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Temple of Angkor

Temple of Angkor overview

The Temple of Angkor – or Angkor Wat – is a breath-taking temple complex in Cambodia, that is also the largest and one of the most culturally significant religious monuments in the world.

Angkor itself was the former capital city of the Khmer Empire between the 9th and 15th centuries. Classed as a megacity, Angkor Wat was a central part of the city. The temple itself covers an incredible area of 1.6 km². Angkor Wat started life as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu, but it later became a Buddhist temple. Built by the Khmer King Suryavarman, it was his state temple and later became his mausoleum too.

Temple of Angkor overview
Angkor Wat during sunset

There’s an abundance of temples across the broader Angkor complex, but Angkor Wat is certainly the most famous, reflecting classical 12th century Khmer architecture. Of utmost importance to the country, it even appears on Cambodia’s national flag. As well as the country’s most popular visitor attraction, Angkor Wat remains a significant working religious centre to this day too.

See and Do

Angkor Wat is open most days at 5am and stays open until around 6pm. For an extra special visit to the temple, make an early start and get there for sunrise, which is usually between 5:30am and 6am. It makes the experience especially magical.

Explore the impressive outer enclosure first, spanned by a wall of over 1km in length and surrounded by a moat of more than 5km. The main entrance to the interior of Angkor Wat is via a sandstone causeway at the west of the temple complex, although there is also an earth bank in the east. At the north, south, east and west, there are elegant entrance buildings – known as gopuras in Khmer architecture. These are a means for passing through enclosure walls that are far grander than simple doorways, and is all part of the Angkor Wat experience. The western gopura is the largest at Angkor Wat and has three towers on it, which are now in ruins. There are additional entrances either side of the gopuras known as elephant gates.

main entrance to the interior of Angkor Wat
Ruin of Angkor reclaim by jungle

The central structure of Angkor Wat stands on a terrace that is higher than the rest of the megacity, giving it a powerful presence. There are three main galleries to explore, each with its own gopura and tower. Based on the Hindu origins of Angkor Wat, the three galleries are said to represent King Brahma, the god Vishnu and the moon. A further two inner galleries also have towers. Meander through the galleries, cloisters and courtyards to soak up the immense feeling of Khmer history here. Steep stairs leading up to the top of the towers represent the difficulty in rising up to the kingdom of the gods.

An inner gallery called the Bakan connects all the gopuras in the central structure with the central shrine, which has an impressive ceiling height of 65 metres. This shrine would have originally been an open structure and had a statue of Vishnu, but when Angkor Wat was converted to a Buddhist centre, the shrine was walled in, with standing Buddhas now featured on the walls. All the corner towers have a smaller shrine too.

central structure of Angkor Wat
Towers of Smiling Faces of Bayon

Tip: Remember Angkor Wat is a working religious site, so dress conservatively and ensure your shoulders and knees are covered when you visit.

Angkor Wat is the most famous temple at Angkor, but there are plenty of other temples to explore on the Angkor Archaeological Park if a visit to Angkor Wat whets your appetite. If you have time, also pay a visit to Bayon for the carved stone faces and 54 gothic towers there, or Ta Prohm, which is gradually being taken over by the jungle. Banteay Srei is well known for its fine stone carvings depicting mythological scenes, while Preah Khan has both a Buddhist sanctuary and satellite Hindu temples. while Preah Khan Normal 0 false false false EN-GB X-NONE X-NONE is a little off-the-beaten-track, making it a particularly peaceful Angkor temple to visit. Phnom Bakheng is a magnificent mountain temple that many people go to at sunset, as it offers fantastic views of the sun setting over Angkor Wat.

Banteay Srei
Unique pink-stone temple of Banteay Srey

Most visitors to Angor Wat stay in the nearby city of Siem Reap, which is a 30 minute tuk-tuk journey or short car ride away. Siem Reap is a place to enjoy markets and street food, traditional Khmer cuisine in restaurants, bars and nightlife along Pub Street, and various museums and shops.

Culture and Arts

Angkor Wat is a fascinating location ripe for exploring the arts and culture in every corner, nook and cranny. The predominant form of decoration of the temple structure is in the style of bas-relief – projecting images of artworks lightly carved into the stone or other materials on the walls in a frieze style. The outer gallery in particular has a series of very large scenes depicting famous Hindu episodes, such as the Battle of Lanka, a procession of King Suryavarman II and the Churning of the Sea of Milk.

apsaras and devatas
Statues of Apsara– the angels

There are galleries that run between each of Angkor’s towers – on the pillars outside, look out for the decorative lotus rosettes, dancing figures and men on animals. You’ll also see depictions of apsaras and devatas. Apsaras are dancing girls, deities and characters from Indian mythology, often used as motifs for decorating the walls and pillars of temples in Khmer architecture. Female deities who are depicted standing rather than dancing are known as devatas. On the pillar on the southern entrance to Angkor Wat is the only devata on the grounds seen showing her teeth! There are also numerous devatas depicted inside the central structure of Angkor Wat, particularly from the second floor upwards. In fact, there are said to be almost 2,000 devatas depicted across Angkor Wat as a whole. In nearby Siem Reap, it’s possible to watch traditional apsara dance shows if this really captures your imagination.

The Hall of a Thousand Gods (Preah Poan) is another fascinating cultural spot to explore at Angkor Wat. This is where hundreds of images of Buddha were left by pilgrims over centuries. Although most have now been removed, the area around this cloister is full of inscriptions on the walls, detailing the good deeds of the pilgrims.

Monks in Angkor Wat
Buddhist Monk at a temple

As a working religious centre, Angkor Wat is also home to a number of monks. It is possible to receive blessings from these monks with holy water, with the blessing finished with some red string tied around your wrist for protection. Many people also visit Angkor Wat to light candles and incense in memory of loved ones.

Festivals and Events

The main annual event celebrated at Angkor Wat itself is the Khmer New Year, celebrated as a three-day festival called Angkor Sankranta every April. People begin to gather at the temple at sunrise, which marks the start of the celebrations. It’s then possible to go inside the temple, where it’s common to offer blessings to the monks and light candles and incense. Angkor Sankranta is also a special time for many who want to receive a blessing from a monk. Monks will do so by splashing holy water and tying a red string around the person’s wrist, representing protection and strength. On the wider grounds during the festival, there is music, dancing, local food stands and traditional games. For the entire three days of Angkor Sankranta, Angkor Wat is lit up from the outside in the evening too, making it a true spectacle and shining beacon of light.

Festivals and Events in Cambodia
Ox-cart racing festival

For those who enjoy sport mixed with history, the Angkor Wat International Half Marathon takes place every December. The route passes right past Angkor Wat, making it a one-of-a-kind way to experience a marathon.

Food and Drink

While it’s not possible to buy food inside Angkor Wat itself, given the fact it’s a place of religious worship, there are plenty of food stand options on the grounds just outside. Many traditional Cambodian flavours are on offer, with grilled meats, rice, pickles and sauces making snacks complete.

Aside from snack stands, there are also some restaurants very close to Angkor Wat serving traditional Cambodian and international cuisine, from curries to French staples.

fish amok
Amok – famous Cambodian dish

Many people also choose to bring a picnic with them from Siem Reap and find a quiet spot on the broader grounds at Angkor to enjoy a peaceful meal.

Siem Reap itself has no shortage of food options and it’s possible to try every kind of traditional cuisine here, from fish amok to Khmer Red Curry.
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