Discover why this is our favorite ancient Hindu and Buddhist temple complex and a must-experience part of Cambodia tourism.
I was well into adulthood before taking my first international trip abroad. When I was growing up, I often daydreamed about exotic destinations, visiting the library and collecting travel brochures from AM&A’s, one of the local department stores that had an in-store travel agency. I even remember draping wild grapevines from the rafters of our family’s basement and pretending I was somewhere in the Italian countryside.
I’m not the most spiritual individual — I tried to smuggle a communion wafer out of church when I was growing up; I wanted to see what the body of Christ looked like, after all. But when the ancient and magnificent temple of Angkor Wat lay before us, I was awestruck by its jaw-dropping scale and grandeur. It’s believed to be the largest religious structure in the world. It’s no wonder UNESCO named Angkor Wat a World Heritage Site in 1992.
Translated from Khmer, the name Angkor Wat literally means “City Temple.” Built by King Suryavarman II, it was the former capital of the Khmer empire and has remained in continuous use since its completion in the early 12th century. It was originally constructed as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu but eventually shifted to Theravada Buddhism in the 14th century.
The complex is oriented to the west, which has led several historians to believe that Suryavarman intended it to be his tomb. Symbolically, west is the direction of the setting sun and death, but is also associated with Vishnu, who the temple was originally dedicated to. Suryavarman’s devotion is also shown in the posthumous name he was given, Paramavishnuloka, which means “He Who Is in the Supreme Abode of Vishnu.” Whether this anecdote is true or not, it does makes for an interesting theory.
Wat an Adventure!
Angkor Wat is composed of a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways. The most famous and best preserved of the temples located within the Angkor Archeological Park, it has been featured on Cambodia’s national flag since 1863.
Four of the five towers represent the peaks surrounding Mount Meru, the home of Hindu gods, with the larger central shrine tower acting as the mythic mount itself. According to local lore, the temple was ordered by the deity Indra, the King of the Gods, to act as an earthly palace for his son Precha Kat Mealea. Some even believe that it appeared overnight, constructed by divine forces.
The concentric galleries represent the outer lands, with the inner courtyard containing the central tower. This was the most sacred part of the complex and most likely held a statue of Vishnu.
The moat surrounding Angkor Wat, fed by a canal from the Siem Reap River, simulates the ocean encircling Mount Meru. It provided water to the city’s inhabitants and was an integral part of their agrarian culture — it served to irrigate rice fields, and the crops were used as a form of currency.
The stone causeway leading to the temple is flanked by a naga balustrade whose ends culminate with its seven raised snake heads.
The outer gallery of Angkor Wat contains intricate bas-relief carvings depicting historical events and stories from Hindu mythology. It has more than 3,000 representations of heavenly nymphs known as apsaras carved into its walls. Each apsara is unique, from its elaborate headdress to its plaited hair and jewelry.
A sandstone structure located within the heart of the temple complex is believed to have served as one of the libraries at Angkor Wat. The symmetrical cruciform structure would have held sacred manuscripts. Some of the columns have been replaced with cement copies for structural support.
An eight-armed statue of Vishnu stands to the south of the central tower, which may originally have been enshrined within. The statue is known as Ta Reach, and it is worshipped by Hindu visitors and Buddhist locals as well, as its head was replaced by that of a Buddha.
The centuries-old Angkor Wat temple is an integral part of the Khmer legacy and worthy of spending several hours wandering through. Be sure to head there early to avoid the crowds. –Duke
Take a virtual tour of Angkor Wat!