The temples of Cambodia – Part I: The Small Circuit

Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm and more…


Cambodia, the renowned Kingdom in South East Asia is known for its temples, architectural history, culture and food. Travelling to Cambodia would mean planning your itinerary well in advance. The country is so huge and so is the list of things to do, that planning a trip to the Indochina peninsula could get really overwhelming. Fret not, we have you covered. Lyf&Spice has curated easy guides to make your travel simpler than you thought…

Let’s break the journey into two major chunks – the small circuit and the grand circuit. Once you have these circuits covered, we can delve into the details of each piece of architecture or share some extra travel tips depending on the flow of thoughts.

The Small Circuit

The small circuit covers the most important temples. If you want to finish the circuit in a single day, i.e. by dawn, follow the tour. While the list is exhaustive, let’s pick just the top few.

Starting point: Angkor Wat

Inclusions: Angor Wat, a huge part of Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm

Smaller significant temples: The Terrace of the Leper King and The Terrace of the Elephants

End point: Angkor Wat

1. Angkor Wat


  • Literally means the Capital Temple – represents Mount Meru
  • Originally built as a Hindu Temple (early 12th century) – transformed into a Buddhist temple (late 12th century)
  • Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple was built by King Suryavarman II. It is a perfect example of the typical Khmer style of architecture.
  • Wake up before dawn and head to the enormous complex of the 900-year old Angkor Wat to watch the sun rise. The best time to reach there would be between 5.00-5.30 a.m.
  • Watch the sun rise as the peripheries of the temple deflect its rays and lose yourself into the golden cast as the temple drowns itself in the magnanimous rays of the sun.


Note: Note the remarkable architecture, depictions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the construction technique using sandstones, various figurines and the library at the outer enclosure.

Must do: Carry packed breakfast along. You can have it at the viewing compound while you wait for the sun to rise.


Spoiler alert: You should be lucky to watch the sun rise to its full form. On most cloudy days or other unfortunate days, you might not be able to witness anything special at the crack of dawn.

2. Ta Prohm


  • Think Lara Croft, think Ta Prohm
  • Yes, this is where Tomb Raider was shot
  • Bayon-style architecture, very touristy
  • It was built as a Buddhist temple and called Rajavihara or the monastery of the king
  • Late 12th – early 13th century
  • Restored in partnership with APSARA and Archaeological Survey of India
  • Added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1992
  • This jungle temple has roots, roots and roots intertwining in the most mysterious ways
  • While most of the Bhuddist art work has been destroyed, do check out all that remains. Look out for bass-reliefs at the entrance and walls


Significance: Its iconic roots of the silk cotton trees curve and crawl through the temple in creepy ways, making it the most interesting feature

Must do: Click a picture at the designated spot as you pose against the famous tree. You’ll know when you get there.

3. Angkor Thom

  • Literally means the Great City
  • Built in the late 12th century – by King Jayavarman VII
  • Enter through causeways with parallel statues of 54 Gods and Devils engaged in tug of war
  • Spread across 10 sq km, it was Khmer Empire’s last capital city

Must visit:

(a) Bayon temple


  • At the centre of Angkor Thom
  • Has 216 faces with distinct smiles
  • Late 12th – early 13th century
  • Dedicated to Buddha – the last temple to be built at Angkor
  • The faces are believed to represent King Jayavarman VII himself. Contradicting theories suggest that they represent Lokesvara
  • After undergoing numerous alterations after the death of the King, it was abandoned and was left at the jungle until restoration began in the 10th century
  • Watch the beauty unfold as you climb the fleet of steps and reach the centre, literally face-to-face with all the smiling images


Significance: No matter where you walk or which corner of the temple you view the faces from, they seem to be looking right at you

Must do: Click a picture touching your nose to the nose of one of the faces. Tourist guides know just the spot to get you clicked.

(b) Baphuon Temple


  • This may not be included in every small circuit tour, but we loved it here
  • Don’t miss it – trace the location, towards the northwest of Bayon
  • Built in the mid-11th century
  • It looks different as it is based on the Baphuon style of architecture
  • Built as a temple-mountain, it has 3 tiers
  • Most of the (unstable) temple had collapsed, as it was made on a land that had been filled with sand
  • The final restoration was completed only in 2011
  • Initially dedicated to Lord Shiva – later converted to a Buddhist temple
  • A 9×70 metre statute of reclining Buddha was built at level 2 (West), however, it is not to be seen now
  • Try to spot the animal figurines on every side of the entrance leading to the central sanctuary


Significance: The first temple which had a stone gallery with a central tower

Must do: Climb all the way to the top. It may not offer the best view of Cambodia, but it is worth the while. See if you spot the outline of the reclining Buddha – we did and we were thrilled.

(c)Terrace of The Elephants:

  • Next to the Terrace of the Leper King, 350 m long
  • Viewing stand + audience hall
  • Was a viewing deck for King Jayavarman VII to keep a watch on the returning army
  • The structure has its foundation remaining, while most of it (made of organic material) has disappeared
  • Must see the elephants carved along the east side of the terrace
  • The central area of the wall has lions and a life-size garuda


(d)Terrace of the Leper King

  • Consider Angkor Thom as a Royal Square. Take the north-west side and that’s where you will find this terrace
  • Bayon style of architecture
  • It derives its name from the statue of the Leper King called so because of the moss growing over it + discolouration
  • There are many interpretations to this: some believe it is Yama of the God of death, while others believe it is Yasovarman I, a famous Angkorian king who was diagnosed with leprosy. Since Cambodians call him Dharmaraja, this was ideally inscribed on the original statue.

Tour cost: 150 USD (2 persons) approx. – transport, guide, entrance


**While Lyf&Spice hopes to cover every aspect of the travel, the guides and tips presented by us purely reflect our experience and opinion.** 

Part 2 on the Grand Circuit coming up soonStay tuned!


Till then enjoy my travel posts on Instagram

Read – Smile – Travel

7 thoughts on “The temples of Cambodia – Part I: The Small Circuit

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s