Angkor Wat, its beauty and its state of preservation, is unrivaled among the temples of the world. Many observers deem it the Eight Wonder of the World. Its magnificence calls to mind a luxury surpassing that of an emperor’s palace, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness that rivals the Taj Mahal.
The first time I first saw Angkor Wat from across the moat that surrounds it, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Its grandeur and magnificence defy description. I was immediately impressed with its symmetry, as well as with its enormous size. This great temple is rife with symbolism. It is a miniature replica of the universe in stone and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world. The central tower rises from the center of the monument symbolizing the mythical mountain, Meru, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world and the surrounding moat to the oceans that are beyond.
Angkor Wat is an architectural masterpiece. Its perfection in composition, in balance, and in proportionality make it one of the finest monuments in the world. “Wat” is the Khmer name for “temple” and “Angkor” means “city.” It is set on 402 acres. The moat that surrounds Angkor Wat has a long sandstone causeway crossing it. This bridge is 850 feet long (almost three football fields!) and 12 feet wide and serves as the main access route to the monument. The moat is 656 feet wide with a perimeter of about three and a half miles. Angkor Wat was originally constructed in the first half of the 12th century as a Hindu temple, but it was soon transformed into a Buddhist temple as that tradition began to permeate the Khmer Empire.
Angkor Wat is located about four miles north of Siem Reap, Cambodia. Entry and exit to the complex is through its west gate over a bridge that spans the waters that encircle it. From a distance, Angkor Wat appears to be a colossal mass of stone on one level, but close-up it is a series of elevated towers, covered galleries, chambers, porches, and courtyards on different levels often linked by stairways and narrow hallways.
The main (west) entrance begins with steps leading to a raised sandstone terrace in the shape of a cross at the foot of the long causeway. Giant stone lions guard the entrance. Looking straight ahead, you can see at the end of the causeway the entry gate with three towers of different heights. This majestic facade represents an excellent example of classical Khmer architecture. The American author Helen Churchill Candee stood here more than 70 years ago and 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.”
The Siem Reap Province is home to more than 50 temples. Most of these lie within the boundaries of the Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap City in northwestern Cambodia. These temple sites represent the ruins of the ancient Angkorian capital cities of the Khmer Empire (9th-13th century AD). This collection of temples is the largest grouping of religious shrines in the world. Of these many temples, Angkor Wat is the best known and most frequently visited. It is a giant complex when compared with the others and also happens to be the best preserved of the lot. The generally accepted view is that Angkor Wat was originally built as a funerary temple for King Suryavarman II and is oriented to the west to conform to the symbolism between the setting sun and death. The bas-reliefs are designed for viewing from left to right. This arrangement conforms to the order of the Hindu funerary ritual and thus supports this theory.
A figure of a standing Vishnu, one of the principle deities of Hinduism, is just inside the entry tower. In Hindu iconography, as here, Vishnu is often depicted as having a dark or pale blue complexion and four arms. He holds a lotus flower in his lower left hand. Faint traces of original color can still be seen on the ceiling.
The layout of Angkor Wat is virtually impossible to comprehend while walking through the monument simply due to its vastness. It is as if the complexity and beauty of the place both attract and distract from your ability to process what you are seeing. The height of Angkor Wat from the ground to the top of the central tower is about 700 feet. The complex is arranged into three rectangular levels, each being 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 levels. The third level supports five towers, four in the corners and one in the middle. These towers constitute the most prominent architectural feature of Angkor Wat.
Such an arrangement is referred to as a quincunx (a square with five objects arranged with four at the corners and the fifth at its center, e.g., the five dots on a pair of dice). Graduated tiers, one rising above the other, give the towers a conical shape and, near the top, the rows taper to a point. The overall profile imitates that of a lotus bud, so that 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 only allows a view of all five towers from certain angles. They are not visible, for example, from the entrance. I had discovered this bit of information when doing research before my initial visit. One of the things I did was to walk around the periphery outside of the boundaries of the surrounding moat, taking dozens of photographs from the perspectives this journey afforded me.
Many of the structures and courtyards are in the shape of a cross. A curved sloping roof on galleries, chambers, and aisles is a hallmark of Angkor Wat. The pyramid at the heart of the temple is triple tiered. A large central area, four porches, columns, and steps present a symmetrical plan in the shape of a cross. There are two basins measuring 213 x 164 feet with steps nearby that lead to a path which ends near a large tree. Here is a superb view of the five towers of Angkor Wat. There is a nearby terrace known as the Terrace of Honor. Ritual dances were performed here, and it may have been where the king viewed processions and received foreign dignitaries. Up one level is the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, or it was until large numbers of the statues were removed for conservation and the remainder were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge (Cambodian communists and followers of the Communist Party of Kampuchea who infamously carried out the Cambodian genocide).
Most everyone who visits Angkor Wat makes the effort to witness a sunrise over the site. My last visit here, in November of 2017 with my son Michael, included just such a trek. When the wake-up call came at 4 a.m., I admit that I questioned if it would be worth it! After whizzing through the darkened streets of Siem Reap at 5 a.m. in a tuk tuk (motorcycle with a passenger carriage attached), we found ourselves stumbling along in the pitch black, crossing the 820-foot long bridge over the moat and through the entrance gates. As we felt our way along countless stone steps, we began to realize that we were far from alone. There were hundreds of other tourists making their way to the well-documented vantage point in order to watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. We were soon rewarded with a truly magnificent sight which was well worth all the planning, expense and long hours of travel. The vibrant red and orange light rising over this amazing temple was other worldly–something I will never forget.
Next time: “ Peterhof: Peter the Great’s Grand Palace”