Visiting Angkor Wat: Buddhist Temples in Cambodia, Southeast Asia

Visiting Angkor Wat is the next stop in our Journeys to Discovery. Beginning as a Hindu temple, it would later be adapted for Buddhism. The complex was built in the first half of the 12th century by King Suryavarman II.

Located in the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, travelers can find this archeological treasure in present day kingdom of Cambodia. Angkor Wat when translated means city of temples.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Southeast Asia

Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Southeast Asia


What surprises many visitors is the sheer size of Angkor Wat. It encompasses 248.5 square miles (400 square kilometers). The height of some of the historic structures astonishes many first time tourists as well. The main tower of the temple rises 213 feet high.

The outside wall is nearly 15 feet (4.5 meters) in itself. It is 3,360 feet long and 2,630 feet wide. The temple compound enclosed by the wall covers just over 200 acres. Finally, the moat that surrounds the site is a length of over 600 feet or 190 meters.

A question many visitors have upon arrival, is how was it built and where did all the sandstone come from? It took 300,000 laborers over three decades to create the original complex. An estimated 5 to 10 million tons of sandstone were used in the building process. The quarries supplying the materials are located some 31 miles or 50 kilometers away.  About 6,000 elephants were used in the building of Angkor Wat.

According to new research, the massive sandstone stones some weighing up to 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms) were brought to the construction site by hundreds of temporary created canals.

These monolithic quarried rocks were bonded together almost invisibly by using a compound made from vegetables rather than the traditional mortar.  

Angkor Wat Cambodia Southeast Asia

Inside the Buddhist Temple of Angkor Wat


Most tourists that visit the complex today, do not realize that the surface of the temple walls were once painted. This is similar to both Greek and Roman temples which were painted in vivid colors in ancient times. Today few traces of the paint remains and can only be found on a select few of the various temples.  

The original outer wall of Angkor Wat that once enclosed the temple proper, city and royal palace occupied a total of 203 acres, or the equivalent of 820,000 square meters. Nothing of it remains today.

According to legend, the construction of Angkor Wat was ordered by the main existent Hindu god Indra. It was to act as a palace for his son Precha Ket Meala. The Chinese traveler Daguan Zhou arriving in 1296, stated that many believed it was built in a single night by a divine architect.

Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, one of the three main gods in Hinduism. It was built as a state temple and became part of the capital city. At its peak a million inhabitants called Angkor City home, making it the largest city in the world by population at that time.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Southeast Asia

Overgrown trees with exposed roots hug the entrance into many of the Temples


The complex is unusually oriented to the west, which is a direction typically associated with death in Hindu culture. The bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat are designed to be followed counterclockwise. This provides further evidence that the temples are associated with ceremonial funeral rituals.

The reliefs depict the great epics of Hindu mythology. Among them are included the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata, the Battle of Lanka from the Ramanyana, and the popular Vishnu myth of the Churning Sea of Milk, which produces the elixir of immortality.

The temple itself was never completely finished. This explains why some of the decorations are incomplete. Works seems to have ended shortly after the death of King Suryavarman II. In 1177 about 27 years after he died, Angkor was attacked and sacked by the Chams. They were the traditional enemies of the Khmer.

Thereafter, the domain was restored by the new king Jayavarman VII. He would establish a new capital and state temple a few miles to the north. Today these are known as Angkor Thom and Bayon respectively.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Southeast Asia

Angkor Wat, Ancient Cambodian Kingdom


In the 14th century Angkor Wat was converted into a Buddhist temple as the country was converting to the new religion. This accounts for the many Buddha statues that still decorate the temple.

Although the Angkor Kingdom itself would later collapse, the complex itself was never completely abandoned. This was not the case for numerous buildings, elsewhere in the old capital. The preservation of the temple complex was partly due to the fact, that the moat provided some protection from the encroaching jungle.

Europeans were already aware of Angkor Wat in the late 16th century.

Antonio da Madalena was one of the first Western visitors to Angkor Wat. He was a Portuguese monk  who arrived in 1586. Antonio found the construction to be so extraordinary, that it was not possible to describe it by pen. He found the temple complex to be like no other building in the world. The monk identified decorations, towers and refinements which he attributed to human genius.

Fourteen inscriptions dated from the 17th century discovered in the area of Angkor discuss the arrival of Buddhist pilgrims some from as far away as Japan.  It was thought by these Japanese visitors that the temple was actually the famed Jetavana gardens of  the Buddha. These actually existed much further to the east in the kingdom of Magadha, India.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Southeast Asia

Magical sunsets while exploring the Temple complex grounds


However, major archeological work and partial restoration would only begin in the mid 19th century, when the area was under French colonial rule.

Henri Mouhot a French explorer, helped bring Angkor Wat to a new fame in the West, by publishing an account of his visit during this era. His book is Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos, and Annam.

Following the collapse of French rule in the mid 20th century, the site would suffer from decades of unregulated looting and tourism. Many of the ancient sculptures were decapitated with the heads being sold to private collectors.

In more recent times, there has been an international collaborative effort to slowly restore these sites and help shore up some of the increasingly unstable structures.

These endeavors were propelled forward by having Angkor Wat become a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.

Southeast Asia Cambodia

Angkor Wat Buddhist Temple, Cambodia


Still most of the money to continue restoration of the site comes from foreign sources. Only an estimated 28% of the total amount raised from ticket sales to Angkor Wat, are recycled back for ongoing efforts of maintenance and repair.

It is actually a private company that runs the site. Sokimex, has rented Angkor Wat from Cambodia since 1990. The firm manages tourism there for a profit. It was founded by an ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodian businessman. The company also runs Sarika Air Services, manages hotels,and even has a petroleum division.

The complex captured Western imagination when it was used as the backdrop for the movie Tomb Raider. It was at this time that the Angkor temple Ta Prohm, famous for its large vines that are strangling the ruins, became a internationally recognized site. More recently some of the iconic trees encompassing the site had to be removed, because they are slowly destroying the temple.

Paramount filmed the movie there for seven days, for a cost of $70,000 USD (United States Dollar).

Angkor Wat Cambodia Southeast Asia

One of the mysterious settings used in the Hollywood film Tomb Raider


Angkor Wat is the reason why more than 50% of the tourists that come to this part of the world choose Cambodia. Many tourists first arrive in Bangkok, Thailand and from there take a direct flight to Siem Reap, a nearby town that is just 3 miles from the complex.

If you wish to hire a tuk-tuk driver for the day, you should expect to pay about $12 USD daily, from Siem Reap to the park. Often these drivers will offer to be your tour guide as well. It is probably best to avoid this option, as their fluency in foreign languages including English, is limited. They also often have only a modest knowledge level, about Angkor Wat and nearby sites.

If you wish to hire a tour guide, it is best to make those arrangements in Siem Reap or as part of a overall visitor package.

A single day pass to the site will average about $20.00 USD. A three day pass is available for $40.00 and a week pass for $60.00.  A photo identification is taken, when the pass is bought. Tickets may be purchased at the main entrance on the road to Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat Cambodia Southeast Asia

Stone carvings at Buddhist Temple, Angkor Wat


Hours of operation are from 5:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. locally. You will need to carry your admission ticket or pass with you. It will be checked upon each entry to the park and at each of the major temples. Visitors will receive a major fine, if they fail to have a valid ticket inside the complex.

If one sets out early from Siem Reap and is willing to engage in sightseeing during the middle of the day (lunch time), there will be plenty of opportunities to experience some of areas alone or apart from major groups of people.
Peak season for visiting Angkor Wat  is November to March.

The days are cooler and somewhat dryer. However, this is when there will be far more other travelers there as well. June to October arrivals will see far fewer visitors, but it will be hotter and often wet. The month of April is to be avoided if possible. It is blisteringly hot and humid during that time of the year.

Dress modestly as well, in respect to local culture. One should also consider a long exposure to sun, when choosing their daily attire.

By Jeffrey Hagenmeier

1 Comment

  1. Angkor Wat is definitely the most famous and popular travel destination in Cambodia. If you visited Cambodia without visiting Angkor Wat, you should accept the fact that you did not visit Cambodia at all. It is like visiting Moscow without looking at Kremlin, or visiting Paris without visiting the Eiffel Tower.
    Thanks a lot for a great post. The images you have included in this article are truly wonderful!

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