Temples of Angkor: Angkor Wat

If you're thinking of visiting Cambodia, chances are it's the beauty of the iconic Angkor Wat that is drawing you in. Although far from being off the beaten path, there's a reason why Angkor Wat draws millions of visitors every year. You can read about it and view pictures of it online, but to see the magnitude of Angkor Wat in person is something else, and as crowded as it gets, I still think it's worth visiting at least once.

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Angkor Wat was designed to represent Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology that has five peaks, much like the five towers at Angkor Wat. Mount Meru was believed to be located at the centre of the universe, and was said to be the connection between the heavens and earth. Built on over 400 acres of land, Angkor Wat holds the record for being the largest religious structure ever built.

A Snippet of its History

Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was initially built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Like many of the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, it was later transformed into a Buddhist temple. Unlike most of the other temples though, Angkor Wat was not completely taken over by the jungle, thanks in part to the moat that surrounds it.

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It is believed that Angkor Wat was built to be a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II since the bas-reliefs in the temple were carved out with the stories being told from left to right, which was customary in Hindu funeral rituals.

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Highlights of Angkor Wat

I almost feel sheepish titling this section the "Highlights of Angkor Wat" because when you think about the size of and the detail found in Angkor Wat, plus the fact that it was built in the early 12th century, the whole temple really is an amazing human feat. But being the largest temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park, it's easy to get overwhelmed and not know where to look. As with all the other temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, I highly recommend that you hire a guide to talk you through everything that you're seeing to provide some historical and religious context. They'll also be able to point out interesting areas in the temple without you having to search for them yourselves. But if you don't have a guide, here are some points of interest to look out for.

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VISHNU WITH THE HEAD OF BUDDHA

Along the outer wall of Angkor Wat, at the western portico (which is the main entrance), you'll find a statue of Vishnu, the Hindu god that this temple was originally dedicated to. Interestingly, this statue has the eight-armed body of Vishnu, but the head of Buddha. When the temple was converted from a Hindu temple to a Buddhist temple, Vishnu's head was removed and replaced with Buddha's.

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THE SMILING APSARA

There are over 1500 apsaras (female figures depicted dancing) carved into the walls of Angkor Wat, but there is only one that is dancing with a toothy grin. No one is sure why she is the only one smiling so widely, showing her teeth, but I like to imagine that she just really loves dancing so she's having a great time! The smiling apsara can be found to the right, once you've gone through the western portico.

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REFLECTION POOLS

Once you've gone past the western portico, you'll find yourself on the main causeway on your way to the central temple complex. On either side of the causeway, you'll come to some pools of water. These are the reflection pools. If you've seen photos of Angkor Wat with the reflection of its towers in the water, chances are they were taken at the reflection pools (likely the one to your left if you're facing the central complex). Whether you get yourself out of bed early to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, or if you take a photo there during the day, you're bound to get a good photo at the reflection pools!

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BEAUTIFULLY DETAILED BAS-RELIEF

Temples with detailed carvings tend to win me over, and Angkor Wat has an amazingly detailed bas-relief extending over about 800 metres, all around the outer wall of the central temple complex. As mentioned earlier, the bas-relief at Angkor Wat is supposed to be viewed from left to right, or in an anti-clockwise direction. It depicts scenes from historical events and hindu mythology such as Krishna and the Demon King (bottom left) and the Churning of the Sea Milk. Unless you are very familiar with the stories that have been carved out, it'll be hard to understand what you're looking at. This is where having a guide will really come in handy.

ECHO CHAMBER

While exploring Angkor Wat, you'll likely come across a chamber where you'll find fellow visitors pounding on their chests. This is the Echo Chamber, and if you pound your chest lightly with your back against the wall, you'll hear a loud and clear echo. While the true purpose is not really known, some think that this chamber was used to show their loyalty to the King, while others have said it's a form of prayer to the gods. Echo Chambers also exist in other temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park, such as in Ta Prohm.

THE CENTRAL TOWERS

Eventually, you'll find yourself at the centre of the central complex, at the base of the five towers. From there, you can choose to line up to scale the steep 70 degree staircase to get to the top, which is symbolism for climbing up Mount Meru to get to heaven. It is said that the stairs are as steep as they are so that the worshipper, while climbing up the staircase, is showing the heart that they're putting into their worship.

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Because they control how many people are at the top at all times, it's quite peaceful up there compared with the rest of Angkor Wat. Along with visitors, you'll see worshippers praying and meditating in front of statues. You'll also get a good view overlooking Angkor Wat from a higher angle.

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If you are planning to climb the tower, please do note that there is a strict dress code in place. You must wear clothing that cover the shoulders and knees. Scarves over tank-tops to cover the shoulders are not accepted. You'll also be asked to take off your hat if you're wearing one.

Want to get here?

Hours: 5:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.
Getting here: Being the "star attraction", Angkor Wat is part of both the grand circuit and the small circuit at the Angkor Archaeological Park.
Admission: Admission to Angkor Wat is included in your Angkor Pass.

Keep Exploring: Cambodia | Asia | Travel
Other temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park:
Sunrise at Angkor Wat
Banteay Srei
Ta Prohm
Neak Pean
Bayon
Beng Mealea
Preah Khan

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This post is linked up on Our World Tuesday, and...