Angkor Wat is the ultimate expression of Khmer genius – an awe-inspiring temple that is stunning for both its grand scale and its incredible detail.
A visit to Cambodia’s World Heritage Temples of Angkor complex, voted by Lonely Planet as the world’s number 1 sight, is understandably high on the list for many travellers. Get to know a little about the history, meaning and features of its most renowned and iconic temple, Angkor Wat, then start planning that once-in-a-lifetime trip.
Angkor Wat – built by Suryavarman II (r 1112–52) – is the earthly representation of Mt Meru, the Mt Olympus of the Hindu faith and the abode of ancient gods. The Cambodian god-kings of old each strove to better their ancestors’ structures in size, scale and symmetry, culminating in what is believed to be the world’s largest religious building.
The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia and a source of fierce national pride. Unlike the other Angkor monuments, it was never abandoned to the elements and has been in virtually continuous use since it was built.
Symbolically, west is the direction of death, which once led a large number of scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb. This idea was supported by the fact that the magnificent bas-reliefs of the temple were designed to be viewed in an anticlockwise direction, a practice that has precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. Vishnu, however, is also frequently associated with the west, and it is now commonly accepted that Angkor Wat most likely served both as a temple and as a mausoleum for Suryavarman II.
Angkor Wat is famous for having more than 3000 beguiling apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into its walls. Each of them is unique, and there are 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to check out. Many of these exquisite apsaras were damaged during efforts to clean the temples with chemicals during the 1980s, but they are being restored by the teams with the German Apsara Conservation Project. Bat urine and droppings also degrade the restored carvings over time.
The level of detail
Visitors to Angkor Wat are struck by its imposing grandeur and, at close quarters, its fascinating decorative flourishes. Stretching around the outside of the central temple complex is an 800m-long series of intricate and astonishing bas-reliefs – carvings depicting historical events and stories from mythology.
Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages (Yuga) of classical Hindu thought. Thus the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and through the courtyards to the final main tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, is metaphorically travelling back to the first age of the creation of the universe.
Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also replicates the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mt Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, bounded in turn by continents (the lower courtyards) and the oceans (the moat). The seven-headed naga (mythical serpent) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge for man to reach the abode of the gods.
While Suryavarman II may have planned Angkor Wat as his funerary temple or mausoleum, he was never buried there as he died in battle during a failed expedition to subdue the Dai Viet (Vietnamese).