The masterpiece of Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most beloved and best preserved temple. The 500-acre site is one of the largest religious monuments in the world and represents the architectural pinnacle of the Khmer Empire. Originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, it has remained a place of worship since its founding in the 12th century. Later additions done in the 14 century included inner chambers dedicated to the Buddha. Who in Cambodia is also considered a god.
Thought to be a miniature replica of the universe, the Angkor Wat composition of towers, moats and concentric walls reveals an architectural sophistication, and the bas-reliefs with their plump figures and triumphal battle scenes reflect a robust, healthy and wealthy period of history.
Angkor Wat is located about six kilometers north of Siem Reap, south of Angkor Thom. Entry to Angkor Wat can only be access from its west gate. Arriving there early morning it took almost the entire day to explore the different sections . The huge temple complex is surrounded by water. In the evenings the temple is glowing in the soft pink light and is reflected across the moat forming a beautiful picture.
My friend Cedric, who guided me on the tour said the temple was built by King Suryavarman who wanted to please God Vishnu and expand his kingdom. They say the place was built for over 30 years. Hundreds of peasants were tasks to it. Eventually there were no one left for farming. The peasants became weak and frail and very poor. When the Khmer empire fell, the Thais took over and promoted Angkor Wat as a Buddhist place of worship. They too left and the temples were taken over by forest. They lay hidden for many years before been discovered by the French in 1860.
Interestingly many of the temples are featured in the family adventure The Two Brother (2004) directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Although the movie focuses on reuniting two lion cubs that got separated from their mother, it also highlights temple looting and plunder that happened when the French discovered them.
The Archaeological Park includes the other famous temples at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptures of enlightened bodhisattva faces, Ta Prohm with most of the temples found in an entangled mess and a little further away Banteay Srei has intricate carvings of sensuous celestial dancers. If you visit Siem Reap then you must spend a few days and visit all these places.
For me the experience of Angkor Wat is stupendous. It stands out etched in memory – a beautiful still life painting. Like the Taj Mahal, Borobudur or the Great Walls of China it is a visit you need to do in a lifetime.