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