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Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia

Angkor Wat is the world’s biggest religious monument.  That statement alone should grab your attention, but the truth of the matter is that Angkor Wat needs to be seen to be believed.  The place is thoroughly imbued with a mythical miasma of history, religion, royalty, and worship.  It represents the height of an ancient civilization that once threatened the great Chinese empire.


The original temples at Angkor are believed to have been constructed beginning in the 9th century A.D. by King Jayavarman II.  Throughout the following centuries, additional temples were created by his descendents and by various conquerors.  Angkor is only a reference to the temple complex that sprawls over 40 square miles around the village of Siem Reap in what is now Cambodia.  Angkor Wat is the most renowned of the temples as it is not just one temple, but also an entire complex of vast size.

The ebb and flow of what is known as the Khmer Empire is somewhat difficult to grasp.  Southeast Asia (along with most of the world) was a turbulent place where Kings and Emperors could be deposed in a matter of years.  Long reigns of peace were often followed by brutal wars filled with strife and guile.

By 1000 A.D., King Suryavarman I had completely taken over the region and established a peaceful rule of some 50 years.  During this time, he laid out the plans for most of the buildings now present in Angkor.  Later, in 1113 A.D., Suryavarman II managed to take back the throne from a rival family.  It was between 1113 A.D. and 1150 A.D. that Angkor Wat was built on the Angkor grounds as a massive temple to the god Vishnu.

As the Khmer Empire declined over the next centuries, much of Angkor and Angkor Wat was sacked, looted, and later abandoned.  The temples descended into myth as ’the lost royal city of Ankgor’ for centuries.  A French colonialist in 1860 by the name of Henri Mouhot stumbled upon the Angkor ruins while on a botany expedition.  The discovery spurred over a century of intense research as historians and archeologists flocked to the region.   Principal research was undertaken by the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme Orient (University of French Indo-China) but was later disrupted by the Vietnam War.  Today, Angkor Wat is a major tourist attraction, a sacred site for locals, and an undying symbol of the Khmer Empire’s greatness.


Angkor Wat is based heavily on the Khmer style of architecture.  Khmer, in turn, was heavily influenced by Indian culture and the Hindu religion.  The style can be loosely described as heavy stone masonry with rustication and bas-relief, with little to no coloring or decoration.  When Angkor was being built, the Indian ties were no longer as strong, and the Khmer style of building was at its peak in terms of creativity and innovation.  Indeed, the Angkor Wat temples could not have been built by a weak empire.  Its sheer size and scope reflect the power, resources, and loyalty that the Khmer Empire had achieved.

The buildings of Angkor Wat are built solely from sandstone from a quarry a fair distance away.  Engineers estimate that the amount of sandstone used in Angkor Wat is at least equivalent to the volume of stone used in the great Egyptian pyramid of Khafre.  This is yet another indication of the power that the Khmer Empire had reached at the time of Angkor Wat’s construction.

The design of Angkor Wat closely mirrors the Hindu ideal of the pyramid temple, known as the ”magic mountain” of Hindu mythology.  King Suryavarman II had consolidated the largest Khmer Empire to date, and embarked on building the biggest possible temple that would dwarf all others in the royal city.  This is the legacy of Angkor Wat.  Elaborate carvings can be found in almost every nook and cranny, while the entire complex of temples comprising Angkor Wat is built on several terraces linked by a network of causeways.  The main towers are the biggest ever constructed by the Khmers.

Entering the complex, you’ll have to cross a large moat that symbolizes the Ocean.  This is not a small moat by any means, as it circles the entire complex for 4 miles in length and 600 feet in width.  Once you’ve crossed the moat, you are essentially walking through the Hindu universe on a tour to the very heights of Hindu Worship.

Across the moat lies the first large stone gallery.  Just past the gallery you can catch a glimpse of the massive towers of the central temple.  They dominate the skyline here and you can fell their power even from a distance.  The path leading upwards is an arduous journey up stairways that connect different terraces.  The final stop along this journey is known as the inner sanctuary, which is fairly deep into the massive complex.  This is where the large ’linga’ or monument to the god Siva was once housed.

An alternate path that you can take is through to a large entrance that leads to the library complex.  Here, a series of large buildings once housed thousands of pages of history and information collected by the Khmer Empire.  Beautiful sunken pools dot the area, while another stairway here leads up to a large cruciform-shaped terrace.  From there, a long staircase follows the mountainside up to the five towers at the pinnacle of the whole complex.