Angkor Wat

How about a visit to the largest religious edifice in the world?

Well, the Angkor Wat temple complex in Siem Reap in Cambodia , is just that. A UNESCO World Heritage site; it is today a very popular tourist destination.

We have it all here, just sit back on your armchair and visit this architectural masterpiece .The Guinness Book of World records calls it the largest temple in the world and the largest structure ever built by man.

Angkor Wat literally means City of Temples in Khmer, the local language of Cambodia. Angkor is so much an inherent part of the Cambodian culture that the image of Angkor Wat has found itself on their national flag, their currency, the fuselage of their airline, and even on bottles of their best selling beer!!!!

Angkor Wat is an integral part of the Cambodian ethos!!

A peep into history

In order to understand the soul of this historic monument, we need to know a little about its history. Angkor Wat was built by King Suryavarman II in the first half of 12th century as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. The original name of Angkor Wat was Vrah Vishnuloka meaning the sacred abode of Vishnu.

Suryavarman II was regarded as a great ruler and built homes and workshops , markets and roads all around the temple complex. The temple was never fully completed as he died before that.

Gradually the followers of Hinduism grew but a large proportion of Khmer also practiced Buddhism. Its function as a Hindu temple fell out of use in the late 13th century and it was taken over by Buddhist monks.

In the 14th century Angkor Wat was rededicated as a Buddhist temple. They however respected the beliefs of the Hindus and all of the original statues were left behind but statues of Buddha and related structures were added. The name Angkor Wat became prevalent around this time.

After 1432 when the capital was moved to Phnom Penh, the importance of this temple reduced further and ultimately it was cared for by Theravada Buddhist monks.

By the 16th century the temple fell into disuse and decay. The presence of the moat protected the temple from being totally taken over by the jungle around but it still crept up the walls and cracks.

The first Westerner to visit the temple was the Portuguese monk Madalena who in 1586 made a note of its location. Subsequently, French archaeologist Mouhot took active interest in Angkor Wat and publicized it.

The paradoxes of Angkor Wat…

Historians and archaeologists are yet to arrive at what exactly was Angkor Wat built as. Was it built as a temple, a shrine, an observatory, a mausoleum, or a combination of one or more of them.? There are many paradoxes seen in the structure that has led to this uncertainty.

It looks like a temple but traditionally, Hindu temples have their main entrance facing East but at Angkor Wat, the main entrance faces West, the direction associated with death. This has led to the postulation of it being a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II . But no evidence to this has been found as yet.

Architectural plan of Angkor Wat

The plan of Angkor Wat is difficult to understand when one is inside due to the sheer vastness of the structure.

At first glance it appears to be a colossal mass of stone but up close one sees that it has different levels, covered galleries, courtyards and chambers connected by staircases.

Basically a rectangular structure built at three levels with each higher level being progressively smaller and higher than the previous one. The temple covers a rectangular area of approximately 420 acres, defined by a laterite wall.

The most prominent part of the structure are the five towers at the third level The four corner towers are of equal height but the central tower is the tallest and is 213 feet high. These towers are shaped like lotus buds.

The unique design makes simultaneous viewing of all five towers possible only in certain positions.

The temple has a 650 feet wide moat surrounding it with a depth of 13 feet.

A diagrammatic representation of the temple and various levels.

All five towers are visible in this angle

The stone required for building this was brought from the Kulen mountains located about 22 kms away. Just consider all these statistics and put it in perspective that it was built at a time when no modern transportation or equipment was available. It is widely believed that the complex was built (1113-1150 CE)over 37 years, a remarkable feat considering the period in history when it happened.


Most scholars believe that the temple is a miniature replica of the universe in stone . The central tower represents the mythical mountain Meru of Hindu Cosmology situated at the centre of the universe and the other towers representing the peaks of Meru .The outer wall represents the mountains on the edge of the universe and the moat representing the oceans.

My Visit

I visited Angkor Wat in December 2022 along with a group of friends. Accompanied by Sharath , our guide at Siem Reap, we set out before dawn to watch the sun rise over this wonder of the world.

We groped in the dark following Sharath’s torch light and soon found ourselves walking on a very foamy ,wobbling surface. That was the floating bridge across the moat. After that we climbed a few stairs and almost trampled a little baby snake and reached one of the vantage points to view the sunrise as per Sharath’s advice. Later I learnt that this place was one of the libraries in the courtyard. Waiting patiently in anticipation, we slowly started seeing the first rays of the Sun and a pinkish hue in the sky and could see Angkor Wat against this. As the day dawned, the sheer vastness of the monument dawned on us. We had all heard about the temple and read about it but nothing had prepared us enough for what we saw…

A feeling of awe and amazement engulfed us as we stood admiring this creation.

Talking about sunrise at Angkor Wat, the temple is so designed that on one particular day ; the spring solstice, the sun rises just behind the main tower every year. Such is the precise astronomy that these ancient kings practiced.

Angkor Wat at dawn

The light increased and so did the crowds!

Now that the initial sunrise part is over, let me start from the time we entered the complex.

We initially encountered the moat on which is the floating bridge about which I had talked earlier on.

The moat and floating bridge

Once we crossed the moat, we walked along a stone causeway at the beginning of which was a guardian Naga.

The guardian Naga with the reflective pond on one side

On either side of the causeway are reflective ponds. The north pond is where visitors throng at dawn to get the reflected image on the water.

I did manage to get a picture of the reflection but the wind played spoilsport and created some ripples…

Angkor Wat and the elusive reflection!!

Two buildings called libraries stood in the courtyard on either side of the causeway. It was on the stairs of one of these libraries that we had perched in the dark to view the sunrise over Angkor Wat!

Our group on the stairs of one of the libraries

At the end of the causeway are a flight of stairs that lead to a terrace .Lions stand guard on either side of the staircase .

The staircase and the guarding lions

From the terrace, in front of the main entrance, we saw the three towers of varying heights. In this position, the other two towers are not visualised. A long covered corridor with columns and a curved roof extended on both sides of the central tower. This is the majestic appearance of Angkor Wat and a tribute to Khmer architecture.

On the terrace leading to the main entrance with three towers and covered corridor on either side

The overall layout of Angkor Wat :

There are three levels to the temple.

First level: The rectangular gallery with bas reliefs, north and south libraries and four basins

Second level : Terrace

Third level :The four corner towers with a central tower.

We explored the temple with our guide explaining the nuances

First level

Stories in stone

The Temple complex is literally like a mythological book with important religious and cultural tales etched out in stone.

After one enters the temple through the central entrance which is the Western entrance, one can see long corridors on either side. These corridors have square pillars with intricate carvings towards the outside but the walls of the corridor has multiple bas reliefs. These bas reliefs are mainly related to Hindu mythology .Stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata form a big part of the bas reliefs seen here. These bas reliefs are neatly divided into sections with each epic being depicted along one wall.

The corridors with square pillars on the outer side and the walls with bas reliefs

Many of the Bas reliefs have undergone varying levels of damage due to natural causes and the pictures may not be very clear due to this. Here are some pictures of the bas reliefs we saw . Take a look…

Bas relief of the battle of Kurukshetra

Krishna counselling Arjuna during the battle of Kurukshetra

Bas relief depicting heaven and hell

Bas relief of Ravana shaking Kailasa and Shiva sitting in penance

Bas relief of the Churning of the Ocean of milk

Bas relief of Avatars of Vishnu with Kurmavtar (tortoise) at bottom and Krishna on top.

And finally one of the king himself…

Bas relief of King Suryavarman II

As we walked around the complex, we got a side view of the galleries.

The side view of the galleries

The Middle Level Terrace

The middle level is less ornate than the lower level. Though there are bas reliefs from various epics here too, the images of Apsaras and devatas is the striking feature here. Apsaras are heavenly beauties of Hindu mythology who used to entertain the Gods with their dances.

The Apsaras:

Standing in graceful postures with intricately carved crowns, and ornaments adorning them, these Apsaras reflect the richness of the Khmer culture and how people lived in that period.

The Apsaras… notice the head gear and ornaments

Inspired by the beauty and elegance of these images, Apsaras make up a significant part of the cultural dances of Cambodia. The dress and ornaments of the dancers are similar to the images here and the movements are also very slow and graceful. We visited one such event and the performance was featured in the previous episode.

In addition to the apsara carvings on the wall, there were several Buddha statues at this level. Most of the statues are beheaded . In fact it is believed that there were many Buddha statues here and many were destroyed by the conquerors and also as part of the civil war. At least some of these statues were discovered during excavations and have been reinstated.

The disfigured Buddhas

One can look out of the galleries at this level to get an overview of the temple complex.

View from the second level

The Third Level or Bakan :

The ascent to the third level is via a steep stairway . Since the principal sanctuary of the temple was at the third level, the ascent along these stairs to reach God was symbolic of separating oneself from this world.

The steep stairway leading to the third level

This principal sanctuary of the temple at the third level had access restricted to the king and high priests. There are four equal sized towers at the four corners with a larger tower in the centre. This arrangement is called quincunx, The upper portions of some of these towers have collapsed and are in various stages of restoration.

All towers are shaped like the lotus bud which is very sacred in Southeast Asia.

Details of one of the lotus bud shaped towers (note restoration work in progress)

The corner towers are connected by galleries . Each of these towers are connected by axial galleries to the central tower .This arrangement is called a cruciform cloister. The cruciform cloister has chambers that look like tanks and it is believed that at one point in time, these tanks had water in them.

A cruciform cloister

Looking out from the galleries of this level, one can really see the vastness of this complex and get an overview of its plan.

An over view of the complex from the third level

The upper level , especially the towers are also believed to have had lot of wealth , gems, jewellery and other valuables stored by the King. They have all been systematically stolen by conquerors, during the civil wars and even by local vandals.

After a tour of the different levels of the temple we descended down to the first level.

Ashtabuja Vishnu ( 8 handed Vishnu)

A huge Vishnu statue with 8 arms is still being worshipped here. This is now in the south gopura of the outer gallery at the western entrance. It is believed that this was the deity in the central tower at the principal sanctuary of the temple.

It is also believed that the corner towers had statues of Shiva and his consort and other Hindu Gods. These are all now missing.

The Ashtabhuja Vishnu

We also find Buddha statues draped in yellow here. It is believed that many of these were Vishnu statues which were converted to Buddha statues at different periods in history.

The Buddha draped in yellow


You must have noticed in my pictures that many parts of this monument are in need of restoration. This is also happening here and many areas are being redone. The French have done lot of restoration work. India has also taken up lot of restoration work here and we can see many galleries where the damaged images and carvings have been restored.

One such example is an ornate ceiling which was originally made of wood and now redone.

The restored ornate ceiling

With continuous work towards this ; hopefully , the magnificence of this monument will be restored to a great level if not to its original glory.

We continued our visits to other parts of the Angkor Complex , which will be featured in forthcoming episodes.

It has been my endeavour to put the maximum information across to you with minimum overload. Hope you all enjoyed it. However much one describes this monument, it will never match the glory of a personal visit.

So do add it to your wish list. Till then, do give me your feedback and comments.

Siem Reap

I had the opportunity to visit Siem Reap in Cambodia as part of a group tour where we covered Vietnam and Cambodia. We did Vietnam first and then moved to Cambodia. The forthcoming blogs are part of this group tour that I undertook in late 2022.

Let me first introduce you to the wonderful group of people with whom I did this amazing trip. We were a group of fun loving seniors, some of them my medical college classmates. The others in the group were also very warm and friendly and you will get to see glimpses of all the fun we had as I take you along. My travel buddy was Dr Margaret, my classmate whom we all fondly call Maggie. Since the word Maggie is associated with a brand of noodles and we were buddies, I got the nickname Pasta. From this itself you will get an idea of the camaraderie in the group. This warmth and friendliness went a long way in making the tour more enjoyable!! Many of them had carried loads of snacks and other items which we all thoroughly enjoyed especially during our long bus rides.

Our Viet Cam tour group.

We arrived Siem Reap from Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam, one beautiful day in December 2022. This was my first visit to Cambodia.

Siem Reap is a resort town in North western Cambodia best known for the Angkor ruins. It is home to the World famous Angkor Wat temple, and various other temples at Angkor Thom. It served as the seat of the Khmer kingdom between the 9th and 15th centuries. Today, it is the capital of Siem Reap province and the second largest city in Cambodia.

Siem Reap literally means Siam (Thailand) defeated. French colonial architecture still dominates the streets . It was a quaint village once upon a time. With the Angkor Wat and other temples gaining popularity as a tourist destination, Siem Reap today sees lot of construction and modern amenities to suit the requirements of the tourists.

As we landed at Siem Reap I could see large waterbodies and probably swamps. More on this in my future episodes. For now, let us look around Siem Reap city.

The airport itself is built in traditional design and looks quite different from any regular airport. It is located 7 kms away from the town centre.

Aesthetically designed Siem Reap airport ( in contrast to most airport buildings)

Our Guide was Sarath and he received us at the airport and escorted us to our Hotel.

Our Guide in Cambodia Sarath

The hotel room at the Lynnaya Resort was done up in typical Cambodian style with lotus flowers taking the centre stage of the decor. The lotus is omnipresent in Cambodia and is used extensively for various purposes. This is typical of Cambodia and even the towers of Angkor Wat temple are shaped like lotus buds!!

Various artistic expressions using a lotus….

Glimpses of Siem Reap….

Angkor Enterprises office

In preparation for our Angkor Wat tour, our guide took us to the Angkor ticket office and purchased our entry tickets which had to have our photos and so we all completed that formality and were given the tickets for our visit. This ticket is very essential to enter any of the temples here. The ticket was checked at multiple entry points.

The Angkor Enterprise office

Angkor Museum

Siem Reap also has an Angkor Museum.

This museum has exhibits covering the history, art, architecture and culture of the Khmer Empire.

The Angkor Museum

Pub Street

Pub Street ; traditionally known for its bars, is at the heart of tourist activity in Siem Reap. It has a wide selection of restaurants , bars, nightclubs, street food, shops, stalls and just about everything. Initially this area was primarily residential. Walking around Pub street and soaking in the ambience is in itself an experience. Traditional Cambodian street food stalls attract lot of tourists.

Many places here function round the clock but comes alive after 7 pm .As the evening gives way to night, the streets become active with loud music, and the party spills on to the streets.

Pub Street

A Tuk Tuk is the local equivalent of an autorickshaw and is seen everywhere on the streets of Siem Reap.

Tuk Tuk

Local Food

Cambodian street food or local food is similar to that in most South East Asian countries. Predominantly non vegetarian with frogs, insects, snakes and other reptiles forming a part of the menu. Rice of course; sticky rice as they call it, is the staple food. Apart from that, lot of coconut and coconut milk preparations are seen particularly as desserts.

Roast Frogs, fish and beef in that order

A sweet made of rice and bananas, rice dumplings and roast bananas in that order

Cambodian Rice

Cambodians eat rice at every meal. No surprise then, that they grow some of the finest rice varieties in the world. Just out of the city, and you can see plenty of rice fields. The heavy monsoons, the Mekong river and the Tonle Sap lake ensure that the crop gets its share of water.

They grow both fragrant rice and white rice. Jasmine Rice from Cambodia is considered the best quality rice in the world.

A rice field

Exotic Fruits Of Cambodia

I love fruits and this was something I really enjoyed here. Cambodia had a real good variety of exotic fruits.

The Durian (similar to jackfruit), passion fruit and the extra large tender coconut

The Longan ( similar to lychi ) and the pink coloured dragon fruit

Being a vegetarian, these fruits formed a large part of my daily breakfast in Cambodia. Ours was a vegetarian group and as such we visited a couple of vegetarian Indian restaurants during this tour for lunch and dinner. There are good vegetarian restaurants and Indian restaurants in Cambodia about which I shall mention as I go along.

An authentic Indian Restaurant in Siem Reap which we visited.

The Spirit houses

Have you seen a structure like the one in the picture below and wondered what it is?

The Spirit House outside our hotel

They are the spirit houses seen in front of most houses in many South East Asian countries. Cambodia is no exception and you find them all over. Some are very well maintained like the one in front of our hotel . Others are less ornate. It is a shrine dedicated to the protective spirit of a place. The belief is that the spirits have to be appeased to ward off evil and bring good luck. Bunches of burnt incense sticks can be seen in front of these spirit houses.

Apsara Dance show

We had the opportunity to see the Apsara Dance show which is a traditional Cambodian dance performance. The singers , instrumentalists and dancers together put up a wonderful show of traditional Khmer culture as we enjoyed dinner at the theatre.

A traditional Cambodian orchestra with as many as twenty musicians with strong emphasis on percussion instruments is called “Pinpeat”. The dance performance was accompanied by a traditional orchestra too.

Apsara dancers displayed remarkable poise , agility and grace with slow and rhythmic movements of the body and the limbs synchronous with the music. The dancers were extremely slim and petite and wore headgear and ornaments similar to those seen on the Apsara statues seen in the Angkor Wat temple walls. These dancers practice for years to stretch and flex their bodies as required in this dance form. These dances are inspired by the traditional apsara dancers who entertained the Gods as per the epics.

The Cambodian version of Ramayana is called Reamker and features in many of the traditional dances of Cambodia. In addition to the Apsara dances, other traditional Cambodian dances were also enacted.

Here are some pictures and videos from the show. Take a look…

A statue of King Suryavarman II at the entrance to the theatre.

The Apsaras…note the headgear and ornaments.

A visual demonstration of an epic with the audience in the foreground

The dancers pose with a member of the audience

A traditional Khmer Dance

A video of the Apsara dance with traditional music

A video of a traditional Khmer dance . Note the beat of the music.

These were just glimpses of our stay at Siem Reap. The main purpose of visiting Siem Reap was to visit the Angkor Archaeological Complex. We visited that and also some other archaeological places of interest like Mahendraparvata, the Thousand Shiva Lingas, Phnom Kulen etc. In addition we also visited Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in S E Asia and a remarkable floating village on its banks.

So you can look forward to some remarkable destinations in the forthcoming episodes starting with the main attraction; Angkor Wat which features in my next episode.

Meanwhile do continue your support with feedback and comments .