Undoubtedly Angkor’s most recognized temple, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and one of Cambodia’s most revered sites. Stretching 1.5 km east to west, and 1.3 km north to south, Angkor Wat covers some 200 hectares (494 acres). Constructed in the early 12th century (1113–1150) under King Suryavarman II, the massive state temple was dedicated to Vishnu, the protector of life and moral order. The overall design conforms to that of the traditional Khmer temple mountain – a moat-enclosed city that surrounded a multi-tiered pyramid with concentric galleries and five lofty sanctuary towers. The temple’s main entrance is through the enormous west gate, which opens onto a long causeway flanked on either side by a pair of libraries (likely used as a type of shrine) and reflecting ponds. The small pools provide an enchanting setting for watching the sunrise. Before daybreak, Angkor Wat’s looming towers are almost haunting in the dark sky. As the first light of day begins to twinkle, and the sky swirls with purple and pink hues over the sanctuary, the increasingly-distinct reflection of the majestic temple in the rippling water becomes hypnotizing.
Navigating the perimeter of the temple, each new and unique angle appears even more impressive than the last. We were particularly fond of the view from the north gate, where a narrow, dirt path led through a forested area, with gnarled tree branches veiling the towers behind tiny, green leaves. On the other side of the gate, the shaded banks of the moat were serene, with not another person within sight or earshot. We had read numerous comments from other travelers comparing Angkor Wat to Disneyland, in regards to the number people swarming the site. Although we were visiting at the absolute low season, we still expected to be inundated with other tourists. This proved to be true along the temple’s west gate, but we were actually stunned to see how few people seemed to go beyond this point. As we wandered around the grounds outside the temple, we never saw another soul, save for some people at the south gate where there is an active monastery. This held true inside the temple as well, as we strolled peacefully through the galleries. It made us wonder where all the people were heading, and if they really could be just snapping photos near the entrance. Regardless, it made for a surprisingly peaceful and enjoyable experience for us once we moved beyond the main gate.
The inside of Angkor Wat proved to be just as spectacular as its exterior. The terraces of the ‘cruciform cloister,’ a unique structure that was used to connect the multiple levels of galleries, were lined with hundreds of precisely-sculpted balusters, that together looked remarkably similar to a wooden balustrade. The pavilion led out to a large courtyard, again lined with beautiful sandstone balusters, which offered an imposing view of the sanctuary towers. Walking through the hallways and chambers, we were overwhelmed with the number of detailed carvings and inscriptions; roughly 2,000 apsaras alone (celestial maidens who entertain the gods) dance across the walls of Angkor Wat.
Perhaps the most impressive features of Angkor Wat’s interior, though, are the gorgeous bas-reliefs, considered by many to be some of the finest works of Khmer artistry. In the main gallery, the reliefs are about 2 meters tall and cover the length of all four sides of the temple, totaling ~600 meters. The bas-reliefs depict both mythical and historical events, from major battles of Hindu epics to the procession of King Suryavarman II. Our favorite of the eight principal bas-reliefs was the Churning of the Sea of Milk, the Hindu creation legend. The scene depicts the gods and asuras (enemies of the gods) tugging either end of a naga (serpent), in order to rotate Mount Mandara. They did this for 1,000 years to stir up the “cosmic sea” in an effort to produce the amrita (elixir of life). At the center of the relief, Vishnu commands the operation from the back of a turtle, his animal incarnation, as abundant marine life roils beneath. The carvings are astonishingly meticulous, and you can almost feel the emotions on some of the figures’ faces. In total, Angkor Wat is home to an incredible 2,000 m2 (nearly 22,000 ft2) of these painstaking reliefs.
During our visit, we were also fortunate to be able to climb up into the Bakan, the uppermost level of Angkor Wat. The sacred shrine contains a final tier of beautiful inner galleries, as well as small courtyards that open right at the base of the massive towers. Looking up at the sunlit domes was breathtaking and, as demonstrated by the repetitive photos below, we could have sat there all day admiring the tall prasats.
Eventually, we had to bid farewell to the incredible ruins of Angkor Wat, and as we were walking away from the temple, stumbled upon a little friend. He was the tiniest frog I’d ever seen, and was slowly paddling around a small puddle on one of the dirt walkways. The water in his meager swimming hole had to be close to boiling, and I was certain the poor little thing would get stepped on, provided he didn’t get cooked to death first. Thus, we scooped up the tiny friend (after much effort) and relocated him to a large, green lily pad in the southern reflecting pool – his own private island with a fantastic view. He seemed quite pleased and grateful with his safe new surroundings and I like to think, as the Cambodians are devout believers in reincarnation, that perhaps we saved the life of a generous, humanitarian monk, who once called these grand temple walls home.