The ultimate expression of the genius of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat is one of the world’s most popular temples and ancient structures and it is also one of the world’s largest temple complex. A trip to Cambodia just is not complete without laying eyes on the magnificence that we know today as Angkor Wat.
Voted by Lonely Planet as the world’s number one sight, the Angkor Wat temple complex is high on every traveller’s list. Laying eyes on the temple is such an otherworldly experience. I can still vividly remember how I felt when the sun finally rose and shone its light on the temples. It was like being in the Elysian Fields. The temple complex deserves its place on the list of the most beautiful temples in the world.
Built by Suryvarnam II, Angkor Wat is likened to Mt. Meru, considered the Mt. Olympus of the Hindu faith and the place of the ancient gods. The source of fierce national pride, the temple has been in continuous use evaer since it was built. Experts believe that Angkor Wat’s primary purpose is to serve as a tomb. Symbolically, West is the direction of death and it is now commonly accepted that it most likely served as a temple and a mausoleum for Suryavarnam II.
There are more than 3000 beguling and intricate apsaras (heavenly nymphs) carved into the temple walls and just looking at them makes you realize the love, dedication and craftsmanship of the ancient people who carved these wonderful figures. Each of the apsara is unique and a fun trivia is that there are 37 hairstyles worn by these apsaras and I was very tempted to touch them. Luckily, I was able to control myself. I really wouldn’t want to damage the ancient carvings.
Unfortunately, many of the apsaras were damaged during the cleaning efforts done during the 1980s. The German Apsara Conservation Project is now restoring them so that generations after us will still get to enjoy them. I have seen some of the damaged walls and it was quite disheartening to realize that we could lose them forever. Hopefully, they can still be restored for future generations to enjoy.
The temple complex is surrounded by a moat forming a giant rectangle and a sandstone causeway crosses the moat from the west. There is a rectangular wall protecting the temple. A statue of Vishnu is located in the right-hand tower, holding a disc, a mace, a spear and other items. When we entered the temple complex from this side we saw locks of hair lying about. Apparently, these locks of hair are offering from young couples that are about to get married, and also from pilgrims who want to give thanks for their safe travel and good fortune.
One of the temple’s most interesting points is what is called The Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas or Preah Poan. It used to house hundreds of Buddha images before the war. However, many of them have been either stolen or damaged and today there is only a handful left for visitors to see.
The stairs to the Upper Level is quite steep and I found it quite difficult to navigate them and according to lore this is because it is to signify that the road to heaven is not an easy path. The Upper Level is also known as the Bakan Sanctuary and it is only open to a limited number of people per day and I was lucky enough to be able to go to the Upper Level and I tell you, you have to be very careful when you go up the stairs.
The temple is sacred; therefore everyone is asked to dress modestly when visiting. There have been multiple cases of tourists wearing inappropriate clothes and even disrespecting sacred temple ruins all around the world and this is something that saddens me that some people cannot show an ounce of respect for sites such as Angkor Wat. There have been reports of tourists taking naked pictures at the temple.
Do note that it is not possible to visit the highest level of the temple without shorts or skirts to the knees and also without your arms covered. Recently, there has been a code of conduct released by local authorities for visitors to follow.
Planning Your Trip to the Khmer Empire
As with any other place, it is best to do your research before your Khmer trip. It is possible to visit Angkor Wat anytime of the year but the peak season is from November to February. We went in July and there were less tourists but the weather was still great.
The best time of the day to go is sunrise because its cooler but it will be crowded. We woke up at 4am to be able to catch the sun but the area near the moat was incredibly crowded and you can hardly get a decent picture but the experience was worth the early waking hour and the massive crowd. It was ethereal and just beyond words.
Do allow yourself plenty of time to take it all in. Do not make the mistake my friends and I did. We ended up not having ample time to explore the ancient structure as we had to go back to Phnom Penh so set aside at least 2 days to explore the massive temple grounds. There are other nearby sites to discover and explore aside from Angkor Wat.
It has recently been announced that the entrance fee to Angkor Wat will increase starting in February 2017. Single-day ticket prices will increase from $20 to $17; a three-day ticket will increase from $40 to $62; and a seven-day ticket will increase from $60 to $72. Some say that the price increase will hurt visitor attendance but I do believe that increased prices will not deter people from visiting this magnificent World Heritage site.
Although I dabble in photography and would love every opportunity to take a good photo, Angkor Wat is one of the few places best experienced through your own eyes and not through a lens so do put that camera down and allow yourself to experience the charm and magic that the temple brings.