Unique Asia Travel & Tours
Visit Cambodia, Kingdom of Wonders
4-days-itinerary "Khmer History" (Tour Code SR-HT-04-C)
Heritage Study-Trip

Angkor temples in (almost) chronological order

This history study tour provides an itinerary specially elaborated by Unique Asia Travel and Tours for those guests who are more than others interested in the ancient culture of Cambodia. The itineray shall make a difference compared to those most common Small Circuit and Grand Circuit packages.

The special feature is that we visit the Angkor temples in (approximately) chronological order, this means, earlier temples in the beginning, later ones at the end. Of course we will visit some temples along the way even if they do not exactly fit into this historical order, in order to avoid too much driving back and forth. Nevertheless, the basic chronological scheme will never be interrupted seriously. It really differs significantly from the usual round trips along the Small and the Grand Circuits.

Our concept of historical sequence has two distinct advantages over traditional itineraries.
First of all, this method makes it much easier to understand and learn and, after your journey, to remember the bulk of information on developments, periods, styles, and kings.

Secondly, from day to day, you will experience a certain increase in the attractiveness of the destinations visited, simply because the largest and most richly decorated temples are the chronologically later ones. Of course, the exception proves the rule.

An example for such an exception is the lovely Banteay Srei temple from the 10th century. The itinerary includes an excursion to this highlight Banteay Srei already on the second day.

The basic pattern
of our 4-day program "Khmer history" is as follows:

day 1:
late 9th century in Roluos (Indravarman I) and
early 10th century at "the first Angkor" (Yashovarman I and sons)

day 2:
second half of the 10th century in Angkor
(Rajendravarman II and Jayavarman V)

day 3:
beginning of the classical period in the 11th century (Suryavarman I.) and
culmination of classical Khmer art (12th century, Suryavarman II)

day 4:
Buddhist era around 1200 (Jayavarman VII)

Please compare our detailed itinerary described below:
4 days "Khmer history" (Tour Code: SR-HT-04-C)
with our overview of Angkor temple history.
See photos of the temples in historical sequence
on our our subpage called Photo Gallery Angkor.

day 1: the beginnings

We start with an admittedly very small and inconspicuous, but typical Khmer temple from the middle of the 9th century, the early days of a united Khmer Empire. The temple Prei Monti is a little bit hidden, south of the three most famous monuments in Roluos, which are from a later date. Prei Monti was part of a palace, and thus became the model for the much more elaborate royal ancestor temple Preah Ko. Prei Monti consists of three "temple-towers" on a common platform. This typical Khmer design of a sanctum, on a square plan with a high roof structure (largely collapsed at Preimonti), is called Prasat. A Khmer Prasat is always a sacred building, although the Sanskrit expression Prasada generally refers to a multi-storey building. Khmer Prasats have no real upper floors, only a stepped superstructure.

Our next item on the programme is the already mentioned Preah Ko in Roluos, which was dedicated to Shiva. Situated within his palace compound, Preah Ko was the ancestral temple of Indravarman I. (877-889). The kernel of this temple consists of six Prasats on a shared platform. The three front towers are dedicated to the male ancestors, the smaller ones in the rear are for three female ancestors. The brick structures were covered with stucco, which is still preserved partially. The reliefs on the lintels and above blind doors are of particular interest. They were imitated in Angkor again and again, though those in Angkor never reached this excellent quality. Preah Ko became the name of the style of the Roluos period or the art of Indravarman’s reign.

Even more innovative is the state temple of King Indravarman, the Bakong. The central structure is the first major and the oldest surviving step pyramid of the Khmer. A Linga was enshrinded on top of it. The Linga is a Shiva-phallus, symbolizing the power of the king and carrying his name: Linga Indreshvara. Each of the later significant Angkorian kings built his own temple mountain for his personal Linga bearing his name. Similar to Bakong, many pyramids were constructed at Angkor, each of them served as a royal state temple during the reign of its founder, and possibly after his death as a place of his deification. Other elements of the great Bakong temple complex set examples for the architecture of Angkor, too: concentric enclosures, elongated building of so-called galleries, library buildings, surrounding moats with causeways, their railings in the form of serpents (Naga balustrades).

The Lolei temple in Roluos is similar to Preah Ko, but it has only four Prasats. The two Prasats for the male ancestors have male guardian figures, called Dvarapalas, whereas those two for the female ancestors show female protectors, are Devatas. They are often wrongly called “Apsaras”. Actually, Apsaras are those semi-goddesses that are dancing or playing, as those at the Angkor Wat. Originally Lolei was an island temple in the first large artificial reservoir of the Khmer civilization, Indratataka. This Baray and its Mebon (island temple) were completed by Indravarmans son and successor Yashovarman, who shortly afterwards was to become the founder of Angkor as the new capital.

After lunch break in Roluos we will first visit the least known of the three temples that were created by Angkor's founder Yashovarman I. They are built on the three prominent hills in the plains of Angkor. The highest hill is the easternmost. It is called Phnom Bok. Phnom Bok is a very charming complex, but rarely visited, because you have to climb 600 steps to the summit. (Those who prefer to avoid this could choose to visit the also very hidden but great temple Chau Say Vibol, which dates from the 12th century.) The three Prasats of Phnom Bok standing on a north-south axis were dedicated to the trinity (Trimurti) of supreme Hindu gods, namely Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. Shiva was the patron of almost all early Angkorian kings, his Prasat is highlighted by its position right in the centre. Phnom Bok was not a state temple for the royal cult, this is why there were idols - instead of the Lingam - sheltered inside the Prasat towers of Phnom Bok. However, slightly behind the temples there is one of Cambodia's biggest Lingams at all. It is now broken into pieces, after it fell down when art thieves tried to carry it away.

From Phnom Bok we drive into the core area of Angkor. On the way, we cross the area of the largest monument built by Yashovarman, namely the embankments of the reservoir called East Baray. Its dykes are 19 km long altogether. The Baray dried up already in the late Middle Ages, due to a climate change that was one of the causes of the decline of Angkor. Today, this Baray area is lush green farmland with a lot of paddy cultivation.

On the first day we will visit only one area inside Angkor, namely the state temple of Angkor’s founder Yashovarman I, which is therefore called "the first Angkor". It is located on the hill called Phnom Bakheng. You could ride on an elephant to its summit. The temple Bakheng on the very top is a steep but wide pyramid, which once had 109 Prasats. Beautiful decorations in the style of Bakheng still remain at the central Prasat. On the wide upper platform are only remains of four other Prasats, they stood in the corners. This arrangement of five towers is called quincunx. The quincunx order appeared here for the first time in Khmer architecture, it will characterize many later imperial temples, particularly Angkor Wat. By the way, from the summit of Phnom Bakheng you can enjoy a perfect view to Angkor Wat in the afternoon, its five towers rising above the jungle.

At the foot of the hill is a small but very nice proportioned pyramid, which probably served as an ancestral temple. It had been begun under Yashovarman’s sons and was finished only decades later, on during the reign of Rajendravarman II. Meanwhile Angkor had not been the capital.

The last visiting point on this first day is the third temple of Angkor-founder Yashovarman. It is situated much further south, behind the town of Siem Reap and very close to the Tonle Sap. From the hill called Phnom Krom, you will be able to enjoy an excellent sunset over the Great Lake. The temple Phnom Krom is very similar to Phnom Bok, likewise it is dedicated to the Trimurti. However, Phnom Krom is not quite as tranquil as Phnom Bok, it has become the most popular sunset point of Siem Reap.

day 2: the tenth century

After breakfast we will first visit Prasat Kravan from the mid-10th century. Here are five towers in a row. This is a small temple, but with some special features. It is a so-called private temple, this means, it was not built by a king but by another dignitary. Prasat Kravan was built in a period when Koh Ker, not Angkor, was the capital. In competition with the "Three-Worlds-Lord" Shiva, who was the main deity venerated in Koh Ker, Vishnu was worshiped as the "Three-Worlds-Lord" at Prasat Kravan. Two towers of Prasat Kravan have large brick reliefs inside the santum. This is unique in Angkor. In the central tower you can see three huge carvings depicting Vishnu, the goddess is represented in the nothern tower.

Afterwards we visit another private temple. The three towers of Bat Chum are less well-known among tourists. They date from the reign of King Rajendravarman II (944-968), who moved the capital back from Koh Ker to Angkor. This temple was built by a dignitary who was a Buddhist. Bat Chum is the oldest known Buddhist temple in Angkor.

King Rajendravarman is the founder of Angkor’s largest temple mountain of the first millennium, Pre Rup. It was likely not only his state temple for imperial ceremonies, but also this king’s funerary temple for his posthumous deification. Till the present day, Pre Rup is one of the most impressive pyramids of Angkor, shining in warm tones because of the reddish color of its laterite and the brick superstructures. The five Prasats on the uppermost platform are well preserved. At the foot of the pyramid, there are a number of elongated rectangular buildings. They form a preform of continuous gallery-corridors. The style of Pre Rup forms a transition to the classical Angkor styles anyway. The north-eastern corner of the row of gallery buildings is the place, where the longest Sanskrit inscription of the entire world was found. It is removed now for safekeeping.

The most beautiful reliefs in the style of Pre Rup can be seen at the nearby temple East Mebon. You will recognize numerous well-preserved carvings of excellent craftsmanship above portals and false doors. The East Mebon is very similar to Pre Rup, but less steep. The temple was constructed one decade earlier than Pre Rup. It was built as an ancestral temple, and probably it was the first state temple of Rajendravarman II, too. The name Mebon indicates that it was an island temple. It stood close to the center of the ancient East Baray. By building this monument Rajendravarman demonstrated his connection to the tradition of Angkor founder Yashovarman. Probably he felt that need because he was not a legitimate successor of the kings of Koh Ker.

From these eastern parts of Angkor, where the capital of Rajendravarman was centered, we will drive another 30 km further north to the Banteay Srei. We will visit this temple after lunchtime.

In the early afternoon Banteay Srei is not as crowded as in the morning. Banteay Srei is the most beautiful Khmer temple, the favourite temple of most Angkor visitors, for many of them it is nothing less than the most beautiful temple in the world. The buildings are surprisingly small, they seem designed for dwarfs more than for upright-walking adults. But Banteay Srei does not impress with size, but with its exquisite decoration. No other Khmer temple is as richly ornamented as this one. Nowhere else outside India did architecture and sculpture merge so harmoniously into a unity as at Banteay Srei. Banteay Srei is the most striking example of a private temple. This means, it was not built by a king. However, the builder Yajnavaraha was the most powerful man of his time, he was the teacher and the prime minister of the Rajendravarman’s successor Jayavarman V, who was still a minor those days. The small temple of Banteay Srei can be regarded as a symbol of power, appreciators will understand: The floor plan, which is an unusual combination of linear and concentric elements, is an imitation of Prasat Thom, which had been the imperial temple of Koh Ker, the rival of Angkor. The same manifestation of Shiva as in Koh Ker was worshiped in Banteay Srei. By the way, as in the case of many other major Khmer temples, Banteay Srei was only the core of a small town on its own.

After seeing this highlight for art lovers, we will visit a not too far away place, which is one of the greatest mysteries of Angkor, the stream of 1000 Lingas. A two-kilometre jungle trail will lead from the parking lot to this stream. It is only one of two rivers that are called "1000 Lingas", the other one being on the holy mountain Phnom Kulen. But Kbal Spean is more impressive. The 1000 Lingams are exceptional, since they are carved on the bottom of the riverbed, a kind of underwater art. The stylized phalli of Shiva are fertility symbols. They are blessing the waters flowing to Angkor. In addition to the 1000 Lingas, there are dozens of carvings on the rocky edge of the stream, depicting Hindu deities. Depending on water levels, they are partly submerged or sprayed from small waterfalls, a fabulous sight. The reliefs were probably carved by order of King Suryavarman I in the 11th century, but the Lingams are older. They were created by hermits who lived retired in this romantic river valley. After this partly strenuous jungle walk we will drive back to the hotel in Siem Reap.

day 3: the classic period

Today we travel on Angkor’s so-called Small Circuit, but in the reverse direction and slightly modified. The first temple we visit is a pyramid called Ta Keo. It was erected by Jayavarman V in the late 10th century. Those days Ta Keo was the tallest pyramid of the Khmer, although earlier complexes such as Pre Rup covered larger areas. Maybe Ta Keo was never completed. This could be the reason why there is almost no sculptural decoration at this state temple. Ta Keo is a crucial achievement in the architectural development of the Khmer empire and marks a transition to the style of the classical period, in two respects. First, the pyramid is completely covered with sandstone instead of laterite, which had been much easier to cut and carve. Second, Ta Keo is the first building that is surrounded by continuous corridors called galleries. The steps to the quincunx of Prasats on the uppermost tier of Ta Keo are very steep, but it’s worth it to climb to the top of a pyramid right in the middle of a jungle.

On the way towards Angkor Thom we will cross the Siem Reap river and see the ruins of an ancient stone bridge called Spean Thma.

Thereafter, the road passes two medium-sized temple compounds. Visiting these temples now does not fit into our chronological scheme, however, they are on the way, so let’s have a look here. Both temples, Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda, are pretty similar to one another, they are built in the classical style of Angkor Wat in the first half of the 12th century. The Thommanon is a liitle bit more ancient, from the early days of the reign of King Surjavarman II. Chau Say Tevoda is from the middle of the century, constructed at the end of Suryavarman’s reign or under his successor. Both flat temples are known for their beautiful sculptures called Devatas. (As already mentioned, tourists often call them Apsaras).

After crossing the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom, we drive directly to the former Royal Palace. In front if it is the long Terrace of the Elephants, a kind of extended royal platform, where the royal court attended celebrations that took place in front of it. The Terrace of Elephants is a supplement only from the late Bayon period, built around 1300. The Royal Palace is more ancient. Most of its buildings were made of wood, only enclosing walls, gateways, pools and shrines are of stone. The buildings are mainly from the period of King Suryavarman I, who reigned for almost half a century, until the mid-11th century. The pyramid Phimeanakas was his state temple. Nevertheless, this is a very sgdnificant monument within the Royal Palace compound. Remains of the legendary foundation tree of Angkor were excavated at the foot of this pyramid. Phimeanakas is located precisely to the north of Angkor’s first state temple, Bakheng, and to the east of the giant reservoir East Baray, both were buildings of Angkor’s founder Yashovarman I. Thus the tree marks the spot where the sacred axis of the royal Lingam and the fertility axis of the royal lake meet. In this respect, the Royal Palace - which now lies near the centre of Angkor Thom, which is the last city founded in the area of Angkor - had already been a focal centre of the first settlement established in the area called Angkor.

Adjacent to the grounds of the Royal Palace is the - until then (11th century) - largest building of the Khmer empire, the pyramid called Baphuon. It was the ambitious state temple of Suryavarman’s successor Udayadityavarman. The Baphuon is often called "the world’s greatest jigsaw puzzle", for it had collapsed. The reconstruction of the colossal building, done with original stones and completed in 2011, was all the more difficult as, after dismanteling and cataloguing the stones, the archaeological records went lost during the Cambodian civil war. Climb the Baphuon to study some of its countless bas-reliefs. Though Baphuon - like all previous temples of the Khmer empire - is a Shiva sanctuary, the reliefs depict scenes from the Vishnu mythology, mostly from the two great Indian epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The scenes are separated by carved frames. This huge collection of bas-reliefs is an anticipation of the even more gigantic relieffries at the Angkor Wat.

Maybe a little later than usual, we will have a lunch break now in the middle of Angkor Thom or near the Angkor Wat. (In case you prefer to have lunch earlier we will have a break first and afterwards climb the Baphuon.)

We now drive to an even larger building of King Udayadityavarman, probably it was begun by his predecessor Suryavarman I. It is the largest Khmer structure at all. No, it is not the Angkor Wat, it is even larger: the dykes surrounding the 8 km long and 2 km wide Western Baray. Concerning the extension of the surface, this Baray was a kind of superlative, too: Larger reservoirs had been built only in China, but not in flat plains and therefore completely surrounded by embankments. Unlike the slightly smaller Eastern Baray the West Baray is still filled with water, at least halfway.

The final highlight of this third day is a late-afternoon visit to study the Angkor Wat. All elements of Khmer art we got to know so far are culminating at the Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is not only the biggest temple in the world, with the longest bas-reliefs ever created, it's a masterpiece of statics, craftsmanship and of artistic quality of myriads of details, too. A detailed description of this wonder is beyond the scope of this travel itinerary text, so reference must be made here to our special overview page Angkor Wat. Enjoy the Angkor Wat in the most beautiful light of the late afternoon, before we will have a short drive back to Siem Reap.

day 4: the Buddhist period

It is a good idea not to visit the Angkor Wat on the very first day, it is better to enjoy it as the grand finale in a series of visits to earlier and smaller predecessor temples. After visiting the Angkor Wat, further increase in excitement may seem impossible. But this is wrong. The greatest temple builder in the history of the Khmer empire was not Suryavarman II, the founder of the Angkor Wat, but, half a century later on, Jayavarman VII. Admittedly this first Buddhist king of the Khmer people did not create a single building on the dimensions of the Angkor Wat. Nevertheless, he broke some other records. The area of his capital Angkor Thom is more extensive. And, above all, he left behind an incomprehensible variety of gigantic temples. Most of them are located along the Grand Circuit, that will be our route on the last day, with one exception: We have to make a detour on the Small Circuit to see both the oldest temple and the largest temple of the Buddhist era, which is called Bayon style. We have to start very early in the morning for today’s extensive itinerary.

Our day trip begins at Banteay Kdei, it was the first prestigious building erected by King Jayavarman VII. Parts of Banteay Kdei could be even earlier than this dawning Buddhist period. However, today's appearance, including face towers at the outer gateways, is the result of additions or modifications finalized under Jayavarman VII. The layout of Banteay Kdei, though strictly symmetrical, is intriguing and confusingly complex. This will become a hallmark of the many Bayon style temples.

The neighboring temple, dedicated to the king's mother, is even larger and more labyrinthic. Ta Prohm had the proportions of a whole contemporary Central-European city. The monastery Ta Prohm was an administrative centre of countless villages and farmlands throughout the empire. The temple complex is teeming with shrines of Hindu gods and remarkable sculptural decoration. Neverteless, Ta Prohm is most famous for another reason. Tgis is the compound that most tourists know as the "jungle temple". There is no area of ruins that will evoce more romantic connotations of a lost city, reconquered by the jungle, than this one. Ta Prohm was already the location of phantasy movies. The sight of ancient buildings wrapped by roots of giant trees is incomparable and unforgettable. Ta Prohm is a must-see for everone visiting Angkor. If you wish, you can first see Ta Prohm, and Banteay Kdei thereafter. The advantage would be to enjoy the jungle temple undisturbed by busloads of tourists.

We proceed to the extreme northeast corner of the Grand Circuit to see another outstanding example of a strangler fig on a temple gate, in a medium-sized temple called Ta Som. Among Bayon style temples, Ta Som is the one with high quality figures and ornaments. The reliefs and sculptures of other monuments from this Buddhist period are worked more hastily than those perfect ones you saw at the Angkor Wat.

The next stop at the Grand Circuit road is another temple from the Bayon period, rather small, but of an intriguing design. Neak Pean is a round Prasat in a round pond surrounded by rectangular ponds on an island in a huge historic reservoir, the North Baray. This is to say: This sanctuary is an island within an island. A long modern walkway crosses the partly overgrown water surface, giving access to the temple island. Access to the temple proper is not permitted. But the unprecedented charm of these symmetrically arranged buildings and ponds can be studied from a panoramic terrace.

Jungle temple Ta Prohm may have the most of those stone cracking trees and cover the largest area. But even more buildings and the most spectacular tree belong to another temple compound from the Bayon period, Preah Khan, dedicated to King Jayavarman’s father. This is the largest maze of ruins in Angkor, Preah Khan was a whole city on its own. In fact, Jayavarman VII chose Preah Khan as his capital, as long as his main project Angkor Thom was not yet completed. "Angkor" may literally mean "city". However, Angkor was not a city but an agglomeration of a number of cities and countless villages and a network of agricultural lands, more extensive than present-day New York. In the High Middle Ages, Angkor was the greatest metropolis of mankind, with at least five times more inhabitants than Paris. Tikal, the largest temple city in America, covered less than one-tenth of the expanse of Angkor. Preah Khan was much more than a single temple, it was a fortress, an administrative centre, a monastery, a university, a hospital, a collection of Hindu shrines in addition to the main Buddhist sanctuary, it was a temple town on its own. And Preah Khan is only one of the mega projects of Angkor. An even bigger one will be the final item on our itinerary.

Angkor Thom is a square of three kilometres width. We will enter it at the North Gate and proceed to the main car park, here we can have a late lunch break. Finally, we will visit some more buildings in Angkor Thom, including another world-famous peak of ancient Khmer art, the mysterious face towers of the Bayon temple. At its upper terrace, hundreds of those smiling colossal faces will be looking at you from all directions. It is still not entirely clear whether they represent the Buddha or a Bodhisattva or the king or a combination of them. But the famous face towers are not the only highlight of the Bayon temple. Another major attraction is the relief decoration of its long gallery walls. These delightful carvings do not only represent mythological and historical scenes, as those at Angkor Wat, but many small charming scenes from everyday life of the Khmer, some of them even show a sense of humour. Next to the Angkor Wat and Borobudur in Java, the reliefs of the Bayon belong to the greatest picture books of Asia.

With the Bayon period, the era of constructions of ever new stone monuments came to an end. This is not necessarily correlated to an immediate decline, caused by excessive burdens and exhaustion of the population after so many construction projects. There is reason to believe, the decline later on had other reasons, because Angkor Thom remained to be the capital for two and a half centuries more and still was the dominant centre of power in Southeast Asia. But after Theravada Buddhism from Sri Lanka and Thailand (the Buddhism practiced by Jayavarman VII was Mahayana, not Theravada) finally prevailed in Cambodia, the erection of wooden halls instead of stone monuments became more important. Prayer rooms and meeting halls constructed of perishable materials may have been as prestigeous as those stone temples earlier on, but no buildings of these Theravada monasteries have survived.

So our tour program ends with the Bayon period. We will leave Angkor Thom at its world-famous South Gate. On the way back to Siem Reap we can stop once more at the moat of Angkor Wat.

This way you were able to study the temples of Angkor in historical order, and at the same time increase the level of excitement from day to day. The combination of quantity and size of monuments, quality of details and beauty of the setting is what will make Angkor unforgettable. Probably it will be the highlight of all your heritage tours, since only the Pyramids of Giza or India's Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu in Peru or the Chinese Wall are as impressive as Angkor. Speaking of Great Wall of China: In fact, it is - despite an unquestioned and widespread wrong assumption - not visible with the naked eye from outer space, because it is simply too narrow, even with its shadows. There is - in addition to modern mega projects such as the Dutch Afsluitdike between North Sea and Ijselmeer or night lighting in areas of high population density - only one human creation from pre-modern times, which is actually visible from space without technical implements: Angkor - because of the rectangular giant reservoirs, ironically framing the remaining dark green jungle spot in an otherwise seemingly endless light green area of paddy cultivation.

In order to learn more about the history of Angkor and other periods in Cambodia, please visit our special Khmer History page


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