The iconic Angkor Wat needs no introduction, only to say that it is the largest religious site in the world and one of the most popular Cambodia tourist spots.
Angkor Wat is the temple complex most widely known to travellers and the most photographed temple in Cambodia. It is featured in books, films, and on Cambodia’s national flag and currency, making its five-towered silhouette the most recognised ancient temple in Southeast Asia.
One misconception is that Angkor Wat is the collective name given to all the temples in Siem Reap – it is not!
Angkor Wat is one temple complex, albeit a huge one, amidst 70 other temples scattered around the area.
One of my pet hates when I read articles about the Siem Reap temples is that they are all grouped under the name Angkor Wat (totally incorrect), so I am happy to give you the correct facts about Angkor Wat in this travel guide.
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I spent four nights in Siem Reap, visiting Angkor Wat and four other stunning Cambodian temples.
I had an amazing time exploring Cambodia’s best-known landmark, and in this post, I have written about the highlights of my visit to Angkor Wat, a bucket list experience that will stay with me forever.
Bite-Sized Angkor Wat Temple Facts
Angkor Wat is over 900 years old, stands in the Angkor Archaeological Park and has a rich history. It was built for King Suryavarman II as Angkor City and was the centre of the Khmer Empire in the first half of the 12th century.
The temple complex was built to worship Hinduism and is orientated to the west, unlike the other Angkorian temples that face east. Historians believe that Angkor Wat may have been intended as a funerary temple for the king in keeping with the Hindu faith of burying the deceased pointing to the west; it is also the direction in which the sun sets.
The five towers represent Mount Meru and are the most famous section of the temple complex. In Hindu mythology, this sacred five-peaked mountain stands at the centre of the universe. It’s believed that three Hindu gods – Brahma (the Creator), Vishnu (the Preserver) and Shiva (the Destroyer), reside on the top of Mount Meru.
It took 30 years to complete the sprawling Angkor Wat temple complex. One thousand elephants and 300,000 workers were used to construct it.
At its peak, it is estimated that a million Cambodians lived in Angkor Wat and its surrounds. They worshipped at Angkor Wat and other temples scattered throughout the area. These include Bayon and Ta Prohm in nearby Angkor Thom, made famous in the Tomb Raider films with Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.
Map of Angkor
You can see from this map of Siem Reap temples that Angkor Wat is the largest temple complex in the archaeological park.
Angkor Wat Timeline
Angkor Wat was converted to a Buddhist temple when King Jayavarman VII came to power in the late 12th century.
In the 13th century, Angkor housed ten times as many people as were living in London in the same period.
In 1431, Angkor collapsed following an invasion by the people of the powerful Thai city of Ayutthaya. After that time, the inhabitants of Angkor ‘disappeared’, and the jungle reclaimed the temple. To this day, historians can’t answer the question of where the Angkorian people went.
Re-discovered in the 16th century by a Portuguese traveller, Angkor Wat was put back on the map. In the 1900s, France, the rulers of Cambodia during the 20th century, started restoring the site for tourism.
Work was disrupted by the Cambodian Civil War in 1967 and during the rule of the Khmer Rouge in the early 1970s. Luckily no serious damage was done to the temple, although bullet holes are still evident on its outer walls.
Finally, in 1992, Angkor Wat was placed on the UNESCO world heritage sites list and continues to be a centre for the worship of Buddhism in Cambodia.
In 2019, the World Monuments Fund was granted substantial funds to create a new decorative ceiling for the Churning of the Ocean of Milk Gallery.
How to visit Angkor Wat temple
The temple of Angkor Wat is nestled in a jungle clearing in the Angkor Archaeological Park and 20 minutes outside of Siem Reap; visiting this Unesco site is a highlight of any Cambodia tour.
I visited the temple complex independently using a friendly tuk-tuk driver I picked up from outside my hotel. I wasn’t interested in seeing the sunrise as sunset is more my thing, so I booked him and his tuk-tuk for 5 hours in the afternoon. The cost of a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap is around 30 USD.
He was flexible in what I wanted to do and waited for me while I wandered around Angkor Wat. He also took us to visit Preah Khan Temple on the same afternoon.
An official pass is needed for Angkor Wat admission. In this helpful post: How to get around Angkor, you can read how to purchase tickets for Angkor Wat and the other ancient temples.
Legs and arms must be covered to visit Angkor Wat. The temple guards are strict, so ensure you are dressed correctly to avoid disappointment. Take plenty of water – it’s hot and humid in the temple!
There are also plenty of one-day Angkor Wat tours starting in Siem Reap if you prefer to travel in a group rather than independently. A popular one is Angkor Wat: Highlights and Sunrise Siem Reap Guided Tour. Or you can pick up an Angkor Wat tour guide from outside the temple for a few dollars.
Opening hours: Angkor Wat opens at 5 am for visitors who want to see the sunrise. The upper level (Bakan Sanctuary) opens at 7.30 am. The closing time is 6 pm.
The best time to visit Angkor Wat is between December and March, when it is dry and less humid. I visited in April, and the humidity was overwhelming.
Best things to see in the temple complex
- The 200m-wide moat.
- Three thousand individually unique enchanting apsaras − heavenly nymphs − carved into its doors and walls.
- 800m-long intricate bas-reliefs – carvings depicting historical events and stories from mythology, stretching around the outside of the central temple.
- A statue of Lord Vishnu, 3.25m (nearly 11ft) in height and hewn from a sandstone block.
- Five symbolic lotus-bud towers representing the mystical Mount Meru.
- The Bakan Sanctuary: Angkor Wat’s heavenly upper level.
A tour of Angkor Wat
I was in Cambodia with my son in the last few weeks of a three-month round-the-world trip and was so pleased to be visiting one of my lifelong bucket list destinations with him by my side.
Having already been mesmerised by the famous Cambodian temples of Ta Prohm and Bayon, I was a little apprehensive about whether Angkor Wat would live up to its hype and was eager to find out whether it did.
It is unique because it is so large compared to the other Angkorian temples and has five mythical towers perfect for sunrise/sunset photographs, but would the heaving crowds take away the serene connection that I had felt visiting the smaller temples, where, in one or two of them, we were the only travellers there.
As we had no interest in waking in the small hours to watch the sunrise with thousands of other tourists, we chose to go to Angkor Wat in the afternoon, long after the sunrise crowds had been and gone. It seemed we had done the right thing, as it was manageable despite being relatively busy.
Crossing the moat bridge
I’m not sure why I got so excited when I saw the flowing orange robes of Buddhist monks wandering around the moat, but I did! It made that “pinch me, am I really here” moment even more real.
The moat, complete with lily pads, is impressive in its own right, stretching 190m wide with a bridge connecting the main area to Angkor Wat. The water in the moat also flows 7km away to the vast Khmer city of Angkor Thom, home to the Bayon temple.
Entering the sacred temple of Lord Vishnu
After crossing the moat, we entered Angkor Wat through the western gopura (main entry gate), built into the surrounding complex wall, which separates the sacred temple grounds from the moat.
We watched the antics of a few monkeys playing on the facade before climbing the stone steps to enter the labyrinth of winding corridors and chambers inside Angkor Wat.
Our first encounter was with the 10ft tall stone statue of the Hindu god Vishnu, with his eight outstretched arms dappled by the sunlight streaming through the open window spaces.
As Angkor Wat was originally dedicated to Lord Vishnu, this statue is still regarded as one of the most important pieces in Angkor Wat.
Seeing the offerings left for a Hindu god in this mighty Buddhist temple was interesting.
Receiving a blessing in Angkor Wat
Passing through the temple corridors, we arrived at the open chambers near the centre of the temple complex, where a Buddhist monk blessed me.
I had no idea what he was chanting as my Cambodian dialect is rusty, but whatever it meant, I was humbled to have received a blessing in the sanctity of Angkor Wat. He chimed a bell and flicked water over me before blessing me – quite an experience!
I later saw the same young monk on a TV travel show which made me even more excited to have had him bless me.
Bas-relief wall nymphs and deities
Like the Angkorian temples we had visited before this one, the bas-relief and carved Apsara images are still very much intact and beautiful to see.
Apsaras are heavenly female beings that are usually seen close to Buddha. They are recognised as celestial deities in both the Hindu and Buddhist religions.
Reaching Nirvana in the Bakan Sanctuary
As the mythical home of the Hindu gods was Mount Meru, the temple was built to appease Lord Vishnu and link the earth to the heavens. Climbing to the third level of the temple to the Bakan sanctuary was believed to connect one with the heavenly deities.
Steep stone steps on each corner lead the way to the famous quincunx of towers. (If you are wondering what quincunx means, it’s a pattern of five points – four at the corners and one in the centre!)
Nowadays, visitors can ascend the third level of Angkor Wat using rickety wooden ladders (not for the faint-hearted).
To be allowed to climb to this sacred chamber means that the appropriate clothing must be worn.
One of the useful Angkor Wat tips I would give is to remember the Angkor Wat dress code and be sure to cover your arms and legs. We saw one girl being turned away for not having her shoulders covered; such a disappointment.
We decided not to attempt the climb because the queues were long and we were hot. The kind of hot when your hair sticks to your head with perspiration and your red cheeks look like you’ve run a marathon (another reason always to drink plenty of water).
So instead, we watched through an inner chamber’s open window as visitors panted and puffed their way to the top. We agreed that we had made the right decision!
The quieter side of the temple complex
Heading away from the central temple area, we were delighted to find some quiet spaces with no other visitors. We strolled along one of the ancient corridors, careful not to twist an ankle on the centuries-old paving.
Images of how this marvellous temple would have looked when it was first built sprang to mind as I imagined the Cambodian people who lived in this temple city going about their everyday rituals.
I am sure we wouldn’t have had this serene experience if we had joined the throngs of visitors that arrive here in the mornings to see the Angkor Wat sunrise.
We had entered Angkor Wat across the moat bridge on the main west side of the complex and would now be exiting through the gopura on the east side.
Our tuk-tuk driver had told us that finding him on this quieter side would be easier, and he was right. When we got outside, there he was, asleep in his vehicle.
We had one last wander around the outer area of the complex, noting the funeral stupa scenting the air with its burning incense sticks.
We found out later it is known as the Chey Non Stupa and holds the remains of the wife and child of a significant 19th-century government official from Phnom Penh.
Still on our own, we sat on the temple steps and took a moment to appreciate the opportunity we had been given to visit this sacred Buddhist temple. After a few last photographs, we bid our farewells to this awe-inspiring monument.
As we walked out of the site, we turned to look at the temple for one last time to see the sun setting behind Angkor Wat – the perfect ending to a fantastic visit.
Is Angkor Wat worth visiting?
Visiting the iconic Angkor Wat temple was magical and one I will always remember.
Strolling through its winding passageways led me to imagine a time when this was a bustling centre of religion, and seeing its spiritual wall carvings allowed me to connect with the beliefs of a distant culture.
Of course, watching the sun set behind the five spiralling towers of Angkor Wat was an undescribable moment and one I have now ticked off my bucket list.
However, if I’m honest (and I’m going to be), it wasn’t my favourite temple; in my opinion, Bayon temple, with its four-sided face towers, will always be my winner. Nevertheless, Angkor Wat is a must-see attraction in Cambodia, and witnessing the craftsmanship that went into a building of this size is truly amazing.
Please Pin for Future Travel to Cambodia
Are you looking for further Cambodian travel inspiration? Please check out the following posts:
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