Visiting the Inspirational Angkor Wat: Tips & History to Know

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Angkor Wat, Trees, and Skyline

Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It is located in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and is one of the major tourist attractions in the country. If Cambodia is on your travel destination list this summer, Angkor Wat should be at the top.

Your trip to this country is incomplete without stopping by this ancient temple in Siem Reap. This literary expedition will focus on the historical significance of Angkor Wat and why you should visit the place at least once in your lifetime. Read on to learn everything about it.

The Naming of Angkor Wat Temple

The temple is called Angkor Wat or Nokor Wat, which means Temple City in Khmer. Angkor is a vernacular form of the word nokor, which comes from the Sanskrit/Pali word nagara, while Wat means temple grounds. It can also mean an enclosure.

The City of Angkor was the royal center where Angkor Kings ruled the Kingdom. The Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap was initially called Vrah Viṣṇuloka or Parama Viṣṇuloka, which roughly means “the sacred dwelling of the (Hindu god) Vishnu.”

History of Angkor Wat Temple

Angkor Wat Structure
image by Marcin Konsek  is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Angkor Wat is a temple complex located in the Siem Reap province of Cambodia. It was constructed in the 12th Century under the reign of the Khmer Emperor, Suryavarman II ( 1113-1150). The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor Wat fell out of use as a Hindu Temple in the 13th Century and was taken over by Buddhist monks.

Angkor Wat is an architectural masterpiece that sits on 162.6 hectares of land. The site under this temple is about four times as big as Vatican City. It was the center of the Khmer Empire, and Emperor Suryavarman II used it as the state temple and eventual mausoleum.

This magnificent structure was abandoned in the 16th Century, and nature started reclaiming it. Fortunately, western explorers rediscovered it and cleared the vegetation, allowing the locals to reclaim it. This enormous Buddhist temple complex was restored and became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

One of the first Western explorers to Angkor Wat was Antonio de Madalena. He was a Portuguese priest who came to the area in 1586. The temple was then rediscovered by a French explorer, Henri Mouhot, in the 1840s. He was the one who popularized the Angkor Wat Temple in the Western world.

When the French took over Cambodia in the late 19th Century, they restored this Buddhist temple. It was open for tourism by the 1900s. However, the refound glory did not last long.

The Cambodian Civil War broke out in 1967 during the reign of the Khmer Rouge, which effectively ended tourism to the country, and the temple sustained minor damages. If you go to Angkor Wat, you will still see the bullet holes left behind as a reminder of the violent Khmer Rouge regime.

Old Tank from Cambodian Civil War
image by Kyle Simourd is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The restoration began following the fall of the bloodthirsty regime, and the temple became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. Since then, the Angkor Wat Temple has been the country’s most popular tourist attraction. Millions of visitors go to Cambodia to see this enormous Buddhist temple complex.

The World Monuments Fund is also responsible for restoring the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery in the Angkor temples. Over the years, rainwater and harmful salts have leaked through the decaying roof of the gallery.

The gallery forms the south half of Angkor Wat’s prominent east façade. Without renovation, the weather elements can potentially damage the fragile surface of the frieze that has remained largely intact since its recreation.

See Related: Visiting Phraya Nakhon Cave: What to See & Do

Religious Significance of Angkor Wat Temple

Religious Cravings in Angkor Wat
image by Marcin Konsek is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Khmer Emperor Suryavarman II wanted the Angkor Wat Temple to be as magnificent as the god Vishnu himself. It was to be his capital for consorting with the god and performing his duties as the ruler of the Khmer Empire. He also used it for holding court sessions and reviewing his troops.

There is a possibility that Angkor was started as a funerary temple from its design and features. That is what people believe, but it seems to have been abandoned after Suryavarman II since this theory has no hard proof. People believe that Suryavarman II’s body was cremated and buried elsewhere.

Suryavarman II practiced a form of Hinduism known as Vaishnavism. This religion valued the god Vishnu as the supreme. Believers say, Vishnu, like the Hindu god Krishna, appeared to humans differently. Writings for this sect of Hinduism are still inscribed on the walls of Angkor Temple today. You will see them when you visit.

In 1177, nearly 30 years after the death of Suryavarman II, Angkor became a territory of the traditional enemies of Khmer, the Chams. A new king, Jayavarman VII, then restored the Khmer Empire. He established a new center and state temple called Angkor Thom and the Bayon temple.

These were located a few kilometers north of Angkor Wat Temple. Since the new king believed that Hindu gods failed him, he dedicated the Angkor Thom to Buddhism instead of the Hindu god Vishnu.

The Angkor Wat Temple was transformed from a Hindu place of worship to one of Buddhism in the 14th Century. Statues of Buddha and related stories were added alongside those of Hindus who still used the temple. The artists skillfully added Buddhist stories without erasing the existing Hindu stories.  

The popularity of Angkor Temple waned in the 16th Century, and before long, the only occupants were the resident Buddhist monks. Despite the abandonment, Angkor Wat Temple remained largely intact. It was protected by the immense moat surrounding it that delayed nature from reclaiming it, unlike other ancient temples in other cities.

See Related: The Unearthly Mirror of Salar De Uyuni

The Architectural Design of Angkor Wat Temple

Site and Plan

Angkor Wat Skyline

Angkor Wat’s inspiration was inspired by the temple mountain (the standard design for all empire state temples) and Hindu beliefs.

Also, the temple represents Mount Meru believed to be the home of the Hindu gods. Its central quincunx of towers represents the five Mount Meru peaks, while walls and moats symbolize the surrounding mountain ranges and the vast ocean waters.

Its construction reveals a celestial significance. This can be observed in its east-west orientation and specific towers. The temple was dedicated to Vishnu, who was associated with the West. This orientation made researchers and historians believe that Suryavarman II intended it to serve as his funerary temple.

The bas reliefs are also in a counter-clockwise direction. This reverse order in Hindus concurs with the rituals during the Brahminic funeral services.

Researchers believe the alignment, dimensions, and bas-relief symbolized a new reign of peace under King Suryavarman II. Whatever the design means, only the king himself could tell us.

The only surviving Angkor Wat site plan is stored in the Suifu Meitoku-kai Shotokan Museum in Mito, Japan. It dates back to 1715 and is credited to Fujiwara Tadayoshi.

Construction Material

Angkor Wat Rock Structure
image by Gerd Eichmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Architecturally, Angkor Wat Temple is characterized by the following elements:

  • Ogival, redented towers shaped like lotus buds.
  • Half-galleries to broaden passageways.
  • Axial galleries are connecting enclosures.
  • Cruciform terraces appear along the central axis of the temple.
  • Decorative elements include bas reliefs, devatas, and pediments.

Other elements of this temple have been ruined through weathering but still reveal its conservative, more static, and less elegant theme. Angkor Wat reveals the classical style of Khmer architecture. The Khmer architects had perfected their skills in using sandstone instead of other, more conventional building stones as early as the 12th Century.

Most of the parts were constructed with sandstones, with laterite only used in building outer walls and hidden structures. This temple’s total number of construction blocks is estimated to be 10 million. They were hauled from a quarry located 25 miles away.

The precise arrangement of the blocks reveals more about the work, unity, and style of the Khmer architects and workers. The truth behind the bindings for the building blocks is yet to be determined, but people suggest natural resin or slaked lime.

Despite experiencing the damage suffered during the Cambodian Civil War, centuries of weathering, and petty vandalism, Angkor Wat Temple is still largely intact.

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The Present-Day Angkor Wat Temple

Angkor Wat and Skyline in Cambodia
Oleskaus / Adobe Stock

Angkor Wat Temple has experienced deterioration over centuries due to civil wars, overgrowing forests, and the weather. This historic site would not be what it is today if not for restoration and conservation efforts by different stakeholders.

Modern restoration efforts of Angkor Wat Temple started in 1908 with the establishment of Angkor Conservancy by the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO). Before then, most people who visited the Angkor site were mainly explorers.

The restoration stalled during the Cambodian Civil War caused by Pol Pot’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The Angkor site was later zoned in 1994 to protect it from vandalism.

The German Apsara Conservation Project (GACP) started to manage and restore the temple. Today, many countries are involved in conserving these temples in the Angkor area. Today, Angkor Wat Temple has become a significant tourist hub in northern Cambodia.

What to See in Angkor Wat Temple?

Ancient stone faces at sunset of Bayon temple, Angkor Wat, Siem reap, Cambodia
tawatchai1990 / Adobe Stock

Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia, Southeast Asia, is the place to be if you want to understand the architecture of the ancient Kmer tribe. It has stunning features that are worth seeing. Let’s briefly mention them. The rest you can see when you visit the temple.

Outer Enclosure

Angkor Wat Scenery

The outer wall measures 3,36o feet by 2,631 feet and stands 98 feet tall. The wall is also surrounded by a 98 feet apron of open ground and a moat. You can only access the temple through an earth bank to the east or a sandstone causeway to the west. The latter option is the main entrance, but it was added later.

Once you go past the outer wall, you will quickly notice gopuras at each cardinal point and three ruined towers on the western side. The gopura hides and echoes the form of the temple proper. There is a statue under the southern tower, an 8-armed statue of Vishnu.

Central Structure

Angkor Wat Central Structure

The entire temple stands on a raised terrace of rectangular galleries above the central tower. The two galleries in the inner section have four buildings at their ordinal points that form a quincunx pattern. These represent the four peaks of Mount Meru.

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Decorations

Angkor Wat Craving Decorations

The interior decorations make Angkor Wat the most famous of all the temples in this area (apart from its immense size). The inner walls of the outer gallery have scenes relevant to Hindu culture. The eastern gallery is another equally crucial decoration feature of the temple of Angkor. It shows the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

These brilliant carvings depict 88 asuras on the left and 92 devas with helmets (Hindu and Buddhist demi-god figures, respectively). They are churning up the sea to extract an immortality elixir.

Carved Bas Reliefs

Angkor Wat Religious Carvings

Columns, lintels, and roof carvings illustrate Indian literature. They show engravings of unicorns, griffins, winged dragons, and warriors following an elephant-mounted leader. There is also a celestial inscription of dancing girls.

The carvings were done using bronze sheets, valuable decoration materials by then. They are comparable to today’s gold! The way the sculptures were carved on the surfaces proves that the artists had advanced skills.

Advanced carving skills were developed hundreds of years earlier. That is evident from some of the artifacts found in the temple, which date back to the 7th Century.

See Related: Meteora Monastery

Upper Level

Angkor Wat Upper Structure

To get to the upper level of Angkor temple, you must climb steep stairs. They were purposefully designed to make it a challenge to reach the gods.

The upper level, also known as Bakan Central Sanctuary, is only accessed by a few people daily. Usually, you have to wait in a long queue to climb up.

Visiting Angkor Wat Temple

Cambodia landmark Angkor Wat with reflection in water
Dmitry Rukhlenko / Adobe Stock

Since this ancient structure is a sacred religious site, visitors are asked to keep a modest dress code. You will not be permitted into the holy temple with a sleeveless top and a miniskirt.

If you want to climb to the central sanctuary, wear clothes covering cleavages, shoulders, and knees. Pants and below-the-knee skirts are both acceptable. Local authorities enforce the code of conduct through the Cambodian government and dictate the dress code that visitors must follow.

Visitors are also reminded not to touch, sit, or climb the ancient structures on-site to avoid potential damage and for one’s safety. You are also expected to respect the monks and the staff who work and live at the temple.

Best Time to Visit Angkor Wat Temple

Amazing view of Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and the largest religious monument in the world. Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Olena Tur / Adobe Stock

Angkor Wat Temple in Siem Reap province is open to visitors all year round. You can choose the best time that suits your schedule to go to Cambodia, but the peak seasons are in February and November. The weather is dry during these months, and a cooler breeze makes hiking more comfortable.

You can choose any time of the day to go to Angkor Wat. Morning is the most popular time, meaning it is pretty crowded. If you’re eager to climb to the upper level, consider visiting around midday. You will get a shorter queue since most local tours are in town by then.

Some tourists also go to Angkor Wat Temple in the evening to enjoy the warm glow of the setting sun, which creates spectacular scenes. But, the temple is also likely overcrowded at this time too. Don’t forget your camera no matter what time of day you choose!

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Exploring the Angkor Wat Complex Temple

Aerial view of Angkor Wat Complex Temple, Cambodia
Alexey Stiop / Shutterstock

The temple is open for visitors from 5 am to 7:30 pm. The upper level, however, is opened two hours earlier. So, if you want to watch the sunrise from this iconic and historic site, be the early riser!

It takes about 3 hours to explore the entire temple. But if you want to discover everything about Angkor Wat, give it half a day. This way, you can take your time seeing every feature of this masterpiece of Khmer architecture.

Entry Fees to Angkor Wat

Young woman traveler visiting in Bayon temple at Angkor Wat complex, Khmer architecture heritage in Siem Reap, Cambodia
Kittiphan / Adobe Stock

The temple of Angkor Wat is one of the most affordable tourist attraction sites. A day pass costs $37, a three-day pass costs $62, and a one-week pass costs $72 per person. A day pass, a 3-day pass, and a one-week pass are valid for 3, 10, and 30 days, respectively.

The entry fees and validity change from time to time. So, you can inquire from a guided tour service provider for the latest information.

How to Get Around Angkor Temples

THE KMER tuk tuk is the famous vehicle for tourist visite ANGKOR WAT to see the world heritage
APHITHANA / Shutterstock.com

Tours to Angkor Wat Temple or any other temple in the region begin from Siem Reap. Depending on your group size, you can use a motorbike taxi, tuk-tuk, private car, or minivan.

The eco-friendly options include electric bicycles and mountain bikes. There is a cycling path that allows you to explore other temples close by, such as the Bayon temple. Alternatively, you can use guided tours. Hotels and tour operators based in Siem Reap can arrange these for you.

Best Hotels for Accommodation Near Angkor Wat Temple

Pool on a Hotel in Cambodia

Millions of visitors to Angkor Wat Temple are accommodated in hotels in Siem Reap. This town is only 4.3 miles away from the site. Like others who visited Angkor before, you will need somewhere to stay. So, consider the following hotels:

Le Tigre Hotel 

Le Tigre Hotel Pool
image by Booking.com

Le Tigre Hotel is 7 miles from the famous Angkor Wat ruins. It’s a statuesque colonial-style villa hotel situated at the center of Siem Reap town and offers a superb street view. The hotel is also close to many facilities in Siem Reap and is the most affordable option.

HARI Residence & Spa

HARI Residence & Spa Pool
image by Booking.com

As the name suggests. HARI Residence & Spa features a spa, an outdoor pool, and a fitness center. Guests also get free Wi-Fi. You will pay extra for these facilities, but your comfort at the hotel should be worth it. It is just a five-minutes-walk from the Night Markey and the Old Market.

Koulen Hotel

Koulen Hotel Room
image by Booking.com

The Koulen Hotel is located in the Old French Quarter, Siem Reap. It offers an outdoor swimming pool, barbecue facilities, and many others. Besides, it is close to Pub Street and King’s Road Angkor.

Primefold Hotel

Primefold Hotel Pool
image by Booking.com

Primefold Hotel is a reasonably priced facility in Siem Reap town offering accommodation services. It offers 14 suites designed and handcrafted with elegant stone decorations and boasts helpful staff.

Blossoming Romduol Boutique

Blossoming Romduol Boutique Building
image by Booking.com

If you are low on budget, consider Blossoming Romduol Boutique for the most affordable accommodation services. It features a dormitory and private hotel rooms, an outdoor swimming pool, and free Wi-Fi. Check it out!

FAQ

Can tourists visit Angkor Wat?

Yes. The Angkor Wat Temple is open to local and international tourists. Most of them come here to admire the rich history of this world’s largest ancient temple. You can also add it to your travel itinerary!

Can you visit Angkor Wat without a guide?

Yes. You can visit the temple as a group or alone without a tour. You can hire a tuk-tuk or moto-taxi to carry you to the site to admire this architectural masterpiece.

How much does it cost to visit Angkor Wat?

You are required to pay an entrance fee to access the temple. A 1-day pass costs $37, a 3-day pass $62, and a 7-day pass $72. We recommend purchasing a multi-day pass because the Angkor Wat Temple has more than you can explore in one day.

How long do I need to be at Angkor Wat?

You need at least three days to explore the inner and outer beauty of the temple. Visit in the evening just before sunset for the most amazing photographic views. Also, consider visiting during the dry season from November through April.

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Kyle Kroeger
WRITTEN BY

Kyle Kroeger

Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He's a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he'd heard.

Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he's learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.

He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time. Read more about his portfolio of work.

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