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Siem Reap temples  in the city at Angkor

In case you intend to visit the world-famous ancient Khmer temples of Angkor, such as Angkor Wat and the romantically overgrown "jungletemple" called Ta Prohm, there will be no other way than to come to Siem Reap, as there will be no accommodation available closer to those Angkor temples. Most hotels of Siem Reap are located in only 5 or 6 km distance from the Angkor Wat!

Staying four nights in Siem Reap, you can visit all major monuments of Angkor and Banteay Srei further north comfortably on only three different day trips. (For more comprehensive study strips, visiting remote sites as well, you should choose a 7-days ticket.)

There are quite exactly two dozens of imposing and charming historical monuments that should be included in a good Angkor itinerary. Apart from Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Phnom Kulen further northwards, all of them are within 20 km distance from your accommodation in Siem Reap. You will not find another place in the world which such a density of one-millenium old structures each of them impressive and important. And remember, there is another major attraction in less than 20 km distance from Siem Reap town centre, the Tonle Sap called the "Great Lake" to the south of the city, with its traditional Asian amphibic fisherman villages.

Phnom Krom at Tonle Sap near Siem Reap

Phnom Krom

There is one Angkor monument very close to the Tonle Sap, requiring an Angkor entrance ticket. It is not included in some of the usual 3-days-itineraries, as you must climb a stairway and walk a few hundred metres further uphill to reach it. But the hill is sometimes visited in the late afternoon as Siem Reap's "sunset point". And it is really worth a visit because of its spectacular views. It is Phnom Krom, the isolated hill easily recognizable on a tour to the Tonle Sap. Phnom Krom is very close to the harbour where you start your boat trip to the floating village called Chong Kneas.

Local legend has it that the many rocks on Phnom Krom were exposed by the monkey warrior Hanuman when he had to fly across the ocean for transporting a whole mountain of medicinal herbs in order to cure Rama's brother Lakshmana, a famous episode from the Ramayana epic.

On top of that mound there is an ancient structure from the very beginning of the Angkor era, as the temple Prasat Phnom Krom was built about 900 AD by Yashovarman I. This first king residing in Angkor used all three natural hills in the plains of Angkor for sanctuaries on top of them. Phnom Krom's sister temple on the remote Phnom Bok east of Angkor is a very similar structure, consisting of three Prasats in a north-south row, open to the east, with additional edifices to the east, whereas the temple on top of Phnom Bakheng, right in the centre of Yashovarman's newly founded Khmer capital, was crowned with a much huger pyramidal structure with 109 Prasats. The sculptural decorations of Phnom Krom belong to the Bakheng style. Remarkably, it was predomintly sandstone which was used for the Prasats of this early period, whereas the later (10th century) Prasats are brickstone constructions.

Phnom Krom's central Prasat is dedicated to Shiva. The slightly smaller flanking towers are dedicated to Vishnu and to Brahma, completing the Hindu "trinity" called Trimurti. The statues of these shrines are now in the Musee Guimet in Paris, only the pedestals remained in situ. The three main towers stand on a rectangular platform, with a sandstone cover paving over a laterite basis. Two sides of the terrace are intercepted by three stairways with lions sculptures.

Traces of relief decoration of the Prasats can be seen on the colonettes, on the panels of the false doors, on the lintels, and in niches. The upper portions of the towers have collapsed and the facades are degraded.

Four small building of similar sizes precede the Prasat sanctuaries, the two in the middle are of sandstone, the outer two of brick. All four have grid patterns of holes in the walls, which suggests they may have been used as crematoriums.

The temple compound has a square plan, it is enclosed by a laterite wall intersected on each side by a cruciform Gopuram entry tower. There are bases of three long laterite halls paralleling the wall around the courtyard. They probably served as rest houses.

Siem Reap ancient temples in modern pagoda compounds of monasteries Wat Athvea and Wat An Kao Sai
Temples in pagoda compounds

In case you have enough days at your disposal for a more comprehensive or more relaxing way of exploring the temples surrounding Siem Reap, you additionally could visit two Angkorian structures inside Siem Reap town. Not many people know this, and this is why you usually will be the only visitor at those two ancient Khmer temples. We are talking about Wat An Kao Sai and Wat Athvea. (Many other dictions are in use for these two temples, e.g. Vat Athvear and Preah Enkosai.) They are located in the northern part of Siem Reap city and in the southern outskirts respectively. Wat An Kao Sai is only half a kilometre to the northeast of the Angkor National Museum. Wat Athvea is located 200 m to the west of that road leading to Chong Kneas and Phnom Krom.

Both temples are called "Wat" now. This is a Thai word meaning "monastery". It is in use for Theravada Buddhist sanctuaries in Indochina, too. The Theravada branch of Buddhism has prevailed in Cambodia since the 14th century. The Khmer Buddhist order always had strong ties to the similar Theravada order in Siam (present-day Thailand), though politically the two nations were enemies throughout a long period of their history. So, not surprisingly, modern Khmer temple architecture, particularly of halls serving for ceremonies, is influenced by Siamese (or Thai) architectural styles.

You should note, that Khmer people use the word "temple" only for ancient monuments when talking English with you. For buildings in modern Theravada Buddhist monasteries (or for the whole institution of a monastery) they use the word "pagoda". But many Wats in Cambodia, in this sense, are both, temples and pagodas. The reason is that many ancient temples, though in ruins and originally belonging to another religion, were holy locations and remained in use as places of worship even after religion changed. Later on, new structures were built surrounding the ancient complex. The best example is Phnom Chiso to the south of Phnom Penh. But there are many more smaller pagodas with temple ruins throughout the country, for example the remote monastery Neam Rup at the Angkor archaelogical area. To come to a conclusion, both "Wats" in Siem Reap mentioned above are of this kind, old and new side by side.

Wat An Kao Sai with Preah Enkosei temple in Siem Reap
Wat An Kao Sai

The small ancient structure inside the compound of Wat An Kao Sai is also called "Preah Enkosei" or "Prah Indra Kaosrey" in history books. The ancient complex consists of Prasat towers and foundations of an enclosure and two fire shrines and of upright standing stone doors of a former East Gopuram.

The temple proper originally had three aligned Khmer Prasats, but only two remain. There is now a modern stupa (chedi) on the basis of the third one. The two original Prasats are restored. They are of different size, one with a five-level roof, the other one with only four. Remarkably, the higher Prasat is not the one placed in the centre of the triple Prasat ensemble. By the way, the remaining northern tower (the former central one) is the only complete brick Prasat of Angkor.

The inscription at the door jambs of the taller tower is dated 968. It is an important source for historians. Vers 21 mentions a dignitary called Divakarabhatta, who married a sister of King Jayavarman V. It says he was born at the Kalindi river, the Khmer name for the Yamuna in India. This could mean that he was an Indian or of Indian origin. The era of the two succeeding kings Rajendravarman II and Jayavarman V was marked by both a renaissance of Indian influence and a more prominent role of court dignitaries.

Verse 29 of part B of the Wat An Kau Sai inscription (dated 983) mentions trade with China and imported commodities such as gold, jewels, pearls, and cloth. This is remarkable, because the basis of the Angkor empire was agriculture, in contrast to the former Cambodian era Funan that originated from maritime trade in the first place. From that Wat An Kau Sai inscription we learn that trade remained to play an important role during the Angkorian era as well.

The pediment reliefs above the Prasat doors are excellent. They could be the oldest representation of such well-known subjects as Krishna lifting Mount Govardhana and the Churning of the Milk Ocean that later on became very common in Khmer art. The naive style of the depictions is extraordinary.      

The ancient structure at Wat An Kao Sai is similar to Bei Prasat or to the five towers of Prasat Kravan in the Angkor archaeological zone. In the tenth century, kings granted to priests and other court officials the privilege to built their own temples. Those smaller-sized monuments are called "private temples". Prasat Kravan and Bat Chum are two more well-known examples in Angkor. The most famous one, of course, is Banteay Srei 40 km further north. Wat An Kao Sai (Enkosei) inside Siem Reap is one of those first "private temples".

Wat An Kao Sai is less frequented by tourist, but the location inside a pagoda, close to the green space along the Siem Reap river, is not without charme. The best time to visit it is the morning, when you can see the exquisite stone carvings in the sunlight. An Angkor ticket is not required at Wat An Kao Sai.

Wat Athvea in the southern outskirts of Siem Reap
Wat Athvea

Prasat Wat Athvea, as already mentioned, is situated in the southern area of Siem Reap. Other spellings are Vat Atvea or Wat Athvear. The pronunciation sounds like "Athveer".

Wat Athvea is a so-called "flat temple", this means all structures are on ground level. It supposedly originates from the same time as the Angkor Wat. Since there are no details concerning the foundation date mentioned in inscriptions, only stylistic characteristics indicate the time of origin.

Contrasting to other temples from the same Angkor Wat style period (Banteay Samray, Thommanon, Chau Say Tevoda, Beng Mealea in and around Angkor, and parts of Phanum Rung and Phimai in Thailand) Wat Athvea almost completely lacks sculptural ornamentation, maybe it was never finalized. Wat Athvea's only Apsara sculptures are found on decorated pilasters at the doors leading from the Mandapa hall to the main sanctum which is surmounted by the Prasat. Wat Athvea's Apsaras (or more precisely: Devatas) are in the classical style of Angkor Wat. The inscriptions at the pillars are Buddhist additions from the 16th century. The huge pedestal of a Lingam in the cella marks the temple as a former Shiva sanctuary.

Though guests will enter it from the east, Wat Athvea is orientated west. The main sanctuary opens to the west, the main Gopuram of the inner enclosure is at the west side, an additional Gopuram gate stands in front of the inner enclosure to the west. This westards orientation is remarkable as there is only one other monument from the same era (first half of the 12th century) with this unorthodox feature, the Angkor Wat itself. In the case of the Angkor Wat it is interpreted as due to a funerary function. But nothing indicates Wat Athvea could also be a kind of tomb.   

The inner courtyard of Wat Athvea is surrounded by a still intact massive laterite wall, 50 metres long and 42 metres wide. The main sanctuary built from sandstone is surrounded by 4 nearby satellite structures, all of them opening to the west. This is unusual for libraries as their entrances are normally oriented to the main shrine. The stone blocks of the principal structure are of great size and an attractive grain.

The best time to visit the ancient part of Wat Athvea is the afternoon. But in case you like to see the ensemble of old temple and new pagoda in the best sunshine you should come in the morning. You do not need a ticket at Wat Athvea. Wat Athvea is rarely visited by tourists, though it is much bigger than, for example, the Thommanon in Angkor, which dates from the same period. By the way, the Wat Atvea monument is in a remarkable good condition. So if you have time enough and want to enjoy an ancient site in tranquility, have a look.


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