Surrounded by bushy trees and protected by a small moat covered with vibrant lake plants, Angkor Wat stands in the middle of a stone fence that surrounds each one of its sides. Amid the humid air and bright sunlight, you’re able to admire the temple’s exquisite architecture and detailed carvings that witnessed and transitioned from Hinduism to Buddhism alongside the Khmer civilization.
The temple is located in Cambodia, more specifically in Angkor, the ancient capital city of the Khmer Empire in the Siem Reap province. Currently, it’s the country’s main tourist attraction and you can even find it in its flag.
This temple was built in the 12th century by the King Suryavarman II as his eventual mausoleum and as a representation of Mount Meru, the holy center of Hinduism. The king even devoted to the god Vishnu. Since its construction, people have come to pray in this intricate but beautiful spiritual building.
Even though it used to be a Hindu temple, the Khmer civilization changed beliefs by the end of the same century and so did Angkor Wat. Nowadays, it’s considered a Buddhist monastery and it remains as the largest religious monument in the world.
Structure and Design
The Angkor Wat temple is a three-level sandstone structure decorated by detailed sharp carvings. The top level gives the building its prominent shape with a pointed tower at each corner and the main sanctuary in the middle that is 65 meters off the ground.
This temple has witnessed its fair share of history, sometimes it’s even hard to think that this place was one of the few shelters left of the Khmer Rouge communist movement until you notice shot impacts on the stone. However, its carvings and galleries of bas-reliefs, which are actually the largest in the world, remain unbelievingly detailed and almost untouched in spite of the additional erosion of 800 years.
You can find scenes from the Mahabharata, the Hindu religious epic, fight scenes taken from Khmer history, warnings about the tortures of hell, and gracious apsaras (celestial nymphs) sculpted into the walls of Angkor Wat. The best time of the day to visit and admire these carvings is during the sunrise or the sunset. The golden sunlight seems to wake the smiling nymphs and bring them back to life.
The top level of the temple seems specially made for the dawn. The towers transform into long fingers that stretch into the blue sky and the bright sunshine illuminates subtle elements that are not visible otherwise. This is when you’ll see the most stunning apsaras in the central sanctuary before they get hidden in the shadows after the sunrise.
If you want to capture the moment the sun illuminates every detail of Angkor Wat, you can go to the north pool to take pictures among all the other visitors. But if you’re looking for peace and serenity, we recommend you to head to the main sanctuary in the top level. This place used to be for priests and the king only, but now you can have it all to yourself if you get there early enough. In order to do that, you need to go up one of the flights of steep stairs on the side of the temple, which do a great job in conveying exactly how burdensome the way to heaven is.
What else can you do?
Angkor Wat is not the only attraction in the Angkor area. If you want to take advantage of your visit, you should head to the Bayon and Ta Prohm, which were built after the main temple. The Bayon is a little sanctuary surrounded and decorated with huge stone sculpted faces that remind us of Lord Buddha, this place is a perfect representation of the transition between Hinduism and Buddhism in the Khmer Empire.
On the other hand, Ta Prohm can even be considered ruins of a temple complex. Roots of bayan and kapok trees have already broken down and become one with the stonework on the building giving a mysterious but enchanting look to it.
How to get there?
One way to visit the Angkor area is by plane. You can take a flight from Bangkok, Thailand or Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, to get to the nearest town, Siem Reap. You can also take a boat across the Tonle Sap lake. Even though the trip takes a day, it’s an interesting experience that you might want to live.
You don’t have to worry about accommodation since Siem Reap offers many available options. You can choose from cheap guest houses to the exclusive Amansara Resort. The Angkor area is considerably spread out, however, good hotels organize car tours, and you can even rent bicycles and motorbikes or take motorbike-taxis from everywhere around the town.
Lastly, you need to get tickets to the temple. There are one, three and seven day passes that can be bought. We suggest getting the three-day ticket since that will give you enough time to thoroughly visit the entire area. All you need is 50 bucks and a passport photograph.