Angkor Wat is the national emblem of Cambodia and the pride of the Khmer people. Its silhouette of five towers - or of only three from a frontal perspective - is as iconic as those of the pyramids of Gizeh or of the Taj Mahal. The Angkor Wat is the largest historical temple monument in the world. The central towers rises 65 metres from ground level. Originally, all nine - not only the central five - great pinnacles were plated with gold. The platform of the temple-pyramid measures 332 metres length and 258 metres width. Its enclosure has a 1025 metres long and 800 metres wide outer temple wall, surrounded by a moat measuring 1500 metres by 1300 metres. Angkor Wat is not only of enormous size, it is a masterpiece of architectural design, craftsmanship and sculptural decoration as well.
Suryavarman II (1113-1150), one of the mightiest Khmer rulers, had Angkor Wat constructed within a period of only 30 years. Thus, the Angkor Wat must be considered as a masterpiece of logistic organization and coordination of construction work, too. Local legend has it that Angkor Wat was not built by human hands but by gods or by Lord Indra himself, who sailed down to earth for the purpose. Angkor Wat’s construction, indeed, is a technical miracle. Planning and management required for building a monument of this size and of this abundance in artistic details within only one generation – it had to be finalized before the king died – are not the only mystery. Modern restoration work sometimes tried to improve the building’s stability and durability, but it turned out that modern engineering in some cases was not as perfectly adapted to the tropical climate as the original construction technique. Furthermore notice: Angkor Wat is built on sand literally. Today it is strictly forbidden to construct high buildings in the area of Siem Reap, because of the risks due to the bad quality of the ground. And apart from the sand there is another problem: regular wet seasons and frequent floods fill the soil with water, resulting in changing ground levels. This effect could destroy a huge monument easily. Thus, many elaborate details had to contribute to the stability of the construction, and maybe not all of them are yet understood. But certainly the precision of stonemasonry was not only honouring the gods, it was imperative for the stability. And the moat is not only a symbol of the cosmic ocean, it is essential to regulate the water levels and pressures. Angkor Wat is not only an artificial island, actually it is swimming like a ship of stone on wet soil.
Angkor Wat's original name was Vrah Vishnuloka, sometimes romanized Brah Bishnulok or Preah Pishnulok. This means "sacred Vishnu-abode". The imperial temple Angkor Wat was dedicated to Vishnu, whereas earlier state temples were Shiva sanctuaries. The later Buddhist name "Angkor Wat" means "city monastery" or "monastery as a town". The central shrine contained a gold statue of Vishnu mounted on a Garuda, which was taken out of its sanctuary for processions on festival occasions. It was removed, in the 16th century Buddhist sculptures were placed in the shrines of Angkor Wat.
The reason for Angkor Wat's uncommon westward orientation is still under debate. Angkor Wat most probably did not only serve as Suryavarman's state temple, but was constructed as his funerary temple at the same time. There is another temple from the same period, Wat Athvea, in the southern outskirts of Siem Reap, also opening to the west. It could indicate a tribute to the temple builder's origins in the western parts of the empire. Another explanation is: Vishnu is sometimes associated with the western direction. Or that unusual orientation was simply due to already existing streets and city walls, as Angkor Wat is placed in the south-east corner of the first city in the Angkor area, Yashodharapura. But apart from that not too uncommon feature, the main entrance from the west, there is an even more compelling case for the funerary function of the Angkor Wat. The altogether 600 metres long original relief panels along the outer galleries must be read counter-clockwise. Circumambulation of Hindu sanctuaries is always clockwise, but in Hindu funerary rites it is counter-clockwise.
It is highly recommendable to visit the Angkor Wat with a guide, at least one time. Otherwise you could easily miss many interesting details: persons and events depicted on the five longest continuous ancient stone carvings of the world, some more significant episodes from the Ramayana Epos depicted in the two western corner towers, two (not one) smiling Apsaras showing their teeth, best examples of pediment carvings, historical important inscriptions, unfinished bas-reliefs, restoration works at different parts of the monuments sponsored by different nations, effects of the civil war like bullit holes.
Two works of art are worth mentioning in particular: More than 1780 Apsara carvings represent the finest and classical examples of those heavenly females the Khmer sculptural art is famous for. At the Angkor Wat each of them is distinctively rendered. Each sculpture's hair coiffures, head-dresses and jewelry is unique. Many of them appear in small groups, for the first time in Khmer art. For example, groups of numerous Apsaras can be seen in the corners of the court on the second tier and smaller groups at other walls of the galleries of this so-called second enclosure. The first enclosure is the outer wall on the uppermost tier also called Bakan.
As already mentioned, the exterior walls of the lower level display the most extraordinary bas-reliefs of the medieval period. At the west side you can see battle scenes from India's two national epics, in the northern gallery a Ramayana episode, the war on the island of Lanka, with many monkeys fighting demons, and in the southern gallery the Mahabharata's Kurukshetra battle. The longest panels are those at the southern walls. In its western half you can see King Suryavarman II two times, inspecting his troops and leading them into war respectively. In the eastern half (infact slightly less than the half) is an illustration of the divine judgement. Heaven and hell are depicted, particularly many different kinds of cruel hell punishments, in the lower register. The best preserved and most remarkable panel is on the east side of the temple, in the southern half of the gallery. This bas-relief depicts the churning of the milk ocean (Samudramathana), a subject from the Vishnu mythology of specific importance for Angkor. The remaining three giant panels are additions from the 16th century, at the east side Vishnu's victory over the Ashuras, at the eastern part of the north wall Krishnas victory over Ashura Bana, finally at the western part of the north wall, 21 Hindu gods fighting Ashuras.
There are several "best times" to visit Angkor Wat. For taking pictures the late afternoon hours are most recommendable, as at that time of the day the sun from the west lights up the main front of the temple perfectly well. Even if you don't like to be in the middle of a crowd, make an exception: the classical view to the towers is from the so-called mirror pool mentioned above, north to the causeway. After rainfall also leave the causeway to the south, then there is a second mirror pool, it is surprisingly tranquil. Many tourists like to come for sunrise, they have to arrive as early as 5.30am for seeing the coloured sky behind the dark towers of Angkor Wat. At the famous mirror or reflecting pool the sun cannot be seen rising from the horizon, but rising apparently from the temple after about 6.15am.
After 6.30 or 7.00 most of the early guests will be leaving to their hotels or restaurants for having breakfast. This is why between 7.00 and 8.00 in the morning Angkor Wat is amazingly quiet. If you want to enjoy this unique Asian monument without that usual flair of an amusement park full of screams and camera posing, okay, do it: Strolling around the compound at 7.30am is a dream coming true. And go to the Naga heads at the outer terrace's south-east corner. Looking from there back to the monument, you will pipe down.
You can enter the compound from the east, too. Of course, there is no way for tourists to visit Angkor Wat without an Angkor ticket. But Angkor Wat alone would be worth to pay for that ticket.