As you cross the stone causeway over the moat on the way into Angkor Wat, only three of the temple’s elaborately carved sandstone towers are immediately visible. Built in the 12th century by Suryavarman Hand dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the shrine was later taken over by Buddhist monks, who converted it into a thriving monastery and temple.
A series of three concentric rectangular walls enclose a raised central shrine symbolizing the Hindu sacred mountain, Meru. Ornate gateways lead from one enclosure to the next, and flights of narrow steps climb to the shrine entrances. Streams of visitors climb the steps or sit to admire the intricately carved details on the buildings.
Exquisitely executed bas-reliefs in the galleries of the inner enclosure depict scenes from the ancient Hindu epics and from the life of Suryavarman, who is buried beneath the centralprasat (tower). Angkor Wat is one spectacular element in the massive Khmer capital that once covered nearly 150 square miles (390 square kilometers). Lost in the rain forest for several centuries before its rediscovery in 1860, the site was impossible to visit for much of the 20th century due to war and political turmoil in Indochina.
The temple can be seen in half a day, but you will need two or three full days for a thorough exploration of the other major monuments at Angkor. One-, three-, and seven-day passes are available for Angkor Wat and other monuments in the area. Since the 1990s, the city of Siem Reap has grown into a thriving tourist hub with numerous hotels at different price levels. Several airlines fly direct to Siem Reap from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and other major cities in the region.
A series of bas-reliefs on the inner walls of the second enclosure include the Battle of Kurukshetra from the Hindu epic tale, the Mahabharata’, scenes from the 37 Heavens and 32 Hells of Indian tradition; and “The Churning of the Sea of Milk by Gods and Demons” from Vishnu lore.