Angkor, the capital of the Khmer empire and home of Angkor Wat, was once the largest city in the world. Extending across over 1,000 square kilometres of jungle, forest and rivers, the complex originally contained over a thousand stone temples and religious structures.
Surrounded by a wide moat and outer wall, and featuring a three-storey central complex and high stone towers, Angkor Wat is one of the most beautiful religious sites on earth. It’s hardly surprising it tops the must-see list for many travellers throughout the world.
Constructed in the 12th century by around 300,000 workers, the temple was built using enormous blocks of sandstone, quarried from a mountain some fifty kilometres away and then floated down the river. They were then locked into place using a series of ropes, pulleys, scaffolding and elephants (inscriptions on the walls suggest almost 6,000 elephants were involved in the hauling process); the joins between slabs are so tight they’re almost impossible to see.
Intricate carvings of asparas (female spirits), Hindu gods and goddesses, elephants and unicorns decorate the temple walls, telling the story of the birth of the universe. Walking through the complex from the causeway and through the internal courtyards to the main tower is said to illustrate a return to the dawn of time.
Also known as the Citadel of the Women, Banteay Srei is a square temple, cut from pink-hued stone and filled with elaborate, delicate carvings. Despite being one of the smallest sites within Angkor, it is by far one of the most beautiful.
Angkor Thom is one of the largest temples in the region. Enclosed by an eight metre-high wall and 100 metre-wide moat, the former ‘Great City’ contains several large temples, including Bayon, intricate carvings and famous stone heads of the god-kings.
Ta Prohm is one of the more distinctive ruins at Angkor. Neglected for centuries, the jungle began encroaching on the stone buildings; now, the courtyards and towers jostle for space alongside enormous strangler figs and ferns.
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When to go
Peak season is between November and February, when the weather is dry and the climate is marginally cooler (though it can still get very hot). We’re usually up and about at 4.30 am in order to get to the complex when it opens at 5 am. Why the early start? Because seeing the central complex bathed in the dawn light is one of the most beautiful, and humbling, sights. Be prepared for crowds though – everyone wants to capture the perfect sunrise shot.
Remember that you are at an important religious site, so dress appropriately. Shoulders should be covered, and skirts, shorts and pants should fall below the knees. Do not touch or sit on the monuments, and be mindful that many people come here to pray.
Did you know?
Water is an important element of the site; manmade canals criss-cross the area and moats surround most of the major complexes. The reservoir at West Baray measures an incredible eight by two kilometres.