Although I personally sometimes kind of cringe at the idea of going to a place just because everyone else seems to want to go there, Angkor Wat is definitely one of those international travel destinations that I genuinely believe any well-seasoned traveler should visit at least once in their lives. As Lonely Planet described it in their guidebook for Cambodia, “Angkor is one of the world’s foremost ancient sites, with the epic proportions of the Great Wall of China, the detail and intricacy of the Taj Mahal and the symbolism and symmetry of the pyramids, all rolled into one.” Here are some interesting facts for the uninitiated about this amazing place.
First of all, when people say ‘Angkor Wat’ they often are referring to a gigantic complex of many temple structures, i.e. the Temples of Angkor, with Angkor Wat being the largest and best-preserved temple of the entire site. Cambodia’s ancient Khmer empire built hundreds of temples between AD 802 and 1432, and at its peak the city is estimated to have had a population of one million people at a time when London only had about 50,000. So if you think about it in a historical context, at least in its first few centuries of existence, Angkor society was thriving with growth in population and cultural sophistication at a time when Europe was experiencing the Dark Ages, a time of population and economic decline and a minimal amount of cultural output.
From a religious perspective, the temples of Angkor were originally Hindu. The five towers of Angkor Wat represented the five peaks of Mount Meru, the home of Vishnu, the supreme god in Hinduism. However, the greatest of Angkorian kings, Jayavarman VII, converted the state to Mahayana Buddhism after defeating the Cham invaders in 1181. Because of this the Hindu temples of Angkor were altered to display images of the Buddha. There was a Hindu revival after Jayavarman’s death which saw the destruction of Buddhist images, but then in the 14th century Theravada Buddhism took over and has been the dominant religion of the region ever since.
Angkor Wat itself is the world’s largest religious building. Within the outer wall there are more than 200 acres of land, the outside of which is surrounded by a 600+ foot wide moat in the shape of a giant rectangle that is almost a mile long on its longest sides. Hence, the modern day translation of the name Angkor Wat, “City Temple”, is certainly appropriate. And as large as it is, it is just as visually stunning with its three stories or galleries, each one climbing higher towards the sky. These three tiers are then crowned by five lotus-like towers, the highest one in the middle reaching 213 feet above the ground. Quite frankly I don’t know how anyone could not be impressed with this ancient marvel.
Today Angkor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that receives over 2 million visitors a year. But despite its popularity you can still easily visit different parts of the temple complexes without feeling overwhelmed by crowds, especially if you arrive early in the mornings and don’t come during the peak tourist months of December and January. It’s an experience like no other when you are wondering around magnificent, ancient temples surrounded by forests in the tropics. My guess is that these Khmer gems will become more and more visited as time goes by, and this will necessitate continuously more restrictive rules for when accessing them. This will be needed to protect the temples from being damaged too much. So if you haven’t done so already you should try to visit them as soon as you can.