Architecture / Art / Beliefs / Cambodia / History

Angkor Wat: The Crown Jewel of Cambodia’s Ancient Capital

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Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world; quite a statement considering the other sizable antiquities scattered around the globe. 

Which is why hordes of tourists spend a great deal of time and money journeying to this fabulous temple complex.

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Before arriving in Siem Reap, what we didn’t know was that Angkor Wat is one religious monument, and is only a part of the much larger ancient city of Angkor. And the pleasant surprise for us and other travelers is that the ruins at the Angkor Archaeological Park include not only Angkor Wat, but other well-known sites such as Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, as well as other smaller, not so well known ruins scattered over 1500 square miles. Today, however, we’re focusing on the headliner of the show – Angkor Wat.

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Much of the spectacular site of Angkor is now jungle-covered, but archaeologists say that in the 12th century it was a bustling megacity, and from the 9th to 15th century it was the capital of the far-flung Khmer Empire. King Jayavarman II founded the dynasty in 802 and for the next 600 years a line supreme kings ruled by divine right. In the first half of the 12th century, King Suryavarman II built Angkor Wat, the crown jewel of Angkor.

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Dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, Angkor Wat was designed to represent an earthly model of the cosmic world. The outer walls were the edge of the world, the central tower was the center of the universe, and the placid, rectangular moat was the cosmic ocean.

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Ankgor Wat’s complex architecture, exquisite reliefs, and intricate temples are a world-class marvel. And even though there’s been extensive reconstruction, the passage of time and Cambodia’s extreme weather have not been kind. Erosion and staining are severe in some places, but lovely art shows throughout this architectural masterpiece.

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The focal point of the complex is a five-towered temple standing at its center. It represents Mount Meru, home of Hindu gods and goddesses, and the center of the universe.

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Angkor was originally constructed as a Hindu Temple, and has literally hundreds of carvings.

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Many of these carvings are of apsaras. In Hinduism, apsaras are mythical females who are the mistress of a soul in paradise. IMG_5039

The beautifully carved asparas have similar looks and postures, but in fact, most of them are unique carvings. We overheard a tour guide say that there were 35 different hairstyles!

To further complicate the religious picture, in 1181 King Jayavarman VII made Buddhism the state religion, and converted the Hindu shrines at Angkor Wat.

After spending the day at Angkor Wat, we confronted yet another misconception: the photos that we’d seen and the vision that we had in mind for Angkor Wat, were actually Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, two remarkably different ruins built by different kings.

Regardless of what the temples and monuments are called, and what you expect, the takeaway is that what you see at Angkor is going to exceed your expectations. Stay tuned for the Buddhist Angkor Thom, and the wonderfully eerie jungle kingdom of Ta Prohm.

Happy Trails,
James and Terri

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Photo Credits:
1. Sam Garza via Wikimedia Commons
5. Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia Commons

14 thoughts on “Angkor Wat: The Crown Jewel of Cambodia’s Ancient Capital

  1. I rented a bicycle to explore the “small circuit” of the Angkor Archaeological Complex, and Angkor Wat was the first site I explored. There were so many people when I went, but this magnificent temple’s popularity is justified for its impressive reliefs, imposing towers, and ingenious layout. If I return one day I probably would take even more photos than I did five years ago.

    • Bama, as you know, crowds are a fact of life at Angkor. We’ll talk more about this in our tips post, but Angkor is one of the premier destinations in SE Asia, and because it’s relatively close to a huge population base, of course it’s going to have loads of tourists. Angkor Wat and the entire Angkor Park is a fabulous and the trick is to enjoy it for yourself and not let the crowds taint the experience. Hard to do, but worth the effort. ~James

    • Lynn, Angkor Wat and some of the other temples in the complex are known for their bas relief mosaics. They are incredibly detailed and amazingly preserved. Luckily, most of them are on interior walls, which has helped. ~James

  2. I was thinking mystery and history, James and Terri, and then I was struck by an irreverent thought: Don’t you just love dancing girls? It doesn’t seem to matter what culture or what period of history. There there are. 🙂 –Curt

  3. James you are definitely continuing to inspire the Asia theme over here. What a remarkable place or should I say city? I like Bama’s idea of exploring on bicycle. Looking forward to your upcoming post especially the one on tips!

    • Thanks Sue. I’m sure that you’ll enjoy Angkor. One piece of advice on exploring by bike: the ruins aren’t that close to town and the road out is very busy, congested, and the dust and pollution level is pretty high. We’ll talk about this on our tips, but we wore bandanas over our faces for the ride out by tuk-tuk. Maybe renting bikes at the site might be a better idea, and you might want to check out the drivers in Siem Reap before making a decision. It’s perhaps a bit more “free form” than your accustomed to. ~James

    • Tuk-tuk was definitely the way to go, Peggy. Some friends of ours hired bikes for the day, but they said that fighting the traffic and the dust took all their skills. One thing for sure – they slept well that night! 🙂 ~Terri

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