World Travel GuidesAngkor Wat, Cambodia

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Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the largest ancient temple in the world. It represents the pinnacle of ancient Khmer architectural achievement. It is one of a large group of ancient ruins collectively known as Angkor, which served as the seat of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 15th century AD. The name Angkor, which means city or country, comes from Sanskrit, and is in fact a modern name of the place. There are over thirty ruins of considerable size in and around Angkor proper, of which Angkor Wat is the largest and most famous.

Angkor Wat
© Timothy Tye

Angkor Wat was constructed during the reign of King Suryavarman II, who ruled from 1113 to 1150 AD. Work on Angkor Wat may have been interrupted or stopped when he died - the bas-reliefs in the Angkor Wat galleries show differing standards of quality, those of inferior quality may have been executed at a later time, long after the temple had been completed.

Angkor Wat is the first temple that visitors see when they enter the Angkor Archaeological Park. Beyond Angkor Wat are dozens of other temples.

The name Angkor Wat is the modern Khmer name of the ruin, not its original name. It means "City Temple" or "Capital Temple", from the two words, "Angkor", which is the vernacular form of the word nokor, itself derived from the Sanskrit word nagara, meaning "capital", and "wat" which appears in Khmer and Thai meaning "temple". It is not know what is the original name of Angkor Wat. It was known as Preah Pisnulok, after the posthumous title of Suryavarman II, during the 14th and 15th century, when it was re-used as a Theravada Buddhist sanctuary. By the time the first Westerner set foot there, it was already known as Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat has been visited by Western explorers and missionaries as early as the 16th century. One of the first to arrive was Antonio da Magdalena, a Portuguese monk who reached Angkor in 1586. Nevertheless Angkor Wat remained largely unknown to the outside world until the publication of the travel notes of Henri Mouhot who visited and documented it in the mid 19th century. Mouhot is credited as being the person who brought the world's attention to Angkor Wat.

Layout of Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, unlike almost all other Khmer ruins, face west instead of east. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hinduism. Scholars believe that Angkor Wat may have been Suryavarman II's funerary temple, which would require a reverse orientation from the non-funerary temples. Further evidence comes from the bas-reliefs, which are arranged counter-clockwise around the temple rather than clockwise. Another theory put forward by scholars is that Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, who is associated with the west.

Angkor Wat is laid out as a rectangular plot which is 1.5km east to west by 1.3km north to south, including a massive moat that surrounds the rectangular island on which the temple stands. The island measures 1km from east to west and 0.8km from north to south. The whole complex is so immense that one it is difficult to see its actual shape unless we view it from a plane or hot air balloon. Most visitors enter through the causeway on the west side. (One may also enter through the east side, but like entering through someone's backdoor, that side is less spectacular and is usually deserted.)

Photography Tips for Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat looks best at dawn, late afternoon and sunset. Visitors usually wait for the sunrise in front of either one of the two lotus ponds in front of Angkor Wat. One should arrive by 6:00am when the site opens to visitors. Many photographers are fond of shooting the sun rising between the prasats of Angkor Wat. Mindful that Angkor Wat faces west, if you wish to shoot it facing the sun, you should do it around 2pm-4pm. Sunset is one of the best times to shoot Angkor Wat, when the ruins bask in crimson and gold. The sun sets quite early at Angkor, so you should be in the Angkor Wat compound by 4:30pm.

Getting there

Angkor Wat is located about 4km north of Siem Reap town. It is the first of all the monuments in the Angkor Archaeological Park. In between Siem Reap and Angkor Wat is the checkpoint where you can buy your Angkor Pass. The pass allows you unlimited visits to the ruins of Angkor. There are three types of passes: US$20 for a day pass, US$40 for a 3-day pass, and US$60 for a one-week pass. You need to carry your pass with you everywhere you go in the Angkor Archaeological Park. Failure to produce the pass will incur a hefty one-the-spot fine.

Further Reading

Angkor UNESCO World Heritage Site
An extensive list of major and minor ruins of Angkor.

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