Not far from Siem Reap, Cambodia’s capital, theremains of the ancient city of Angkor rise from atangle of jungle. Once the capital of the KhmerEmpire, Angkor was the world’s largest city in medieval times and the product of an extraordinarycivilization. Today, because of its unique featuresand stunning architecture, it has been designated aUNESCO World Heritage Site.
Dominating the site is the spectacular temple ofAngkor Wat, with its five towers and enclosure walls.Built in the 12th century and covering an area ofabout 200 hectares, Angkor Wat is one of the largestreligious monuments ever constructed.Experts tell us that the temple represents the Hinduuniverse in miniature. The great central tower is Mt.Meru, abode of the gods, surrounded by lesser peaks(the smaller towers), and bounded by the continents (the courtyards), and the oceans (the moat).
Construction of Angkor Wat
Angkor Wat was constructed by a Khmer king calledSuryavarman II, who was a devotee of the Hindu godVishnu. Although the full purpose of the structure hasbeen debated for many years, some scholars think itwas intended to double as a temple to Vishnu and amausoleum for Suryavarman. Angkor Wat is constructed from sandstone cutfrom the Kulen hills, nearly 50 km away, which wasfloated down the Siem Reap River on rafts, a massiveundertaking. Inscriptions tell us that, even beforecompletion, the enterprise had involved 300,000workers and 6,000 elephants.
What to see at Angkor Wat
With all its chambers, courtyards, corridors, galleries,porches and towers, Angkor Wat needs a day toexplore properly. After taking in the grandeur of thesite, you will be charmed by the exquisite decorativedetail including thousands of heavenly nymphsapsaras carved into the walls. One of the most famousbas reliefs, in the southeast part of the temple, is the“Churning of the Ocean of Milk”, which depicts partof the Hindu creation story. In the relief, you can see the devas (gods) and the asuras (demons) churning upthe sea to obtain the elixir of immortality.
What else to see
Angkor Wat is only one of around 1,000 temples atthe Angkor complex. While the others may not be aswell preserved, they each have their own charm. Whilesome are romantic ruins, others are architecturalmarvels. Famous ones include: Ta Prohm, featuredin the film ‘Tomb Raider’; East Mebon, dedicated toShiva; Ta Som, a small monument being dramatically devoured by jungle; Preah Khan with its splendidstatues; and Bayon with its giant faces.
Best months:November to February
Best time of day:Sunrise or lunchtime to avoid crowds
Bring:Plenty of water and possibly an umbrella
Time to allow:Anything from three hours to three days
Where to stay:Siem Reap
What to wear:Cover your shoulders and wear long trousers