From 802 CE to 1431 CE, the Khmer empire reigned over much of Southeast Asia. It was a period marked by artistic achievements, architectural advances, and religious expansion that still touches Cambodia today. But perhaps there is no better relic of this forgotten era than the temples left behind. Some overgrown and some overtouristed, but all remarkable in their antiquity and grandeur. Lost Angkorean cities like Koh Ker, Beng Mealea, Preah Vihear, Banteay Chhmar. Pre-Angkorean sites like Sambor Prei Kuk. Complexes that survived wartimes, reigns of terror, and centuries of overgrowth. Cities that you may have never heard of before but that are just as spectacular and excellent alternatives to the big one: Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat is unmatched in size and scale, but there are definitely drawbacks to visiting Angkor Wat since it got Tomb Raider’ed. The ruins of Angkor Wat are literally sinking under the weight of tourism, and there are certainly alternatives to Angkor Wat that both hold their own and allow you to experience Cambodia’s architectural history without contributing to the problem.
Curious about exploring some Angkor Wat alternatives? Here’s a look at why you still might want to visit Angkor Wat along with five of the best historical sites in Cambodia that aren’t Angkor Wat.
WHY VISIT ANGKOR WAT?
The Angkor Archeological Complex is the only site of its kind. Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer empire, was constructed from the 12th century. The city sprawled over 100 km2 and was the largest pre-industrial city in the world. And to this day, most of it is incredibly well preserved in spite of 800 years of adversity.
Angkor Wat is particularly remarkable for the bas-reliefs and deities that decorate the walls. At most of the other sites, these details have been destroyed or stolen. It’s pretty incredible to see them still intact. On the other hand, Angkor Wat has a serious tourist problem.
- Notoriety: Angkor Wat is the big one!
- Size: The park is one of the largest archeological complexes in Cambodia
- Ease of Travel: Angkor Wat has a really good tourist infrastructure and is easy to get to.
- Crowded: Go early or later in the day to ensure you can enjoy some solitude at the ruins.
- Impact: There is limited oversight at Angkor Wat and tourism is having a devastating effect on Angkor Wat and the surrounding areas.
How to Visit Angkor Wat: It’s just a 15-minute drive from Siem Reap to Angkor Wat. From Siem Reap, you can either ride a bike or hire a car or rickshaw to take you to the park entrance.
ALTERNATIVES TO ANGKOR WAT
WHY VISIT BENG MEALEA?
Just 61 km from Siem Reap, Beng Mealea is a Hindu complex from the early 12th century. It’s one of the larger temples of the Khmer empire with a sizable moat that wraps 1.2 km around its periphery. And besides the fact it’s built in the same style as the Angkor Archeological Complex, much of Beng Mealea’s history is a mystery.
Beng Mealea is mostly unrestored with strangler figs and vines growing wildly through the ruins. Sandstone bricks lay in piles of rubble. But don’t let that deter you! Beng Mealea is still quite remarkably built and there are plenty of panels and carvings on display. And to be honest, the dilapidated, overgrown parts only add to the rugged authenticity of Beng Mealea.
- Uncrowded: While Beng Mealea is also near Siem Reap, it gets significantly fewer visitors than the other ruins.
- Ease of Travel: You can easily visit Angkor Wat one day, and Beng Mealea and Koh Ker the next.
- Quality: The ruins have only been lightly restored but more intact than other Angkor alternatives.
- Size: Beng Mealea is an extension of the Angkor Complex. It’s impressive but best when explored alongside other temple complexes.
How to Visit Beng Mealea: Beng Mealea is about 52 km outside of Siem Reap. The best way to get to Beng Mealea is to rent a car or hire a driver. If you want to visit Koh Ker, it’s just another 57 km along the same road.
WHY VISIT PREAH VIHEAR?
Submitted by Stephanie of History Fangirl
Preah Vihear is a majestic temple complex in Cambodia on the border with Thailand and Laos. In fact, you can actually see both countries while standing on the vistas at the temples.
This UNESCO World Heritage Site began as a hermitage in the ninth century, but most of the temples you can visit today were added in the eleventh century to venerate the Hindu god Shiva.
There’s also a bit of intriguing modern history here. The site was part of a border conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam, and you can still see bullet holes in the temples from flare-ups that occurred this decade!
- Uncrowded: Due to its remoteness, there are hardly any Western visitors to the site. The complex is large enough that you can easily find some solace to be alone in your thoughts.
- Accessibility: Preah Vihear is easy to visit, reachable by car ride up to the top of the vista.
- Remote: Because of the remoteness, it is more difficult to get to, but you can hire a private driver for the day. There’s a new highway connecting Siem Reap to the region, so gone are the days of bumpy rides on the back of motorbikes!
- Outdated Travel Information: There’s lots of misinformation about visiting Preah Vihear. Planning a trip to Preah Vihear isn’t difficult, but use reliable guides or ask for help from your accommodations so you don’t get misinformation.
How to Visit Preah Vihear: Sra’em is the closest town to Preah Vihear, and you can catch regular buses from Phnom Penh or Siem Reap. From Sra’em, it’s about 1.5 hours onto Preah Vihear by taxi.
WHY VISIT KOH KER?
Koh Ker was formerly the capital of the Khmer empire from 928 to 944 AD. As a result, there are more than 180 temples spread across 81 km2. If you visit today, you’ll find 24 temples that are well-restored and seriously underrated. The most interesting site of all is the 55m x 40m, seven-tiered pyramid, Prasat Thom, that is strangely reminiscent of Mayan-style architecture.
While Koh Ker probably isn’t a stand-alone alternative to Angkor Wat, you can make a full day of exploring when you combine it with Beng Mealea.
- Uncrowded: You won’t see many tour groups here and can explore the ruins without any crowding.
- Ease of Travel: Like Beng Mealea, you can easily visit Angkor Wat one day, and Beng Mealea and Koh Ker the next.
- Uniqueness: The pyramid is unlike any other site in the region.
- Quality: Until recently, there were active landmines in the areas surrounding Koh Ker. Because tourism was restricted, restoration efforts have been extremely limited until recently. While some of the ruins are still standing tall, many have been leveled or ransacked.
How to Visit Koh Ker: Koh Ker is best reached from Siem Reap. It’s 110 km and you can rent a car or hire a driver to explore Beng Mealea and Koh Ker on the same day.
WHY VISIT BANTEAY CHHMAR?
Submitted by Louis of The Northern Boy
If you’re thinking about visiting the popular Angor Wat, then you need to visit the awesome Banteay Chhmar Temple. As the tale goes, this temple was built in dedication to the King’s son and is a true heritage of the Khmer people.
The Banteay Chhmar Temple is a place of real history and one of the temples many tourists leave off their temple bucket list (crazily).
The Banteay Chhmar Temple is a more natural temple. Angkor Wat has undergone a lot of restoration work and it sometimes doesn’t feel really original to walk around. However, the Banteay Chhmar Temple has trees growing out the walls and smashed up walls. You get a true feel for the history here! There are also times where you can have the Banteay Chhmar Temple all to yourself.
- Uncrowded: At times, you can have the Banteay Chhmar Temple all to yourself. Perfect for a peaceful tour and photo opportunities.
- Authenticity: The Banteay Chhmar Temple is a more natural temple. Angkor Wat has undergone a lot of restoration work and it sometimes doesn’t feel really original to walk around. However, the Banteay Chhmar Temple has trees growing out the walls and smashed up walls. You get a true feel for the history here!
- Cost: You can book a room for a night outside the Banteay Chhmar Temple. A room will cost you just under $10. Amazing! You won’t find this at Angkor Wat.
- Accessibility: Located 164 from Siem Reap, Banteay Chhmar is harder to get to.
How to Visit Banteay Chhmar: Banteay Chhmar sits just south of the Cambodian border with Thailand. The nearest hub is Sisŏphŏn which you can get to by bus from Poi Pet or by train from Battambang. From Sisŏphŏn, it’s about a 1.5 hour drive to Banteay Chhmar.
WHY VISIT SAMBOR PREI KUK?
Submitted by Joel of World Heritage Journey
Sambor Prei Kuk is in a remote jungle area of central Cambodia, about halfway between Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. It was founded around the 6th or 7th century AD as the city of Ishanapura, capital of the Chenla Empire. These days, it consists largely of three ancient ruined temple complexes – some of which are in impressive condition, despite being almost 1500 years old!
- Cost: Entry is inexpensive. It’s only a couple of US dollars for entry – the same price for locals and foreigners.
- Accessibility: It’s easy to access as a day trip from either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.
- Uniqueness: Since the ruins largely pre-date Angkor and the Khmer civilization, they have a unique architectural style. It’s still very Hindu, but obviously different to Angkor. This is both a pro, as it’s an interesting and unique thing to see. But it’s also a con because it might not be that obvious to the casual observer!
- Size & Quality of Ruins: Although the ruins at Sambor Prei Kuk are fascinating in their own right, they aren’t a genuine wonder of the world like Angkor. Some of the temples are in excellent condition, others are just piles of rubble. But thoroughly exploring the whole site takes 2-3 hours at most, rather than the 2-3 days of Angkor.
How to Visit Sambor Prei Kuk: If you have the budget, it’s about 2.5 hours by car with a private drive from either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh. Or you can catch a local bus to a nearby town where tuk-tuk drivers will ferry you to and from the site.
Manuel MendozaSeptember 14, 2019 at 2:13 pm
Great post! Taylor, I really want to go on a trip to Cambodia with a couple of friends! I will use this as a guide to go to those places, thanks for the great explaining about the pros and cons!
It’s there other places you consider important to go?
Taylor RecordSeptember 18, 2019 at 11:24 pm
Hey Manuel. We only had time for Koh Rong and the Siem Reap area, but I’ve heard good things about Battambang and Tonlé Sap. Hope you guys have the chance to go!
Esther HarrisOctober 2, 2019 at 5:41 pm
Taylor, it seems to be a great trip that you had! Cambodia does seems to be an interesting place to go and get yourself a little history of Asian culture! How many days did you go? Any advice for a first-time traveler in November?
Taylor RecordOctober 15, 2019 at 11:02 pm
Hey Esther. It was nice to see some places in Cambodia that most people skip over! We were in Cambodia for about a week and spent about 3 days in the Siem Reap area. My best recommendation is to work with local operators and stay in a neighborhood that you like. There’s a big backpacker scene, and we found that the quality of our experience was dramatically different when we stayed in a residential area vs in the center of town.