Once covered by the jungle and rarely visited, the temple area of Angkor is now part of the beaten track in Southeast Asia, but for a good reason. These magnificent temples were once the centre of the mighty Khmer kingdom (ninth century to the fifteenth century A.D.) and the main temple Angkor Wat is considered the world's largest religious complex. Remember to read up on Hindu mythology to get a chance to understand its outstanding bas-reliefs or just be impressed by the grand scale. Split your explore time equally between the big ones; Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon (picture) and the minor ones; Preah Khan, Neak Pean, and Preah Ko, which lack in scale but win in tranquillity. If your time permits, add some sites that are a drive out of the way, like Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea.
Banteay Srei is a rather small temple compared to Angkor Wat and Bayon, but what a fine one it is. All the surfaces are elaborately decorated with some of the finest carvings from the Angkorian times. The name Banteay Srei means "citadel of women", probably referring to its small size and fine details. It was built in the 10th-century (about 200 years before Angkor Wat), not by one of the Angkor kings but by a counsellor to the king. It was dedicated to the Hindu god of Shiva, which also characterizes the carvings.
Luckily, Banteay Srei lies quite far from the main temple group, so even with all its splendor, it sees less tourists and can even be deserted at times, which only adds to its appeal.
Cambodia's treasure of ancient temples goes beyond the group at Angkor. The mystical temple of Beng Mealea is one of those. Built in the Angkorian period, 40 km from Angkor Wat on an ancient royal highway, it was among the biggest temples. Today, it is a magical ruin that has been hidden under the jungle carpet until recently. Giant serpent-like roots are slowly crushing the walls, while a web of smaller roots are holding the place together. You have to crawl over fine carved sandstone blocks, duck under fallen pillars, and hang in vines to get through the giant maze of closed courtyards, dark chambers and rising towers. Though there are boardwalks at some sections, it is a raw experience to explore this hidden jewel. This jungle temple makes Ta Prohm, the famous jungle temple at Angkor, look like a groomed little brother.
Prasat Banan is an Angkor temple ruin on top of the small mountain Phnom Banan (102 m) which rises abruptly above the otherwise flat countryside outside Battambang. It was built in the 11th century and consists of five classic Angkor towers. It is a tiny temple compared to Angkor Wat standards, but the location and serenity makes up for the small size - chances are you are going to have the whole place to yourself (beside the drink sellers). Danger signs remind you that the ruins are crumbling and judging by the leaning angle of some of the towers, they look like they could collapse at anytime. There are also some caves which can be explored - alone or with the help of one of the local kiddie guides.
At the foot of Phnom Kulen lies a very different Angkorian site, namely Kbal Spean or in English "River of a Thousand Lingas". A linga is a phallic symbol of Hindu god Shiva. So the Angkor kings had the river bed of Kbal Spean river carved with "a thousand lingas" to make the water fertile for the rice fields - like a religious water filter. The lingas date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, but were only discovered in 1969, and then unreachable for another twenty years due to the fighting with Khmer Rouge. See the lingas on your way to Phnom Kulen.
Another Angkor temple ruin outside Battambang (the other is Prasat Banan). Though the name contains the word Phnom, which means mountain in Khmer, the temple is located on flat ground. It was constructed during the 11th century and is today partly collapsed - but that just adds to the authenticity. Tall trees are keeping the ground in the shade, while a newer pagoda with a giant never-will-be-finished Buddha statue at the front makes it difficult to see the old temple from the dirt road. A trip out here goes through charming villages and flat farmland, which should be reason enough for visiting Wat Ek Phnom.
In the town of Khajuraho, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, a number of ancient Hindu temples are located. They are regarded as some of India's "Seven Wonders" and are also on the list of UNESCOâ€™s World Heritage Sites. The temples were built around 1000 years ago and from the original approx. 80 temples, 25 are left. They are located in 3 different parts of an area of 20 square kilometers, and they can easily be seen in a single day. Besides being impressively well preserved, the temples are also known for their extremely erotic carved figures. Back then, there were obviously no sexual positions, persons or animals, you could not throw yourself at... No wonder that this is the land of the "Kama Sutra"!
Huge stone jars, some up to 3 meters high, are spread out over large area. They are believed to be old burial jars for an ancient lost civilisation 2000 years ago, but nobody knows for sure. They are clustered in many groups, but only three are safe to visit. Other areas are still unsafe due to UXO (unexploded ordnance) from the Vietnam War (it's sadly one of the most heavily bombed places on earth). Group 1, as the biggest site is called, contains more than 250 jars. This is truly a unique site.
Ava (or Inwa) was the capital of Burma from 1364-1841 during various kingdoms. The previous capital was Sagaing across the Ayeyarwady River, but it got overran by the Shan (a neighboring kingdom). So the capital got moved to the other side and strategic protected by handmade canals, given Ava a quiet island feeling today. Among the bigger sights are Maha Aungmye Bonzan monastery, a stone monastery build in 1818 by a queen, and Bagaya Kyaung monastery, a teak monastery build in 1834. The whole Ava ruins area is spread out and the only way to get around is by horse cart, which is actually less comfortable than it sounds.
This temple site is one of the most magnificent on the globe. Build over a period of 230 years about 900 years ago the Bagan's kings managed to build as many as 4400 temples on the flat plain where the Irrawaddy River makes a bend. Today the temples show centuries of neglect and decline, which just add to the mystery of the place. All temples are different and many are open, so it's possible to explore the inside passageways with old Buddhist murals and huge Buddha statues. Do the sight seeing by horse cart and climb one of the less famous but tallish temples at dusk for the mandatory sunset viewing. It's one of those settings that give sunset viewing its reputation.