The masterpiece of an unknown Michelangelo
Angkor Wat is a ubiquitous image across Cambodia, from its position on the national flag to local currency. Cambodians are proud of Angkor Wat, and rightly so. It will not disappoint.
Built from 1113 during the reign of King Suryavarman II, Angkor Wat took well over 30 years to complete and was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. In size alone Angkor Wat is breathtaking. The outer walls stretch for 1.5 kilometres east to west and 1.3 kilometres north to south, and the walls are encircled by a beautiful moat almost 200 metres wide—the entire site takes in some 200 hectares.
Unusually for a Khmer temple, Angkor Wat is orientated to the west. As the west is symbolically associated both with death and Vishnu, some debate has flared over the purpose of the complex—tomb or temple? The prevalent opinion is that Angkor Wat was both—a temple to Vishnu and a tomb for its creator, Suryavarman II.
Like all temple mountains—Angkor Wat being the most impressive built by a Khmer king—it is a model of the divine, playing out Hindu mythology in both its construction and spectacular bas reliefs. At the centre of the Hindu (and Buddhist) universe sits Mount Meru, a holy peak some 750,000 kilometres high on the mythical continent Jambudvipa. Atop the mountain sits the home of Brahma and other gods of both religions. At Angkor Wat, this mountain is represented by Angkor’s central tower which in turn is surrounded by smaller peaks, then the continents are represented by the outer courtyards and finally the ocean is illustrated with the moat. A naga bridge allowed people to cross from the land of mortals to that of the Gods—the sandstone causeway that you see today running across the moat from the west.
In walking across Angkor’s naga bridge and entering the complex from the front, you are traversing the ocean from the real world to that of the gods—stepping from continent to continent and then scaling a peak some 750,000 kilometres, and there’s no escalator.
At the time of its construction the outer walls would have encircled not just the central temple but also a city of considerable size along with the palace. As these buildings were wooden, nothing remains, although some remnants of the roads within the city were traced out as part of restoration work. Angkor’s most famous custodian, Frenchman Maurice Glazier, commented that of all the Angkorian monuments, Angkor Wat, protected by its large moat, was the best placed to withstand the onslaught of the jungle. This protection was further assisted by the fact that since the mid-13th century, Angkor Wat remained in use as a place of Buddhist worship. A temple remains within its grounds to this day, supplying a steady flow of saffron-clad monks for your holiday snaps.
When approaching from the west (the main entrance), one needs to cross the moat via the sandstone causeway to the outer (western) gopura. Before entering the gopura, take a quick diversion to the south where a grand statue of Vishnu stands. With its saffron drapery, it’s particularly photogenic in late afternoon. After passing through the gopura, you reach the most stunning of Angkor Wat’s many viewpoints. Delayed until the last moment, as you step through the doorway you’re treated to an absolute visual feast as the central temple is revealed in all of its splendour. From the western gopura, walk down the central walkway which is flanked by two libraries and to the two ponds.
If you’re arriving for dawn, the view from the northwest corner of the northern pond is the better of the two pond views—though be prepared for jaw-dropping crowds. We often hear tourists bemoan the unsightly green plastic covering the scaffolding on Angkor Wat, but be mindful conservationists have to rotate this around the temple precisely to protect and conserve it. Even with some scaffolding, Angkor Wat is a sight to behold.
For sunrise—or even later in the day—you can also consider asking your tuk tuk driver to drop you off at the back, the east entrance, and walk along the forested path and around to the front of the temple. The benefit is not the view since it will still be reasonably dark pre-dawn, but rather the serene and peaceful atmosphere of Angkor Wat seemingly deserted, before reaching the camera-toting crowds that arrive by bus at the front (western) entrance.
Twice a year around the equinoxes—near the end of March and September—the sun will position itself over the top of the central tower for a perfectly aligned photograph. No matter what month you visit in, however, expect Angkor Wat to be packed at sunrise—you will never be alone to capture the quincunx of towers. Rainy season is more likely to provide dramatic colours thanks to clouds forming in the sky and casting their reflection, though the heaviest rainfall, usually in October/November, might provide nothing but rain.
Following dawn is the best time to explore the temple, as this is when most tour groups head back to town for breakfast. Those who do linger tend to hustle into the central temple and climb to its apex. We’d suggest you instead do a loop through the galleries that encircle the monument first, saving the climb for later. Not only will you have the galleries without all of the hordes, but by the time you’ve finished (a full circuit at a slow pace takes an hour or so) the interior central temple may not be as crowded as many will have moved on.
The galleries display some of the most beautiful and intricate of Angkor’s carvings and as with the Bayon, this is a good spot to have a guide to take you through the blow by blow details of the reliefs. Look out in particular for the beautiful Heavens and Hell, Churning of the Sea of Milk and Battle of Lanka, though it’s all interesting (and makes for good exercise too).
In summary, the main galleries are as follows.
Western wall, southern section: Battle of Kurukshetra
This 49-metre-long stretch follows the battle of Kurukshetra—a prominent Hindu epic between the sibling clans of Kauravas (from the left) and the Pandavas (from the right) for the throne of Hastinapura. It has been theorised that the battle took place in the modern state of Haryana in India around 3067BC and ran on for centuries. At each end of the relief note how orderly the two military processions are while towards the centre things get increasingly out of hand, culminating in much death and mayhem. Look in particular for the chieftains carried in chariots and on elephant-back.
Southern wall, western section: Historical gallery
This 90-metre gallery is dedicated to the creator of Angkor Wat, Suryavarman II, and follows a regal procession which transforms into a military parade before changing again to a religious procession. Note how early on the relief is in two parts with the royalty and hangers-on in the top half while the palace women parade on the lower half. When the theme switches to become more militaristic, look for the many chiefs on elephant back—their rank is marked by the number of parasols that surround them. The king, Suryavarman II, is on the 12th elephant. Later the soldiers disperse to be replaced by Brahmin priests with little bells, while at the far end march some Siamese (who were Khmer allies of the time). Note their distinctly different manner of dress, somewhat wild look and their casual style of marching.
Southern wall, eastern section: Heavens and Hell
One of our favourite sections, the heaven and hell relief goes through the judging of the good and evil. Heaven may well look rather droll and boring, but it is certainly a better option than hell. The further along you wander, the more and more awful the punishments become. Tongues are pulled out, bodies torn to pieces or boiled alive, and nails are driven into bodies—just a few of the punishments that wait for bad Khmers. The carvings are particularly graphic—note the emaciated state of those in hell as they are thrown around by demons and whipped into (or out of) shape.
Eastern wall, southern section: Churning of the Sea of Milk
Another spectacular piece, this 49-metre panel tells a part of the story of the eponymous Hindu creation epic. In this epic, the gods (to the left) and the demons (to the right) agree to cooperate to churn the sea of milk. Churning it for 1,000 years creates an elixir that causes immortality, and the gods and demons agree to share it. Although not depicted in the mural, as soon as the elixir starts to flow the gods renege on their part of the deal while the demons try to steal it. Note at the central part of the relief, towards the bottom, all the sea life being cut to pieces by the force of the churning. Just above them is a turtle (a vehicle of the Hindu god Vishnu), which supports the mountain when it threatens to sink into the sea. Above the mountain Vishnu directs operations. This is a fascinating relief and catches the morning sun beautifully.
Eastern wall, northern section: Victory of Vishnu over the Asuras
This 52-metre stretch is somewhat ordinary when compared to some of the other reliefs, and is in fact thought to have been carved a long time after them, perhaps by Chinese artisans. The relief depicts Vishnu fighting a legion of Asuras (demons). One point of interest is just north of centre, where there is a group of unknowns mounted on gigantic birds.
Northern wall, eastern section: Victory of Krishna over Bana
As with the Victory of Krishna over the Asuras, this is a poorly finished set of reliefs that stretches for 66 metres. Depicting another battle scene, many of the key deities can be picked out but the carving is so poor, you’re better off continuing quickly on to the next section where the quality of work improves considerably.
Northern wall, western section: Battle of Devas and Asuras
This 94m-long panel depicts a series of battle scenes between 21 of the most prominent members of the Hindu pantheon and their opposing demons. Some of the characters include Kubera, the god of wealth, mounted on a peacock Skanda the god of war, Indra on a four-tusked elephant, four-armed Vishnu upon Garuda, Yama the god of the dead in a chariot drawn by oxen, Shiva with a drawn bow and also in a chariot, Brahma upon a goose, Surya the sun god and lastly Varuna, the god of the waters with a five-headed tethered naga.
Western wall, northern section: Battle of Lanka
This 51m-long panel is one of the most outstanding, depicting a legendary battle in which Rama and his monkey-allies defeat Ravana in order to rescue Sita. The attention to detail is excellent and the monkey faces, some biting legs and arms of the enemy, really add to the relief. Note some of the weapons used include tree trunks, stones and monkey teeth.
Once you have finished with the last of the reliefs, re-enter the western gopura and continue on to the central temple. This leads you upstairs through darkened passages to the central sanctuary, where again the views are breathtaking—particularly from any of the corners.
At the southern side of the central tower a railing and some extra steps have been installed to allow for the final climb up to the apex, where there is often a queue throughout the day since numbers are limited to ascend at any one time, for a duration of 30 minutes. The stairs are very steep and more than one person has tumbled down in a pile of broken bones. Exercise care—the view is indeed very fine, but those with a fear of heights should consider carefully before climbing. The western stairs are not as steep, but lack a handrail. Wheelchair users can make it to the level before the apex with assistance—it is worth enlisting the help of a reputable tour company that has experience in arranging this.
There is an enforced dress policy for climbing to the summit so do be sure to cover your shoulders (not just with a scarf) and knees; remember this is a sacred religious site and really modest dress should be adopted at all the other temples, even though not required to gain entry.
Furthermore, the summit is closed not infrequently following the lunar calendar and religious holidays (which tend to land on the former), usually four times a month: full moon, new moon, half moons. A lunar calendar will show a picture of a meditating Buddha on these holy days. Get your hotel/guide to check so as to avoid disappointment. Once at the apex the views over the surrounds are spectacular.
Caroline swapped the drizzle of Old Blighty for the dazzling sunshine of Siem Reap and she spends most weekends cycling the temple-studded terrain that she can call her backyard.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
Our top 10 other sights and activities in and around Angkor