The Ancient City of Angkor

Image of Angkor complex from drone

Angkor is the ancient capital of the great Khmer Empire. It is, without doubt, one of the most magnificent wonders of the world. As well as a site of immense archaeological significance.

For nearly six centuries, between AD 802 and 1432, it was the political and religious heart of the Khmer Empire. An empire that extended from the South China Sea almost to the Bay of Bengal. Angkor is located in dense jungle on the hot and torpid plains of Northwestern Cambodia. Its awe-inspiring temples transport visitors back to an enchanting and mysterious ancient world of grandeur and glory.

Often referred to as the eighth wonder of the world, Angkor, the ancient capital of Cambodia, is a remarkable place.

Angkor’s History

The Khmer Empire was founded at the beginning of the 9th century AD by Jayavarman II (r.802–850).  He proclaimed himself devaraja (god-king) of the land. He built a gigantic, pyramidal temple-mountain representing Mount Meru, the sacred mythical abode of the Hindu gods.

This structure laid the foundations of Angkor’s architecture. In the following centuries, his successors shifted the capital from Roluos to Angkor, built magnificent temples such as the ancient Phnom Bakheng, Angkor Wat, Banteay Kdei, and Ta Prohm, as well as the bustling city of Angkor Thom.

Today, the remains of the metropolis of Angkor occupy 77 sq miles (200 sq km) of northwest Cambodia, and although its wooden houses and magnificent palaces decayed centuries ago, the impressive array of stone temples still stand. Set between two barays (reservoirs), Angkor today contains around 70 temples, tombs, and other ancient ruins. Among them is the splendid Angkor Wat, the world’s largest religious complex.

One of the most important archaeological sites in the world, Angkor attracts millions of visitors each year, providing a substantial boost to Cambodia’s economy. Other sites in the area include the rapidly developing town of Siem Reap. With its tree-lined boulevards and gentle pace, Siem Reap is the gateway to the temples of Angkor, which lie only 4 miles (6 km) north of town.

Exploring Angkor

Angkor Wat is set among dense green forests and neat rice paddies, the massive monuments of Angkor are the most remarkable architectural masterpieces in Southeast Asia. Located north of Siem Reap town, in Siem Reap province. The vast Angkor Wat complex, with its imposing towers, and the great city of Angkor Thom, with its impressive causeway and the gigantic smiling faces of the Bayon, are breathtaking sights, especially when witnessed by dawn or by dusk.

To the east of Angkor Thom is the magical Ta Prohm, with large trees growing through the temple walls. Farther out, the pink sandstone structure of Banteay Srei lies to the northeast, while to the south-east are the temples of the Roluos Group, the oldest in Angkor. Farther north are the smaller yet unique temples of Preah Khan and Preah Neak Pean.

Getting Around Angkor

The temples at Angkor require both time and motorized transport to visit. This takes at least two full days. It is possible to visit the main sites by motorcycle.

The “great circuit,” is a 17-mile (27-km) route. The route takes in the small circuit as well as the outer temples. This circuit goes past Preah Neak Pean to Ta Som before turning south to Pre Rup. In Colonial times, the French defined two circuits, both starting at Angkor Wat, which are still used today.

The 11-mile (18-km) “small circuit” takes at least a day and covers the central temples of the complex, continuing to Ta Prohm, before returning to Angkor Wat by way of Banteay Kdei.

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, unusual among Khmer temples, faces the setting sun. There are scholars who suggest that the temple was built to serve two purposes. Firstly, as a temple dedicated to Vishnu, secondly to serve as a mausoleum for the king. They believe its second purpose may be a mausoleum for the king since it faces the sunset, believed to be a symbol of death. Built during the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, this spectacular complex was originally dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu. The layout is based on a mandala (sacred design of the Hindu cosmos).

A five-towered temple shaped like a lotus bud, representing Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods and the centre of the universe, stands in the middle of the complex.

The intricate carvings on the walls marking the temple’s perimeter are outstanding and include a 1,970-ft (600-m) long panel of bas-reliefs and carvings of apsaras (celestial dancing girls).

The outermost walls and the moat surrounding the entire complex symbolize the edge of the world and the cosmic ocean, respectively. The largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat literally means the City which is a Temple.

Central Sanctuary

Towering over the complex, the central sanctuary is a steep climb. Its four entrances feature images of the Buddha, reflecting the Buddhist influence that eventually displaced Hinduism in Cambodia.


The carvings of hundreds of sensual apsaras, each one different from the next, line the walls of the temple. Holding alluring poses, they are shown wearing ornate jewellery and exquisite headgear.

View of Towers

The five towers of Angkor Wat rise through three levels to a grand central shrine. The entire complex is surrounded by thick walls. The view of the temple from the giant pool to the left of the causeway is stunning – particularly at sunrise – with its five towers reflected in the still water.

Gallery of Bas-Reliefs

The southern section of the western gallery depicts several scenes from the Hindu epic Mahabharata. The intricate bas-reliefs here feature images of hundreds of brave, weapon-bearing warriors engaged in furious combat during the Battle of Kurukshetra.

The Causeway

The wide pathway leading to the temple’s main entrance on the west side affords a spectacular view of Angkor Wat’s grand exterior. Balustrades carved in the form of nagas (serpents) once lined both sides of the avenue.

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