The ultimate manifestation of Khmer architectural ingenuity, the one and only Angkor Wat is the largest religious edifice in the world and the perfect blend of symbolism and symmetry. Almost every square centimeter of this vast complex is covered in intricate sculptures and patterns. So, it's worth researching a bit about this iconic temple and starting to plan your adventure in the Angkor temples, which is on the bucket list.

The majestic temples of Angkor, in northwestern Cambodia, are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are at the top of the list of historical sites to visit for many travelers in Southeast Asia.

What is Angkor Wat?

Angkor Wat, built by Suryavarman II (r 1113-50), is the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the Olympus of Hindu faith, and the abode of ancient gods. The ancient Cambodian god-kings all endeavored to improve their ancestors' structures in terms of size, scale, and symmetry, resulting in what is considered the largest religious edifice in the world.


The temple is the heart and soul of Cambodia and a source of national pride. Unlike other monuments in Angkor, it has never been abandoned to the elements and has been used virtually without interruption since its construction.

Unique Features of Angkor Wat

An Odd Orientation

Symbolically, the west is the direction of death, leading many scholars to conclude that Angkor Wat must have existed primarily as a tomb. This idea was supported by the fact that the temple's magnificent bas-reliefs were designed to be viewed counterclockwise, a practice with precedents in ancient Hindu funerary rites. However, Vishnu is also often associated with the west, and it is now commonly accepted that Angkor Wat most likely served both as a temple and a mausoleum to Suryavarman II.

If Suryavarman II had intended to make Angkor Wat his funerary temple or mausoleum, he was never buried there, as he died in battle during a failed expedition to subdue the Dai Viet (Vietnamese).

The Celestial Nymphs

Angkor Wat is famous for its 3,000 seductive apsaras (celestial nymphs) carved on its walls. Each one is unique, and there are 37 different hairstyles for budding stylists to discover.


Many of these exquisite apsaras were damaged during temple cleaning using chemicals in the 1980s, but they are being restored by teams from the German Apsara Conservation Project. Bat urine and feces also degrade the restored sculptures over time.

The Bas-Reliefs

Visitors to Angkor Wat are struck by its imposing grandeur and, up close, by its fascinating decorative ornaments. The central complex of the temple is surrounded by a series of complex and stunning bas-reliefs, 800 meters long, depicting historical events and mythology.

What Does "Angkor Wat" Mean?

Eleanor Mannikka explains in her book Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship, that the spatial dimensions of Angkor Wat correspond to the lengths of the four ages (Yuga) of classical Hindu thought. Thus, the visitor to Angkor Wat who walks the causeway to the main entrance and traverses the courtyards to the final central tower, which once contained a statue of Vishnu, metaphorically travels to the first age of the creation of the universe.

Like the other temple-mountains of Angkor, Angkor Wat also reproduces the spatial universe in miniature. The central tower is Mount Meru, with its surrounding smaller peaks, in turn bounded by continents (the lower courts) and oceans (the moats). The seven-headed naga (mythical serpent) becomes a symbolic rainbow bridge allowing humanity to reach the abode of the gods.

How Was Angkor Wat Built?

The sandstone blocks from which Angkor Wat was built were quarried from the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen, over 50 km away, and floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. The logistics of such an operation are staggering and require the work of thousands of people. According to inscriptions, the construction of Angkor Wat required 300,000 workers and 6,000 elephants. It was never fully completed.

Getting Oriented at Angkor Wat

1. The Moats


Angkor Wat is surrounded by a moat 190 meters wide, forming a giant rectangle of 1.5 km by 1.3 km. To the west, a sandstone causeway spans the moat.

2. Outer Wall

The rectangular outer wall, measuring 1025 m by 800 m, has a gate on each side, but the main entrance, a 235 m wide porch richly decorated with sculptures, is on the west side.


The tower on the right houses a statue of Vishnu, 3.25 meters high and carved from a single block of sandstone. Vishnu's eight arms hold a club, a lance, a discus, a conch, and other objects.

Stray hair locks can also be seen. These are offerings from young people preparing for marriage and pilgrims thanking their good fortune.

3. The Causeway


The avenue, 475 meters long and 9.5 meters wide, is bordered by naga balustrades. It leads from the main entrance to the central temple, passing between two graceful libraries and two ponds, with the northern one being a popular spot for watching the sunrise.

4. The Central Complex

The central temple consists of three tiers, each in laterite, which enclose a square surrounded by galleries interconnected in a complex manner.


The Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas (Preah Poan) once housed hundreds of images of Buddha before the war, but many were removed or stolen, leaving only the handful seen today.

5. The Towers


The corners of the second and third tiers are marked by towers, each topped with symbolic lotus bud-shaped towers. The central tower, rising 31 meters above the third level and 55 meters above the ground, lends the entire ensemble its sublime unity.

6. The Upper Level

The stairs leading to the upper level are immensely steep, as reaching the realm of the gods was no small feat.


Also known as the Bakan Sanctuary, the upper level of Angkor Wat is open to a limited number of people per day, with a queuing system.

The Code of Conduct for Visiting Angkor Wat

The temples of Angkor represent a sacred religious site for the Khmer people, so visitors are asked to dress modestly. It is not possible to visit the highest level of Angkor Wat without having arms covered and shorts reaching down to the knees.


Local authorities have provided visitors with a "code of conduct" and a video to encourage them to dress appropriately. They also remind tourists not to touch, sit on, or climb ancient structures, to be mindful of restricted areas, and to be respectful to monks.

Planning Your Visit to Angkor Wat

Best Time to Go: Angkor Wat can be visited at any time of the year, but the high season is between November and February, when the weather is dry and cooler, although still hot for most visitors. The best times of day are sunrise, when it's cooler but busier, or lunchtime, when most tour groups are in town. The temple is also highly regarded at sunset, when it takes on a soft glow under the warm light of the setting sun.

Duration of Visit: Plan for at least three hours to explore the entire complex, but preferably a half-day if you want to discover all its nooks and crannies.

Opening Hours: Angkor Wat opens at 5 a.m. for visitors who want to witness the sunrise from this iconic location. The upper level (Bakan Sanctuary) only opens from 7:30 a.m. Angkor Wat closes at 6 p.m. and is currently not open at night.

Costs: A pass for the Angkor temples costs around 30$ for one day, 60$ for three days (usable over a 10-day period), and around 70$ for one week (usable over a one-month period).

Where to Stay? Siem Reap is just 7 km from Angkor Wat and serves as the starting point for exploring the temples.

Getting Around: You have the choice of motorcycles (moto-taxis) for one person, remork-motos (tuk-tuks) for two people, and private cars or minivans for families or small groups.

Eco-friendly options include mountain bikes or electric bicycles. Guided tours can also be arranged in Siem Reap.

A new bike path connects the city of Siem Reap to the many temples of Angkor. Guided tours can also be arranged by hotels and tour operators in Siem Reap.

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