UNESCO World Heritage site near Siem Reap
Angkor Wat is the most famous ancient temple site in Cambodia, and visiting the ancient Angkorian temples is the reason most visitors come to Cambodia, and to Siem Reap. With its five lotus-like towers rising 65 meters into the sky, it is truly a monumental, and awe inspiring sight. This UNESCO World Heritage site was at one time the largest pre-industrial city in the world, and is considered one of the ancient wonders of the world. Angkor Wat is the crown jewel of any visit to the temples of Angkor.
The ruins of Angkor Wat are located in the Angkor Archaeological Park, and the entrance to the park is located about 3km north of modern-day Siem Reap. There are no hotels within the park grounds, and most visitors to the ancient temples stay in Siem Reap, using it as a base from which to make daily visits to the temples. The most significant temple ruins are found 6 to 25km north of town, with the closest major temple being Angkor Wat. The Roluos Group of temples are 13km east of Siem Reap.
It is best to arrange your tour of the Angkor Archaeological Park with a reputable tour agency and a knowledgeable tour guide. They can assist with purchasing the admission pass, and arrange the transportation you will need. There are also guidebooks available, which will help in understanding the history of the temples.
History of Angkor Wat
The magnificent temple ruins of the Angkorian-era from the 9th to the 13th centuries, including Angkor Wat, Bayon and many other ancient temple ruins of the Khmer Empire are located in the Angkor Archaeological Park. The Park, just north of the town of Siem Reap, is more than 400 square kilometers in size, and is a World Heritage Site.
The temple ruins within the Angkor Archaeological Park are what remains of the thousand year old Angkorian-era capitals and temples of the ancient Khmer Empire. The name ‘Angkor’ comes from the Angkorian-era Khmer Empire that encompassed much of Southeast Asia from 800 and 1400CE, and also refers to the capital cities of the Empire. The Khmer Empire held great wealth and power, and dominated the area of present day Cambodia, as well as much of Thailand, southern Vietnam and Laos militarily, economically, and culturally.
Most of the structures seen today were constructed between the 9th and 12th century CE., and represent the height of Khmer art, architecture, and culture. The Khmer kings constructed magnificent temples, and huge waterworks, and at its zenith, the capital city at Angkor was populated by more than a million people.
Angkor Wat was constructed from the early to mid 1100s by King Suryavarman II at the height of the Khmer Empire’s political and military power. It was built in the shape of an enormous temple-mountain, and reportedly took some 50,000 artisans, workers, and slaves to complete. It was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, and is the world's largest religious building. King Suryavarman II built it as his state temple, although the temple has a west facing orientation, and some scholars have theorized that it was actually his funerary temple. Whatever its original purpose, Angkor Wat is one of the world's most awe-inspiring and breathtaking architectural accomplishments of all time.
When one first visits Angkor Wat, the impact is breathtaking, and just seeing photos do not prepare one for the reality of this majestic structure. Approaching along the causeway, at first the architecture and outline against the sky makes it appear almost two- dimensional, like a huge, real-life postcard. However, as one gets nearer, the detail and intricacy become increasingly apparent.
Other temples built in the same time period and in the same style, are Thommanon, Banteay Samre, Wat Atwea and Beng Melea. It is speculated that Beng Melea may have been a model for Angkor Wat.
Highlights and Features of Angkor Wat
- The temple itself is approx. 1 km square and consists of three levels.
- The inside and outside walls of the temple are adorned with bas-reliefs and carvings. The bas-relief carving on the exterior walls of the lower level are especially exceptional.
- There are carvings of almost 2,000 Apsaras (celestial dancers) and are some of the best examples of Angkorian carving.
- Just about every surface in the maze of chambers and courtyards is decorated with carved bas-relief scenes of, wars, everyday life, and Hindu legends.
- Angkor was the spiritual centre of the Khmer Kingdom until it was abandoned after being sacked by Siam in 1431.
- The exterior wall surrounding Angkor Wat measures 1300 meters x 1500 meters.
- The surviving stone structures seen today are only a part of what used to exist at Angkor. There was also an enormous, thriving city of wooden houses, markets, shops, palaces, and public buildings. Unfortunately, the city has long since disappeared through the ravages of time and war.
- It was the French who established the Angkor Conservancy in 1908, and they were first to restore the temples of Angkor Wat, Bayon, and Ta Prohm.
- Although Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple, it has been a Buddhist temple since the 14th century when Buddhism became the dominant religion.
- On the south wall are scenes of heaven and hell, and depictions of the Hindu ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ are on the east wall.
- The interior of the temple is not as heavily carved as the first level exterior, but it still contains a great many excellent carvings of Apsaras and scenes from Hindu mythology.
- The main tower on the third level is the top-most part of the tour of the temple, and this tower contains four Buddha statues with each statue facing a different point on the compass.
- It is believed by some that it will bring good luck to pay respect to the four Buddha images before leaving the temple.
Good to Know & What not to Miss
- The amazing structure as a whole is best viewed in soft light. The best lighting conditions are after 14:00, and other than sunrise viewing, the first visit should not be made in the morning.
- Guided tours usually start with the bas-reliefs that cover the first level exterior wall, and which are perhaps the most beautifully done, and follow them around the temple in a counterclockwise direction.
- A popular location for sunrise viewing is the northern reflecting pool. You will need to get there early before sunrise starts, as the most beautiful colors are just before the sun breaks over the horizon.
- When the sun comes up behind Angkor Wat, it will give a silhouette of the distinctive shape of the towers of Angkor Wat against a beautifully coloured sky.
Opening Hours: Angkor Wat is open from 05:00 to 18:00. Other temple sites close earlier: Banteay Srey closes at 17:00, and Kbal Spean closes at 15:00.
Temple Admission Passes
To visit temples and other sites within the Angkor Archaeological Park, you must have a valid admission pass, called an 'Angkor Pass'. Admission passes are purchased at the main entrance located on the road to Angkor Wat, and one-day passes can be obtained at the secondary entrance gate on the road from the airport.
The cost of the passes are $20 for a one-day pass, $40 for a three-day pass, and $60 for a seven-day pass. A three-day pass is valid for any three days within a one week period, and a seven-day pass is valid for any seven days within a one month period. For three-day and seven-day passes, a passport-sized photo is required when buying the pass. For those without a photo, they will take your photo for free, but it can take awhile if there are many visitors buying passes.
If you visit Angkor for only one day, you will only be able to take cursory visits to see the most famous temples (i.e. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom) but not much else. A three-day visit is enough time to explore the main temples, and some of the minor sites, and have some time to explore a few temple sites in depth. A seven-day itinerary will allow you ample time to thoroughly explore all the main temple ruins, visit many of the minor sites, and have time to visit a remote temple site.
You will need to always carry your temple pass with you because you will have to show it each time you enter the park, and when entering major temples. If you don’t have a valid pass while inside the park, or when visiting a temple, you can be subject to a fine. A regular temple pass is not required for remote sites, but some sites have their own admission fees: Phnom Kulen ($20), Koh Ker ($10), Beng Melea ($5).
Guides to the Temple
A guide is not required to visit Angkor Wat, or to any of the other ancient sites, and a self-tour can be done with a good guidebook, but you will get much more out of your visit to this magnificent treasure with the explanation of a competent guide. Because of the sheer size Angkor Wat, and the extraordinary number of bas-reliefs, depicting stories and characters from Hindu mythology, and the thousands of apsara carvings throughout the temple, it is highly recommended that you have a knowledgeable guide. Guides can be hired that speak languages other than English (i.e. Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, German, French, etc.)
What to Bring & How to Dress
Because of the heat and humidity in Cambodia, and because the tropical sun can be quite fierce, you should wear light clothing that will still protect you from the sun. Remember that you will be walking around in the sun for the better part of the day, and you are well-advised to bring a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. In the rainy season you will need a raincoat, and/or an umbrella. Those who are really into temple exploring, will want to also bring a notebook, and a flashlight. For sunrise and sunset tours, the use of mosquito repellent is highly advisable.
Since you will be walking over uneven and rough terrain, and climbing up and down steep and narrow steps, a pair of sturdy walking shoes is essential. Open-toed sandals are acceptable as long as they are the type that fasten around the heel. Flip-flops and high-heels are a definite no go.
Vendors in the Angkor Archaeological Park complex, and at temple entrances, sell items such as guidebooks, snacks, souvenirs, and postcards.
The Angkor Archaeological Park complex encompasses some 400 square km., and contains dozens of temple ruins. The ancient temples and other sites exhibit several different architectural and artistic styles, and range from those sites that are in good condition to those sites that are in ruins and at which there is not much there.
Most visitors have only a limited amount of time to explore the temples, and to make the most of your visit, you will need to a temple itinerary. The scope of the itinerary will depend on how much time you have, your personal interests, and your budget.
We provide several comprehensive temple itineraries of varying lengths, and designed to suit your interests. Please see the suggested itineraries below.
How to get to the Temples
There are two basic ways visitors get to the temples. One way is by a tour organized by a tour company, the other way is a do-it-yourself tour. Most all tours to Siem Reap include at least one visit to the Angkor temples. For independent travelers, hotels and guesthouse all offer tours to the temples.
Depending on the size of the group, transportation can be by bus, mini van, or tuk-tuk. For real hard-core independent types, you can visit the temples on the back of a motorbike. In recent years, cycling to, and around the temples has become increasingly popular. It may not look like it on the map, but the temples are a bit too far apart to comfortably visit them on foot. Although for intrepid hikers who have the time, several temples can be visited in this way.