Photo: At Preah Khan.

The Grand Circuit

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The central temples of Angkor are ostensibly split up into two routes—not that you are bound to tour them as such—consisting of the Small Circuit and the Grand Circuit.

The Grand Circuit is in fact just an extension of the shorter Small Circuit loop, taking in a few more sites. Both are on good, sealed roads which collectively knock off most of the key temples of interest within the vast Angkor Archaeological Park, excluding remote places like Banteay Srei, Beng Mealea and Kulen Mountain.

Hard to get a drink around here. Photo taken in or around The Grand Circuit, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Hard to get a drink around here. Photo: Caroline Major

While there are more temples than you’ll ever manage to squeeze in to your first visit to Angkor, picking a few from the collection of temples that sit on the Grand Circuit fits very well into a half-day tour and should be high on your list of places to visit after the big three (Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm and the Bayon).

The main temples of the Grand Circuit are: Preah Khan, Neak Pean, Ta Som, East Mebon and Pre Rup. This handful should help form the focus of your Grand Circuit tour, being the most interesting historically and visually with a variety of architecture. They also tend to be the only ones the tour companies take in or that tuk tuk drivers would think to stop at on the circuit.

Preah Khan, the Sacred Sword. Photo taken in or around The Grand Circuit, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Preah Khan, the Sacred Sword. Photo: Caroline Major

Preah Khan, meaning the “sacred sword”, is the crowning jewel and highly recommended even if you don’t make it to any other temples on the Grand Circuit loop. With twisting tree roots that recall Ta Prohm but without quite so many bus loads, detailed carvings, a more impressive Hall of Dancers than found at Ta Prohm or Banteay Kdei—Preah Khan has it all and it is easy to while away an hour here walking around and taking photos.

Another of the main temples on the Grand Circuit is Neak Pean. An island temple sitting on a baray (reservoir) it is reached via a wooden walkway over the water. The temple itself is very small, taking only five minutes to look at. Nearby Ta Som has a photogenic tree though features heavily in large tour group itineraries, so this is one we’d actually skip out of the Grand Circuit when whittling down our options. You can find impressive trees easily enough elsewhere, like Preah Khan.

Photogenic. Photo taken in or around The Grand Circuit, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Photogenic. Photo: Caroline Major

East Mebon and Pre Rup are both increasingly popular sunset viewpoints so although touring the Grand Circuit in the morning or afternoon works equally well, and they can be taken in either clockwise or anti-clockwise, if you’re heading out later in the day you can time it to end up here when the lighting is excellent for photography. Bear in mind others will have the same idea, making this pair of temples two of the busiest at sundown.

Nonetheless, other smaller temples also lie en route that scarcely get a mention elsewhere and as a result are practically devoid of visitors: Banteay Prei and Krol Ko. We’ve met tour guides who’ve done their jobs for years and only once, if that, stopped by these. So why visit? Small in scale, there’s nothing that discernible between these lesser-visited sites to pick one over the other, but we’d recommend pulling one out of a hat to complement some of the main temples on the Grand Circuit if only for the contrast in visitor numbers. Blissfully quiet, there will likely not even be an Apsara guard in sight and they’re easy to get to—set back from the road no further than the bigger names of the Grand Circuit.

Few have heard of Banteay Prei. Photo taken in or around The Grand Circuit, Angkor, Cambodia by Caroline Major.

Few have heard of Banteay Prei. Photo: Caroline Major

It’s simple enough to extend your route by picking and choosing from the temples that sit on the Small Circuit since you’ll be passing some of these anyway to get to the Grand Circuit offerings. With the Grand Circuit fitting neatly into a half-day tour in terms of timings, you could spend the other half of your day visiting the Roluos Group of temples (or if you have very limited time, instead of taking in the Grand Circuit). Alternatively, combine them with more remote sites that will take you further away from Siem Reap town, such as Banteay Srei.

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A selection of some of our favourite sights and activities around Angkor.

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