I’m not saying Angkor Wat isn’t fantastic—it absolutely is. But you don’t need me telling you that. It’s probably the reason you were drawn to visit Siem Reap or Cambodia. The Angkor archaeological site is vast, and its eponymous temple (wat) is just one of many ancient sites you can, and should, visit. Don’t stop at the sunrise (or sunset) tour of the main attraction—grab a guide or a map or a book (I got a copy of The Angkor Guidebook by Andrew Booth that was a great companion when sans-guide, though as a hardback not always the most convenient), then hire a tuk-tuk for the day and head out to the lesser-known temples—some of which you might even get all to yourself.
Here are five other temples that I loved, some just a stone’s throw away from Angkor Wat, others slightly out of town, though all included in the Angkor pass. For the purpose of foregoing the obvious, I’m also leaving out Bayon (we’ll known for the 200-odd smiling faces that adorn its towers) and Ta Prohm (the famed jungle-engulfed “Tomb Raider” temple) because, my dear intrepid traveler, I trust that you already know about these ones, too.
First thing first: Pay attention as you approach, no napping in your tuk-tuk. Like other temples in the area, this one is surrounded by a moat, and the roadway leading to and bridge over the moat are lined by a fantastic boundary of carved demons, garudas (eagles) and nagas (serpents). Make sure to look for the Hall of Dancers, a room where the muses are carved on lintels and columns and, nearby, there’s an unusual two-story structure. Arriving late in the day, just ahead of sunset and only making it in by the skin of my teeth before the site closed, I didn’t run into anyone else while here.
This is where you can really get that “Tomb Raider” experience. While this one is in the main area of the park, it’s a bit into the jungle, down a narrow, bumpy dirt road that tour buses cannot access (and is an adventure in itself on a tuk-tuk). “Wild” is pretty much the only way to describe it once you’re there. Countless stone blocks that have tumbled down off the structure lie scattered and moss-covered, essentially making up the floor of the site (watch out when navigating around them, they can be slippery). It’s a smaller temple and given its dilapidated state, there’s less to see (though you’ll still spot some Buddhist carvings), but the feeling that you’re somewhere remote and undiscovered is incredible.
This erstwhile monastic complex ended up being one of my favorite sites—there was much to explore, a cacophony of jungle sounds (music to my ears) and I was there late in the afternoon when the lighting was soft and there was a lazy atmosphere in the air. In terms of the design and the strangler trees clinging to the ruins, it’s similar to Ta Prohm but is a more peaceful experience lacking the counterpart’s crowds. There are a few interesting things to see while here: a Buddha that survived the Hindu transformation that overtook Angkor in the mid-13th century and is still worshipped today; another Hall of Dancers, like at Preah Khan, but here the carvings are delicate friezes; and a stone path just to the side of the temple that makes for a lovely stroll through the forest.
A short drive beyond Siem Reap, you’re not likely to bump into too many tourists here. Part of the Rolous group of temples, there are a couple others neighboring Bakong, but this was the only one I stopped at (simply due to time constraints). One of Angkor’s first “mountain-temples,” it represents the sacred Mount Meru. Climb up its five levels for a great view over the site and the surrounding area, and on the way up (or down), pause to see the remnants of elephant sculptures and bas-reliefs and friezes that depict battling demons. Adjacent to this site you’ll see a modern Buddhist pagoda that inside is covered with vibrant scenes on the walls and ceiling—head to the back and check out one mural that includes WWII aeroplanes.
Part of the Royal Enclosure, this wide swath of verdant grounds and forest feels slightly empty as the crumbling three-tiered pyramid with lions lining its steep stairwell sits by itself. In its prime around the 11th century, it would have been a different scene entirely, surrounded by wooden palaces and galleries for the royal court, all of which have long since rotted away. There’s an impressively sized Royal Pond nearby, featuring more carvings of the regal and monstrous variety. The overall atmosphere here is one of peace and it’s a pleasure to slowly meander around and forget about the hustle of the world just beyond.
Curious about where to stay when in Siem Reap? See my hotel recommendations here.