Angkor Wat is the world’s most immense religious complex located in Angkor City. A temple complex in the early civilisation of Angkor City, Angkor Wat began its foundations in the heart of the city during the 12th century by King Suryavarman II, taking approximately 30 years to complete.
Angkor City, the ancient capital of the Khmer Empire, was believed to be the largest city in the known world then. With its cutting-edge technology and advanced water irrigation systems, it was home to about a million people at its peak.
The city prospered until the 15th century when, all of a sudden, it was peculiarly abandoned.
Its history became legend and its legend soon passed into myth. As it lay mysteriously hidden in the Cambodian jungles for over three and a half centuries, the lost city of Angkor Wat was finally unearthed in 1860 by a French naturalist, Henri Mauhot.
To date, it is one of the most predominant archaeological site in South-East Asia and was eventually declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1992.
Translated in today’s language as the “Temple City”, this extraordinary complex still has an alluring yet unique silhouette not found anywhere else in the world. Splendid and intricate in design, the complex is still engulfed with an air of mystique.
The main access to Angkor Wat is from Siem Reap, a city located on the North-eastern side of the Tonle Sap Lake.
The complex was designed with great aesthetics and all-embalming symbolisms according to Hinduism precedents as it was designed as a temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. The structural planning and building techniques along with the intricate carvings and details was way impressive for its time. Constructed using only sandstone and reclusively surrounded by a large moat, the complex is so delicately and creatively designed, given the tools and building material at its time, it remains an architectural wonder that continues to awe with no one-word to describe.
Built seven centuries before and discovered roughly 30 years before Gaudí’s Colònia Güell in Barcelona, the dome-ish architecture and supporting arches built without metal rebars and framework remains an architectural and engineering wonder far advanced for its time.
The complex consists of 5 large towers; 4 smaller surrounding one larger tower in the centre. Through the tall, dark and steep stairs leading straight to the top toward the main central tower, there stands a statue of Vishnu right at the top of the central tower. Hence, the central tower symbolically represents Mount Meru, the ‘centre of the universe’ according to ancient pretexts. Its five towers and their positions equate the peaks of Mount Meru while the complex’s outer walls represent the ‘mountains at the edge of the world’ and the surrounding moat, the ‘oceans beyond’.
The main entrance of the complex faces West. It is a symbol of adhering to the ‘setting sun and death’. Intellects believe that the complex possibly served as a mausoleum for the kings of its time. However, the king who built it was never even buried there. There upon the wall features a bas-relief designed to be viewed from an anticlockwise direction. The bas-relief portrays practices of ancient Hindu funerary rites, hence giving rise to the belief for some that the complex was actually a crypt or mausoleum for someone.
The sculptures of over 3,000 Apsaras (also know as Heavenly nymphs), were carved into the sandstone walls all around the complex. Distinctively designed each with individual uniqueness, these Apsaras decorative ornaments, according to some researchers, come in 37 different hairstyle or headgear variants.
While the mystery of the temple complex continues to baffle researchers and maybe only over time, we may soon be able to unravel its secrets. The real name of the temple complex and its real intended purpose at the time of construction remains unknown. What was more mysterious was why it was abandoned right after it was completed. Or was it even completed in the first place?
Today, Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple and an important national symbol of Cambodia. The Silhouette of Angkor Wat was also adorned on Cambodia’s national flag as well as its currency notes and coins.
A mythical structure of ancient times that still continues to instill curiosity and wonder even until today, its awe continuously attracts huge numbers of tourists and history enthusiasts every year and is a definite must-see on everyone’s bucket list.