There are more than 40 accessible sites in the Angkor Wat area. The following selections highlight the most interesting as well as the most commonly visited. If you need help sorting through it all, here's some very rudimentary advice: You must visit the temples of Angkor Wat and the Bayon, or you haven't even been to Angkor. You should take in Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm and Preah Khan to appreciate the full range of the monuments. If you want to see ‘what nobody else sees’ then take the time to get to Kbal Spean and Beng Melea. There are few places to avoid, but Phnom Bakheng is probably one of them (and was so badly degraded it was closed to tourists anyway). So many tourists flocked up the hill to watch the sunset that it's seriously degrading the few remains of the monument.
The fertile lands of Southeast Asia have been inhabited since Neolithic times. Around the first century AD, the area became a crossroads of trade between the sub-continent and China. The Indians greatly influenced all aspects of the local culture, introducing the great religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as the basis for the modern language. The first millennium saw the emergence of great city-states which began to evolve into kingdoms and empires. Among the greatest of these was the Srivijaya empire based in Java, which at its height held influence over most of Southeast Asia.
Around 790, a Khmer prince returned from a long stay at the court in Java - whether he was there as a guest or a captive isn't clear. This young man became a great warrior who managed to subdue several competing Khmer city-states and declared a unified 'Kambuja' under a single ruler. In 802, this prince declared himself King Jayavarman II in a ceremony on Kulen Mountain.
The first capital of the new empire was near the present-day town of Roluos, although there was a brief period around 802 when it was based in the Kulen Mountains. After Jayavarman's death, the next king, Indravarman III built one of the first major temples of Roluos, Preah Ko, in Jayavarman's honor. The next king, Yasovarman I, built the temple atop Phnom Bakheng, and moved his capital there in 893, creating the city of Yasodhara-pura. Except for a brief 20 year exception, the capital of the Khmer empire remained in the same area for the next 500 years.
Around 1177, the Chams (from present-day Vietnam) sailed up the Tonle Sap and attacked Angkor, sacking and occupying the city. They stayed on for four years, until the now legendary Jayavarman VII mounted a counter-attack and finally drove out the Chams in 1181. Jayavarman VII was named king after he expelled the Chams. Unlike previous kings, he was Buddhist rather than Hindu, and made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion. He also undertook the most ambitious period of monument building that Angkor had ever seen. Hundreds of temples and other monuments were built during Jayavarman VII's 40 year reign, including the Bayon, in the middle of his new royal city, Angkor Thom, as well as the temples of Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and Banteay Kdei, but he didn't build Angkor Wat. The greatest of all the temples at Angkor was built by Jayavarman VII's predecessor, King Suryavarman II, earlier in the twelfth century.
Many people mistakenly under-estimate the size of the temple complex of Angkor. Its not realistic to expect to walk between the temples. At the very least, you'll want a motorcycle. Given the size of the complex, a knowledgeable guide will greatly add to your experience of this huge city of temples and palaces. See the Getting Around page for more informaton.
All visitors to the Angkor Archaeological Park must purchase an admission pass at the main entrance on the road from Siem Reap into the park. The pass must be shown to the temple guards (wearing blue shirts) at every temple within the park, as well as some of the outlying sites. The cost of the pass has varied widely in recent years, with prices shooting up to as much as $100 per day at one point, so check the current fees before you go.