The world’s largest religious monument stretches over an expansive and mysterious 402 acres in the Southeast Asian nation of Cambodia and contains much more stone than all the Egyptian pyramids combined.
Literally ‘Capital Temple’, Angkor Wat was the crowning glory of the powerful Khmer kingdom that encompassed almost all of Indo-China up till the 15th century A.D. Built originally in honor of the Hindu god, Vishnu, it later incorporated Buddhist themes as the new religion spread from India. Angkor was then one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.
The magnetism and mystery of Angkor Wat’s mesmerizing architecture has seen it featured in popular culture through movies and games, most notably Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Age of Empires. In fact, Ta Prohm, about 2 miles from the main complex and one of the most majestic sites is popularly referred to as the ‘Tomb Raider Temple’, even in guide books.
Part of Angkor Wat’s continuing draw for adventure seekers has been the deliberate decision to not repair or reconstruct large parts of the ruins.
Amidst the large blocks of ancient stone covered in hanging green vines, the silence is broken only by the calls of wild birds and the sounds of the forest that surround the complex – it really does seem to call you into another world. If you have ever felt like stepping into the shoes of Lara Croft or Indiana Jones, Angkor Wat will give you that experience.
Into virtually all the nearly 10 million stones, some weighing up to 1.5 tons, are carved elaborate figures of Hindu deities and scenes from mythology. Spectacular battle scenes from the Hindu epic, Mahabharata, cover entire walls and depict thousands of individual characters, chariots, beasts and war machines.
The bas-relief is truly stupefying and also includes scenes from daily Khmer life like cooks blowing on coal fires to prepare food, cock fights and the marketplace.
Visiting Angkor Wat is a physical experience – there is a lot to explore for the intrepid adventurer in you. The main complex is situated on a rectangular block of land in the middle of a moat that is 620 ft wide on each side with walls 15 ft high that ring the 203-acre outer boundary. Into the towers that rise majestically over the architecture and give the temple complex its iconic silhouette are built entrances called ‘elephant gates’ because they were designed to allow passage to these huge creatures. 6,000 of them as well as 300,000 workers were involved in the construction of Angkor Wat.
The main complex is a huge tourist draw. From less than 8,000 annual visitors in the 1990s, Angkor Wat is today visited by over two million tourists every year. However, there are many sites outside the complex where you can have more time and space to explore on your own.
One of these is Beng Melea, a jungle temple built in the 11th century A.D. is not oft frequented and is ideal. Thommanon temple is rather well-preserved and its stones catch the light well for some excellent photographic memories. The Terrace of the Elephants in Bayon is a small complex with walls that teem with scenes of elephants and the mythical Garuda bird. Near it, the Preah Pithu group of temples is rarely visited but worth every minute.
The weather in Cambodia is hot all-year round, but it is is cooler between November and February. This is also peak tourist season, though, so you will have to contend with the largest crowds.
Sunrise at Angkor Wat is a sight travelers dream of, and you will have to be at the entrance over the moat at 5 a.m. to experience it and to capture it on your camera. It is also cooler in the early hours, making for a less exhausting day of exploration.