.

Terrace of the Elephants

Again, this isn’t a temple (it was the king’s viewing stand for public ceremonies), but it does have great sculptures of Indra’s three-headed elephant.

Banteay Kdei

Angkor is filled with guardian lions and nagas, and you’ll find some excellent examples here.

For One-of-a-Kind Architecture

Preah Khan

No one knows why this two-story building with a columned base exists. Granary? Maybe. Sword repository? Possible, but that’s a more fanciful explanation. All anyone knows for certain is that there is no other building like this at Angkor.

For Long, Empty Hallways

Banteay Kdei

Baphuon

For Water

Neak Pean

This tiny temple actually sits in the water of Jayatataka Baray.

Sras Srang

This is not technically a temple, but if you’re a fan of water, it would be a shame to miss the king’s bathing platform.

Angkor Wat

There used to be water all around the Angkor complex; many of the temples were ringed by moats, and the water system was elaborate. There’s much less water now, though Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom still have their moats intact. And the reflecting pond just in front of Angkor Wat is a favorite for anyone willing to wake up for sunrise.

Angkor Thom, North Gate

This is a great vantage point from which to get a sense of the expansiveness of the moats that once surrounded this area.

For Tree-Covered Mystery

Ta Prohm

There’s a reason that Ta Prohm makes so many people’s greatest hits list, and it’s not just because of Tomb Raider. There’s something about seeing nature interact with ancient temples that makes you feel like you’ve stepped out of time. It almost begs to be seen in black and white.

Ta Nei

This is like a miniature version of Ta Prohm: all of the trees, minus the maze-like buildings.

A Final Note on Scaffolding, Closures, and Crowds

You can’t go wrong in choosing a temple in the Angkor complex, but it’s worth noting that as of March 2022, lots of restoration work is being done. You’ll find extensive scaffolding at Angkor Wat, Phimeanakas, the Terrace of the Elephants, and Banteay Kdai. The entire top section of Bayon is closed, so you can’t get up close and personal with the heads (but the bottom section remains a true wonder). Finally, while Angkor Wat is truly majestic, the crowds can be truly irritating (more in quality than in quantity at the moment). So choose with all of this in mind, and enjoy!

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