Like many other people, I’m guilty of using the name Angkor Wat to refer to the whole complex of ancient Khmer temples found near Siem Reap, Cambodia. But Angkor Wat is a single, specific temple—the biggest and, arguably, the best. It was built between 1113 and 1150, during the height of the Khmer empire’s power. Its imposing size and structure are a reflection of that power.
“Angkor Wat” means “a city that is a pagoda (temple),” and that’s exactly what it is. Angkor Wat was built to be the capital city of the empire, with a state temple at its physical (and symbolic) center dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. The city covered a rectangular area more than a mile long on each side, surrounded by a high stone wall and, beyond that, a moat 200 yards wide. A stone causeway crossed the moat, broad and strong enough to support processions of the king and his officials mounted on elephants. The moat and causeways and walls remain, along with the stone gatehouses, roadways, and temple.
The rest of the structures that stood inside the city—the royal palace, various lesser homes, workshops, and other buildings—were built of wood and did not survive the centuries. Today, the area between the walls and the temple is a large field, dotted with ponds, souvenir stands, small eateries, and a Buddhist monastery. You have to use your imagination to turn it into a bustling metropolis, although the crowds of tourists help with that.
More than 2 million people visit Angkor Wat each year, many of them in large tour groups. (Tourism from China is especially booming.) So it’s impossible to have the place to yourself. But we managed to avoid some crowds by getting there at 6 a.m. and entering the city backward: While buses disgorged large groups outside the grand west causeway (which is on the road to the other temples that the tour groups would be whisked away to afterward), we had our tuk tuk drop us at the quiet east causeway. Not until we got all the way to the center of the old city and well into the temple itself did we start seeing many other people.
Angkor Wat is more than a stone building for people to worship in: It is intended to be the abode of Vishnu and other deities when they come to earth. Its design symbolizes the Hindu universe, culminating in Mount Meru, dwelling place of the gods and center of the universe.
Angkor Wat is by far the largest temple in the Angkor complex, covering a rectangle measuring 1,080 feet on one side and 840 feet on the other. Reflecting the Khmer’s favorite architectural style, everything about the building is concentric, rising from the outer edges to the center.
The temple is essentially a pyramid of graduated terraces, some of which support galleries (long covered hallways with a wall of the temple on one side, a roof over top, and a series of pillars or open windows on the other side). On the top terrace stand four conical towers, surrounding a taller tower in the center.
The moat represents the ocean surrounding earth, the galleries are chains of mountains, and the four towers are peaks that encircle Mount Meru, the tallest tower. Climbing up the steep steps of the terraces feels like ascending a mountain, and from the top you feel like the monarch of all you survey.
As in the smaller Bayon temple (the one with 200 faces), the galleries at Angkar Wat contain wonderfully detailed bas-relief wall carvings, 6 feet high and 1,800 feet long in all. Although they were carved in highly erodable sandstone (the main stone available in this part of Cambodia), many of them are still visible 900 years later.
They depict the king who commissioned Angkor Wat, Suryavarman II; the delights of heaven and the torments of hell (like many a medieval European fresco); battle scenes from the Hindu epic Mahabharata; and the great Hindu creation myth known as the churning of the ocean of milk.
According to that story, in the center of the great ocean was a mountain, around which was coiled the body of a giant naga (multiheaded sea serpent). For 1,000 years, gods and demons took turns pulling the two ends of the naga, which caused the mountain to rotate and churn the sea of milk (like a giant butter churn), producing an elixir of immortality that both groups wanted. Just as cream rises to the top, various other things arose out of the churned sea, including the beautiful flying nymphs called apsaras, who are seen dancing on pillars all over Angkor Wat; a three-headed elephant ridden by the god Indra; and a multiheaded horse.
That creation myth appears again and again in the Angkor temples. Not only does it cover a large wall at Angkor Wat, but three-dimensional statues of the gods, demons, and nagas stand on the causeways that lead into the nearby (later) royal city of Angkor Thom.