Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivaled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp luxury surpassing that of a pharaoh or a shah Jaham, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal.


Location: Six kilometres (four miles) north of Siem Reap; one kilometer (two thirds of a mile) south of Angkor Thom

Access: Enter and leave Angkor Wat from the west

Date: Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th century (approximately 1113-1150)

King: Suryavarman II (reigned 1113-circa1150)

Religion: Hindu (dedicated to Vishnu)

Art style: Angkor Wat


BACKGROUND

Angkor Wat, the largest monument of the Angkor group and one of the most intact, is an architectural masterpiece. Its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, reliefs and sculpture make it one of the finest monuments in the world. This temple is an expression of Khmer art at its highest point of development.

Wat is the Thai name for temple (the French spelling is vat), which was probably added to Angkor when it became a Theravada Buddhist monument, most likely in the 16th century. After the capital gradually shifted to Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat was cared for by Buddhist monks.

Some believe Angkor Wat was designed by Divakarapandita, the chief adviser and minister of the king, who was a brahmin with divine honours. The Khmers attribute the building of Angkor Wat to the divine architect Visvakarman.

Construction probably began early in the reign of Suryavarman II and because his name appears posthumously in the bas-reliefs and inscriptions it is believed that Angkor Wat was completed after his death. The estimated time for construction of the temple is about 30 years. There has been considerable debate amongst scholars as to whether Angkor Wat was built as a temple or a tomb. It is generally accepted that the architecture and decoration identify it as a temple where a god was worshipped and that it was a mausoleum for the king after his death. Its orientation is different from other temples at Angkor as the main entrance is at the west, rather than the east. The bas-reliefs are arranged for viewing from left to right, a practice used in Hindu religious ceremonies for tombs. This emphasis on the west conforms with the symbolism

ARCHITECTURAL PLAN

The plan of Angkor Wat is difficult to grasp when walking through the monument because of its enormity. Its complexity and beauty both attract and distract one’s attention. From a distance, Angkor Wat appears to be a colossal mass of stone on one level with a long causeway leading to the centre, but close up it is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches and courtyards on different levels linked by stairways.

It is recommended that you read this section and study the ground plan before visiting the temple, then keep this guide close at hand while looking at the different elements, particularly the bas-reliefs.

At 65 metres (213 feet), the height of Angkor Wat from the ground to the top of the central tower is greater than it might appear, achieved by using three rectangular or square platforms (1-3). Each one is progressively smaller and higher than the one below, starting from the outer limits of the temple. Covered galleries with columns define the boundaries of the first and second platforms.

At the third level, the platform supports five towers-four of the corners and one m the middle-and these are the most prominent architectural features of Angkor Wat. Graduated layers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, rows of lotuses taper to a point. The overall profile imitates a lotus bud.

Several architectural lines stand out in the profile of the monument. The eye is drawn left and right to the horizontal aspect of the levels and upward to the soaring height of the towers. The ingenious plan of Angkor Wat allows a view of all five towers only from certain angles. They are not visible, for example, from the main entrance. Many of the structures and courtyards are cruciform shaped. The stone vaulted roof on galleries, chambers and aisles is another characteristic of Angkor Wat. From afar, this roof looks as though tiled, but close up the vault format identifies itself.

Steps provide access to the various levels. Helen Churchill Candee, who visited Angkor in the 1920s, thought their usefulness surpassed their architectural purpose. The steps to Angkor Wat ‘are made to force a halt at beauteous obstructions that the mind may be prepared for the atmosphere of sanctity’, she wrote.

To become familiar with the composition of Angkor Wat it is advisable to learn to recognise the repetitive elements in the architecture. Galleries with columns, towers, vaulted roofs, frontons, steps and the cruciform plan occur again and again. It was by combining two or more of these aspects that a sense of height was achieved. This system was used to link one part of the monument to another. A smaller replica of the central towers was repeated at the limits of two prominent areas – the galleries and the gopuras. The long causeway at the west entrance is repeated on the eastern side of the first gallery.

SYMBOLISM

Angkor Wat, according to Cedes, is a replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the centre of the monument symbolising the mythical Mount Meru, situated at the centre of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru; the outer wall to the mountains at the edge of the world; and the surrounding moat to the oceans beyond.

A study has shown that when Angkor Wat was laid out by the Khmers originally, the distances between certain architectural elements of the temple reflected numbers which were related to Hindu mythology and cosmology. The positions of the bas-reliefs were regulated, for example, by solar movements. Scenes on the east-west sides reflect those relating to the rising and setting of the sun.

LAYOUT

Even though Angkor Wat is the most photographed Khmer monument, nothing approaches the actual experience of seeing this temple. Frank Vincent grasped this sensation over I00 years ago: The general appearance of the wonder of the temple is beautiful and romantic as well as impressive and grand … it must be seen to be understood and appreciated. Helen Churchill Candee experienced a similar reaction some 50 years later: ‘One can never look upon the ensemble of the Vat without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up into the heavens. Perhaps it is the most impressive sight in the world of edifices.

Angkor Wat is an immense monument occupying a rectangular area of about 210 hectares (500 acres), defined by a laterite enclosure wall (4) which is surrounded by a moat that is 200 metres (660 feet) wide. The perimeter of the enclosure wall measures 5.5 kilometres (3 /12 miles). The moat is crossed by a huge causeway built of sandstone blocks 250 metres long (820 feet) and 12 metres (39 feet) wide (5). With such impressive statistics it is easy to understand why some local inhabitants believe that Angkor Wat was built by the gods.

Start your tour at the west entrance, where you can see the first of many wonders at Angkor Wat. Climb the short flight of steps to the raised sandstone terrace (6) in the shape of a cross. You are standing at the foot of the long causeway leading to the interior. Look at the balance, the proportions and the symmetry, then the beauty of Angkor Wat begins to unfold. Giant stone lions on each side of the terrace guard the monument.

Look straight ahead to the end of the causeway at the gopura with three towers of varying heights, of which much of the upper sections have collapsed. The form of this gopura is so developed and elongated that it looks almost like a separate building. A long, covered gallery with square columns and a vaulted roof extends along the moat to the left and right of the gopura. This is the majestic facade of Angkor Wat and a fine example of classical Khmer architecture. It originally had another row of pillars with a roof. You can see evidence of this in a series of round holes set in square bases in front of the standing pillars.

Helen Churchill Candee must have been standing on this terrace almost 70 years ago when she wrote: ‘Any architect would thrill at the harmony of the facade, an unbroken stretch of repeated pillars leading from the far angles of the structure to the central opening which is dominated by three imposing towers with broken summits. Tip: before proceeding along the causeway, turn right, go down the steps of the terrace and walk along the path a few metres for a view of all five towers.

Then return to the centre of the terrace and cross the causeway towards the main part of the temple taking in the grandeur that surrounds you. The water in the moat shimmers and sometimes you can see lotus in bloom, birds bathing, buffaloes wallowing and children playing. The left-hand side of the causeway has more original sandstone than the right-hand side which was restored by the EFEO. In the 1920s, when RJ Casey walked on this causeway he noted it was ‘an oddity of engineering ….The slabs were cut in irregular shapes, which meant that each had to be chiselled to fit the one adjoining. The effect as seen under the noonday sun … is like that of a long strip of watered silk.

On the left side, just before the midway point in the causeway, look for two large feet carved in a block of sandstone. It is possible that they belong to a figure at one of the entrances to Angkor Thom and were brought to Angkor Wat in this century when the causeway was repaired with reused stones. The causeway leads to the cruciform gopura or entry tower (7) mentioned earlier. The gateways at ground level on each end of the gallery probably served as passages for elephants, horses and carts, whereas the other entrances are accessed by steps a d lead onto the central promenade. When Helen Churchill Candee saw these entrances in the 1920s, she remarked that ‘architecture made to fit the passage of elephants is an idea most inspiriting’. A huge standing stone figure, carrying symbols that indicate it was originally a Vishnu image, has been transformed into an image of Buddha by giving the torso a new head, and is inside on the right of the centre entrance. This image is worshipped by modern Cambodians and is usually adorned with flowers, gold leaf and incense. Traces of original colour can be seen on the ceiling of the gopura.

From the central entrance turn right and walk along the columned gallery coming to the end, where the quality of carving and intricacy of decoration on the false door is of exceptional beauty. Walk through the opening at the end of the gallery towards the east. Here you will see the first full view of the splendid five towers of Angkor Wat. (But there are even better views of them to come.) Take a sharp left turn at the porch and walk along the ledge of the inner side of the gallery, back towards the centre. Along the upper portion of this wall you will see an array of divinities riding fantastic animals framed with an exquisite leaflike motif. The liveliness of these figures, the variety and the crispness of carving is exceptional. As you near the centre of the temple, the female divinities, the devatas, on the walls of the porch are some of the most beautiful in all of Angkor Wat.

You are now back to where you entered the gallery and looking towards the main temple complex (which forms the celebrated view of Angkor Wat that appears on the Cambodian flag). Standing at this point you feel compelled to ‘get to the wondrous group of the five domes, companions of the sky, sisters of the clouds, and determine whether or not one lives in a world of reality or in a fantastic dream’.

Continue eastward along the raised walkway of equally imposing proportions (length 350 metres, 1,150 feet; width 9 metres, 30 feet) (8). A low balustrade formed by short column supporting the scaly body of a Naga borders each side. As you walk along the causeway notice the ceremonial stairs with platforms, always in pairs (to your left and right). These may have given access to the streets between dwellings. The serpent balustrade also frames the stairs. It terminates with the body of the serpent making a turn at right angles towards the sky and gracefully spreading its many heads to form the shape of a fan. This arrangement is sometimes called a landing platform.

Two buildings, so-called libraries (9), stand in the courtyard on he left and right, just past the middle of the causeway. These ‘jewel-boxes of Khmer art’ are perfectly formed. A large central area, four porches, columns and steps present a symmetrical plan in the shape of a cross. Some of the columns have been replaced with concrete copies for support. An original pillar lies on the ground before the library on the left.

In front of the libraries are two basins (length 65 metres, 215 feet; width 50 metres. 165 feet), ingeniously placed to capture the reflection of the towers in the water (10). The one on the left is filled with water, whereas the other one is usually dry. Tip: turn left at the first steps after the library, but before the basin. And follow the path for about 40 metres (131 feet) to a large tree for a superb view of the five towers of Angkor Wat, particularly at sunrise.

The architectural triumph on this walkway is the cruciform-shaped Terrace of Honour, just in front of the principal gopura of Angkor Wat (11). Supporting columns and horizontal, carved mouldings around the base accentuate the form of the terrace. Steps flanked by lions on pedestals are on three sides of the terrace. Ritual dances were performed here, and it may also have been where the king viewed processions and received foreign dignitaries.

RJ Casey sensed such activity in the 1920s: ‘One cannot but feel that only a few hours ago it was palpitating with life. The torches were burning about the altars. Companies of priests were in the galleries chanting the rituals. Dancing-girls were flitting up and down the steps…. That was only an hour or two ago, monsieur … it cannot have been more.

From the top of the terrace there is a fine view of the famous Gallery of Bas-reliefs (215 by 187 metres, 705 by 614 feet) on the first platform level (1). The vaults over the gallery are supported by a row of 60 evenly-space columns providing light to the inner wall decorated with bas-reliefs. Tip: at this point, you have the choice of continuing straight to the central towers or turning right to see the reliefs.

The cross-shaped galleries provide the link between the first and second levels (12). This unique architectural design consists of covered cruciform-shaped galleries with square columns forming four courtyards each with paved basins and steps. The corbel vaults are exposed all along the galleries. Several decorative features stand out: windows with stone balusters turned like wood, rosettes on the vaults, a frieze of apsaras under the cornices and ascetics at the base of the columns. Many of the pillars in the galleries of this courtyard have inscriptions written in Sanskrit and Khmer. At both ends of the north and south galleries are two libraries of similar form, but smaller than the ones along the entrance causeway (13). There is a good view of the upper level of Angkor Wat from the northern one.

The Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, on the right, once contained many images dating from the period when Angkor Wat was Buddhist, but only a few of these figures remain today (14). The Hall of Echoes, on the left, is so named because of its unusual acoustics (15). Tip: to hear the resonance in the Hall of Echoes walk to the end of the gallery and into the alcove, stand with your back to the wall, thump your chest and listen carefully.

Return to the centre of the cruciform-shaped galleries and continue walking eastward toward the central towers. Another set of stairs alerts you to the continuing ascent. The outer wall of the gallery of the second level, closest to you (100 by 115 metres, 330 by 380 feet), is solid and undecorated, probably to create an environment for meditation by the priests and the king (2).

The starkness of the exterior of the second level gallery is offset by the decoration of the interior. Over 1,500 apsaras (‘celestial dancers’) line the walls of the gallery, offering endless visual and spiritual enchantment. These graceful and beautiful females delight all visitors. They were born from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. From their ethereal origins to their realistic appearance on the walls of Angkor Wat they offer timeless joy. When you first walk into the courtyard the multitude of these female figures on the walls and in the niches may seem repetitive, but as you move closer and look carefully you become aware of the variations and quickly see j that each one of these celestial nymphs is different. The elaborate coiffures, headdresses and jewellery befit, yet never overpower, these ‘ethereal inhabitants of the heavens’.

Female divinities appear at Angkor Wat for the first time in twos and threes. These groups break with the traditional formality of decoration in other parts of the temple by standing with arms linked in coquettish postures and always in frontal view except for the feet, which appear in profile. Pang, a Cambodian poet, in a tribute to the Khmer ideal of female beauty wrote of the Apsaras the 17th century: These millions of gracious figures, filling you with such emotion that the eye is never wearied, the soul is renewed, and the heart never sated! They were never carved by the hands of men! They were created by (he Gods – living, lovely) breath- ling women!

 

Only the king and the high priest were allowed on the upper or third level of Angkor Wat (3). This level lacks the stately covered galleries of the other two, but as the base of the five central towers, one of which contains the most sacred image of the temple, it has an equally important role in the architectural scheme.

Like all of Angkor Wat, the statistics of this Level are imposing. The square base is 60 metres (197 feet) long, 13 metres (43 feet) high, and rises over 40 metres (131feet) above the second level. Twelve sets of stairs with 40 steps each – one in the centre of each side and two at the corners – ascend at a 70-dcgrce angle giving access to the topmost level. Standing at the bottom on the stairs, looking up, the ascent can seem formidable. But persevere and forge ahead for the effect is worth it when you reach the top. Tip: the stairway on the west (centre) is less steep, but those who suffer from vertigo should use the south stairway (centre), which has concrete steps and a handrail. The steps on all sides are exceptionally narrow. I t is suggested you ascend and descend sideways.

All the elements of repetition that make up the architectural plan of Angkor Wat are manifested on the upper level. The space is divided into a cruciform-shaped area distinguished by covered galleries and four paved courts. A gopura with a porch and columns is at the top of each stairway. Passages supported on both sides with double rows of columns link the gopura to the central structure. The corners of the upper level are dominated by the four towers. Steps both separate and link the different parts. A narrow outer gallery with a double row or pillars, windows and balusters surrounds this third level. Tip: walk all the way around the outer gallery of the upper level and enjoy the view of the surrounding countryside, the western causeway.

The central sanctuary (17) soars 42 metres (137 feet) above the upper level. Its height is enhanced by a tiered plinth. The highest of the five towers is equal in height to the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This central sanctuary originally had four porches opening to the cardinal directions and sheltered a statue of Vishnu. Today it is possible to make an offering to a modern image of the Buddha and light a candle in this sacred inner sanctum.

The central core of the temple was walled up some time after the sacking of Angkor in the middle of the 15th century. Nearly 500 years later French archaeologists discovered a vertical shaft 27 metres (89 feet) deep with a hoard of gold objects at its base.

From the summit, the layout of Angkor Wat reveals itself at last. The view is a spectacle of beauty befitting the Khmer’s architectural genius for creating harmonious proportions. There it is, the spectacular mass of stone that makes up Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument ever constructed.

GALLERY OF BAS-RELIEFS

‘By their beauty they first attract, by their strangeness they hold attention’, Helen Churchill Candee wrote of the bas-reliefs in the 1920 The Gallery of Bas-reliefs, surrounding the first level of Angkor Wat, contains 1,200 square metres (12,900 square feet) of sandstone carvings. The reliefs cover most of the inner wall of all four sides of the gallery and extend for two metres (seven feet) from top to bottom. The detail, quality, composition and execution give them an unequalled status in world art. Columns along the outer wall of the gallery create an intriguing interplay of light and shadow on the reliefs. The effect is like ‘the work of painters rather than sculptors’.

The bas-reliefs are of ‘dazzling rich decoration-always kept in check, never allowed to run unbridled over wall and ceiling; possess strength and repose, imagination and power of fantasy; wherever one looks [the] main effect is one of “supreme dignity”, wrote a visitor 50 years ago.

The bas-reliefs are divided into eight sections, two panels flanking each of the four central entrances and additional scenes in each pavilion at the north and south corners of the west gallery. The scenes on the bas-reliefs run horizontally, from left to right, in a massive expanse along the walls. Sometimes decorated borders are added. The scenes are arranged in one of two ways: either without any deliberate attempt to separate the scenes; or in registers which are sometimes superimposed on one another. The latter form was probably introduced at a later date.

Each section tells a specific story inspired by one of three main sources-either lndian epics, sacred books or warfare of the Angkor period. Some scholars suggest that the placement of a relief has a relevance to its theme. The bas-reliefs on the east walls, for example, depict creation, birth and a new beginning (all associated with the rising sun), whereas those on the west walls portray war and death and aspects related to the setting sun.

Parts of some of the reliefs have a polished appearance on the surface. There are two theories as to why this occurred. The position of the sheen and its occurrence in important parts of the reliefs suggests it may have resulted from visitors rubbing their hands over them. Some art historians, though, think it was the result of lacquer applied over the reliefs. Traces of gilt and paint, particularly black and red, can also be found on some of the reliefs. They are probably the remains of an undercoat or a fixative.

Tip: as the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat were designed for viewing from left to right, the visitor should follow this convention for maximum appreciation. Enter the Gallery of Bas-reliefs at the middle of the west side, turn right into the gallery and continue walking counter-clockwise. If you start from another point always keep the monument on your left.


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