Angkor Temple, The #1 sight in the world, as voted by Lonely Planet. This magnificent monument is the greatest treasure of the Hindu kingdom that once stretched as far as Burma, Laos and southern China. But Angkor Wat is just the crown jewel in a complex of more than 1000 temples, shrines and tombs. Lonely Planet writer and Cambodia expert, Nick Ray, shows us why it topped our recently released list of the 500 best experiences on the planet.
Temple of Ankgor Wat is Hindu heaven on earth
CAMBODIA When all the votes were counted, the no.1 sight was the undisputed champion by quite some margin. In electoral terms, it was a complete landslide. So, how did Angkor Wat beat the competition to take the crown?
As the world’s greatest temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, Angkor Wat might seem a bit off the grid in Buddhist Cambodia, but this magnificent monument is the greatest treasure of a Hindu kingdom that once stretched as far as Burma, Laos and southern China. Even in a region as richly gifted with temples as Southeast Asia, Angkor is something out of the ordinary – a literal representation of heaven on earth, hewn from thousands of sandstone blocks and carved floor-to-ceiling with legends from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas.
Even better, Angkor Wat is the crowning glory in a complex of more than 1000 temples, shrines and tombs that forms a virtual city of spires in the jungles of northern Cambodia. International flights drop into nearby Siem Reap, so it would be hard to describe Angkor as ’undiscovered’, yet every visitor who steps among the ruins, where tree roots tear through ancient walls and the heads of forgotten deities poke out from between the vines, feels like Indiana Jones, peeling back the foliage for the first time.
Over Angkor’s long centuries, the residents of this celestial city traded Hinduism for Buddhism, leaving many temples fusing mythologies. Few experiences can match arriving at the ruins of the Bayon at dawn and watching dozens of benevolent faces of the Avalokiteshvara, the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, appearing slowly out of the mist like heavenly apparitions. Indeed, Angkor offers so many hard-to-match experiences that many travellers spend weeks soaking up the glory of all the temples and ruins.
Angkor Wat itself is the undisputed highlight, a massive representation of Mt Meru, the mountain home of the gods of Hinduism, executed in stone blocks adorned with bas-reliefs of such delicacy and grace that they could almost have been carved in the presence of the divine. Travellers feel similar emotions when exploring the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm, a 12th-century temple that was almost completely consumed by the jungle, left much as it was when European explorers first ventured to Angkor in the 17th century.
Away from this central hub are sacred pools and stone bridges that have handrails depicting demons holding monstrous serpents, as well as a panoply of crumbling temples, scattered over an area of more than 400 sq km. Some of these outlying groups have become must-see sights in their own right – the complex at Banteay Srei features some of the finest stone-carving at Angkor, and the artistry continues underwater at nearby Kbal Spean, the river of a thousand linga (Shiva symbols).
More than anything else, Angkor is a powerful reminder of the soaring ambitions of human creativity, the fundamental human need to leave something permanent behind, and the very Buddhist realisation that nothing material is eternal, and that given time, all will be reclaimed by the jungle. Angkor isn’t just an interesting ruin – it’s a spiritual epiphany in stone.