Exploring Cambodia’s Hidden Gems: Ancient Temples and Ruins, You’ll Have All to Yourself

Introduction

While Angkor Wat and other famous temples in Cambodia draw millions of visitors each year, there are still many ancient sites scattered across the countryside that see far fewer tourists. Venturing off the beaten path allows you to experience Cambodia’s cultural treasures in a more intimate setting without crowds. 

Bayon Temple

Located within the former royal city of Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple is often overlooked since it’s in the shadow of nearby Angkor Wat. Yet it has a unique feature that makes it a must-see – its giant stone faces. Over 200 grinning faces adorn the 53 towers of Bayon Temple, gazing out in all directions. On a typical day, you’ll likely have this enigmatic temple all to yourself to admire the elaborate carvings up close without disturbances. The lack of crowds allows for really taking in the haunting smiles that seem to be silently watching over the jungle.

Bayon Temple is considered one of Cambodia’s finest examples of detailed Khmer architecture. Its multiple levels and staircases lead you through a maze exploring the history of the Angkor Empire. With fewer visitors compared to other sites, you can immerse yourself in this intriguing temple complex without feeling rushed. Make sure to also check out the bas-relief carvings lining interior corridors that depict epic battles and daily life during this period. Come early or late in the day for the best chance of solitary exploring at Bayon Temple.

Banteay Chhmar

Venturing even farther afield than Bayon Temple, you will discover Banteay Chhmar, one of Cambodia’s most remote and untouched temple complexes. This 12th century site located near the Thai border sees barely a hundred visitors on a busy day. Sprawling over 30 acres, its galleries, courtyards and towers remain remarkably preserved despite facing abandonment in the jungle for centuries. Wander through the labyrinthine corridors imagining what daily life was like during the height of the Angkorian kingdom.

Unlike popular temples overwhelmed with tourists, here you’ll feel like a true archaeologist having the run of the place to discover its hidden nooks and crannies at your own pace. One unique feature is galleries along the exterior wall decorated with extensive bas-reliefs of battle scenes and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. There are hardly any vendors or others around to distract from taking it all in. Only true enthusiasts willing to make the multi-hour journey by road or rough hiking trails will have Banteay Chhmar to themselves. Consider spending the night in one of the village homestays nearby and rising early to catch the sunrise, casting its glow over the towers.

Virak Wat

Beyond Angkor’s grand temples, Virak Wat stands out as another architectural surprise tucked away deep in the countryside. Situated along the Tonle Srepok River, this 9th century temple remains among Cambodia’s least visited and best-preserved monuments in its natural state. Its location in remote Ratanakiri Province means you’ll likely be the only visitor most days.

Virak Wat’s unique layout consists of clusters of towers scattered across a large site with galleries connecting them – resembling a sprawling temple town more than anything else. Climbing up the stone steps worn smooth over centuries lets you take in panoramic views of the surrounding verdant landscape from atop each crumbling tower. Wander at your leisure down the shaded, moss-covered corridors, imagining how this thriving religious complex once looked in its heyday.

Nature has slowly reclaimed much of Virak Wat, with trees sprouting from towers and bats fluttering about interior rooms. Its remoteness ensures an utterly spiritual, meditative experience devoid of distractions. Consider joining a multi-day trek organized by local homestays to immerse yourself further in the untouched natural beauty. Reaching this special temple ruins rewards you with being its sole visitor, with no one else to spoil the sense of discovery in its quiet jungle sanctuary.

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Preah Khan

As the largest temple complex constructed during the Angkor period, Preah Khan boasts impressive size and elaborate Khmer architecture across its many courtyards and galleries that once covered over 200 acres. Located within the Kulen Mountain Wildlife Sanctuary, it lies off all the main tourist routes leaving it open for exploration without the company of others.

Wandering its lanes transports you back to Preah Khan’s heyday as a religious center with magnificent gateways, libraries, and Hindu temple towers standing guard over the forest. Climbing up to upper balconies treats you to picturesque views of mountains and rice fields stretching to the horizon. Admire how nature has softened the harsh lines of ancient sandstone with creeping vines and mosses.

Venturing inside the cavernous rooms still lined with ornate carvings brings a sense of discovering a lost world overrun by centuries of creeping jungle growth. You’ll find yourself alone with your thoughts immersed in this sacred architectural wonder without distraction from crowds. Consider combining a guided trip with an afternoon trekking to secluded waterfalls nearby for the full experience of solitude amid Preah Khan’s grandeur.

Sen Monorom

Off the beaten track in Mondulkiri Province lies the town of Sen Monorom, a former French hill station set amid scenic tropical rainforests and towering elephant mountains. As the regional capital, it remains a sleepy place rarely visited by outsiders. Here you’ll find crumbling French colonial villas, scattered old Khmer structures remaining from its past as an important trading post, along with Cambodia’s minority Phnong population going about their daily lives.

Among a handful of ruins found just outside town, Pring Rav includes an impressive 22-meter-high shrine topped by four tapering towers that oversee emerald rice fields as far as the eye can see. Hardly anyone ventures up the stairs for a closer look, leaving you alone with majestic views. Nearby, Preah Rup provides another hidden gem with five well-preserved lingas (phallic symbols of Hindu deities) nestled within the forest, providing ample photo opportunities without disturbances.

Exploring these lesser known historic spots in peaceful Sen Monorom town rewards you with experiencing rural Cambodia as it’s still lived today more so than showcasing its monuments. You’ll feel as though you’ve stepped back in time witnessing traditional Mahogany production, interacting with friendly tribal elders and spotting rare wildlife like gibbons and elephants amid the greenery. Savoring locally caught fish at low-key riverside restaurants makes for ultimate relaxation far from crowds.

Prasat Bakong

Rising from the plains 10km north of Siem Reap, Prasat Bakong temple represents an earlier style of Khmer architecture preceding the grandeur of Angkor Wat. Its five concentric brick towers arranged like the petals of a lotus flower remain remarkably preserved despite facing centuries of neglect. Best explored in the early morning or late afternoon light, you’ll likely have this photogenic site nearly all to yourself.

Climbing to the top of the towers rewards you with sweeping views of the rural landscape unchanged for generations. Peer inside and discover interior chambers still lined with elaborate carvings telling the Hindu legends that once brought pilgrims from afar. Linger to listen to birdsong and admire the play of sunlight through foliage. Down below, wander serenely through the grounds, imagining this place in its heyday as an important royal capital and center of learning.

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Nearby village homestays provide the perfect country getaway to appreciate Prasat Bakong’s unhurried charm. Request a morning bicycle ride to take in rural scenery along dikes and wind through rice fields en route to the temple ruins. A picnic lunch surrounded by lotus blossoms provides an idyllic experience of solitude. End the day stargazing from your rustic hut, content with discovering more of Cambodia’s hidden gems beyond the usual touristed sites.

FAQs

How safe is it to explore remote temple ruins on my own?

While landmines and unexploded ordnance remain issues in some rural areas, major temple complexes are inspected and deemed safe by demining organizations. Consider hiring a licensed guide through local homestays to tag along, as they know off-limit zones and can introduce you to villagers. Traveling during daylight hours and avoiding long solo hiking trails minimize potential risks. Use common sense precautions like sticking to roads or paths.

What’s the best time of year to visit these lesser-known sites?

The dry season from November through March provides ideal weather with sunny, warm days. Temple ruins see the fewest visitors outside of peak European summer travel months. The landscape doesn’t face harsh desolation like during the rainy season, either. May through October should be avoided due to rain, mud, and the dangers of flash flooding. April and early May can still be hot, but witness blooms of vibrant orchids and wildflowers.

How do I arrange transportation and logistics to reach remote temples?

The most convenient option is to book an organized tour through a local tour company. They can arrange all land transportation by private vehicle as well as secure guides. For independent travel, guesthouses in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh or other major cities can arrange private car/van rentals with drivers who speak English. Be sure to clarify road conditions, estimated travel times, and if additional supplies like food/water are needed. Motorbikes are an affordable option if you’re an experienced rider, but safety should be the top priority.

What if I want to stay overnight near a temple complex?

Many remote complexes now have basic homestay options run by villagers that provide beds, mosquito nets, shared bathrooms, and delicious local meals. Be sure to reserve well in advance as they have limited capacity. You can also pitch a tent at some sites. It’s advisable to bring your own supplies, like a sleeping bag, if staying at a homestay to be fully self-sufficient. Camping allows for maximum exploration flexibility and star-gazing at night. Just be aware that locations lack amenities, so come prepared.

How can I respect local customs and minimize the impact as a visitor?

Do thorough research on cultural etiquette before visiting temples that remain active places of worship. Dress modestly, avoid loud noise and disruptions especially during prayer times. Ask permission before taking photos of villagers and respect ‘Do Not Enter’ areas. Leave artifacts, flora and fauna undisturbed. Use established trails and avoid cutting through rice paddies or private land. Carry your rubbish and dispose of waste properly. Support local businesses and always get permission before spending the night in village areas.

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