Angkor Wat temple was the centerpiece of the great Khmer Empire and was built in honor of Vishnu, the Hindu God. Even some 900 years after Angkor Wat was constructed, it still draws large crowds. Since the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge and the subsequent civil war, Cambodia has opened its doors to the world and each year millions of people travel to Siem Reap for one reason – to visit the great Angkor Wat temple.
Most visitors are surprised to learn that Angkor Wat isn’t the only large temple in Cambodia. In fact, the ancient Khmer were prolific builders and built hundreds of temples during their reign. Angkor Wat was the biggest temple built by the Khmer and still is the world’s largest religious monument ever built.
When was Angkor Wat Built?
Angkor Wat was completed in the early part of the 12th century. The exact date of the construction is unknown, but it was built during the reign of King Suryavarman II who ruled between 1113 and 1150 AD. Unusually, the temple was dedicated to Vishnu. Most temples at the time were dedicated to Shiva, the destroyer of evil.
Religious Changes in Cambodia
Towards the end of the 12th century, Angkor Wat had gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple which it remains today. During this time, various kings had differing religions with some favoring Hinduism and others either Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism. Today, Cambodia is a still a Theravada Buddhist country.
Was Angkor Wat Abandoned?
Unlike the other temples built during the Angkor period, Angkor Wat wasn’t completely abandoned. Many of the temples in the Angkor Archaeological Park were abandoned and the jungle slowly took over. In some cases, such as Ta Prohm or Beng Mealea, the jungle can be seen literally growing through the structure of the temple. Ta Prohm is famous for its role in the Tomb Raider movie and the magnificent trees and foliage which now form part of the structure.
However, Angkor Wat was protected from the jungle by the large moat which surrounds it. Although the temple was neglected from the 16th century onwards, it was never deserted. In 1586, a Portuguese monk named Antonio da Madalena was one of the first western visitors to see Angkor Wat and he described it as being “like no other building in the world.”
There are inscriptions dating from the 17th century which say that Japanese Buddhist pilgrims were living in the area alongside Khmer locals. There are inscriptions which show that the Japanese celebrated Khmer New Year with the locals in 1632.
When was Angkor Wat Rediscovered?
Although inhabited, Angkor Wat was slowly forgotten by the local population. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century when the famous French explorer Henri Mouhot came across the temple and shared his stories of grand buildings which were larger than anything in Rome that the west started to learn about Angkor Wat.
In the early 20th century an extensive restoration program was initiated. Tons of earth and vegetation were removed from the site. However, work stopped during the Khmer Rouge and civil war periods.
Luckily, Angkor Wat largely survived the conflicts unscathed although it did suffer some damage by a stray American shell during their bombing of Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This “secret war” on Cambodia was kept from the American public by Richard Nixon, but the devastating effects of the B-52 bombers can still be seen today.
Many Khmer Rouge camps removed wood which was still used as part of the structure for firewood. Also, a battle between Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese troops saw some bullet holes in the bas-reliefs of the structure.
Art Thieves and Looting
Unfortunately, Cambodia was a relatively lawless country in the late 1980s and early 1990s and gangs operating from Bangkok took advantage of the situation. Nearly all the heads on the statues were removed during this period.
Today, Cambodia is trying to recover this stolen art and gradually more and more pieces are finding their way back home to the Kingdom. However, many thousands of pieces still remain in private collections around the world and are unlikely to ever be returned.
International art thieves were helped by the locals to extract and move the ancient artefacts across the border to Bangkok where they were then sent to destinations all over the world.
Angkor Wat in the 21st Century
Nowadays, Angkor Wat is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one the biggest tourist attractions in Southeast Asia. The temple has become the symbol of Cambodia and features on the national flag, money, and there’s even a beer named after the temple.
Recent findings including large towers which were demolished during the construction of the temple. There is also evidence of low-level housing in the area which suggests that the temple wasn’t only the exclusive domain of the elite in Khmer society.
Angkor Wat Tours
Angkor Wat is the reason why most people come to visit Cambodia and Maison Polanka has a range of tour options available. We can arrange virtually any kind of trip to Angkor Wat from a local tuk tuk to enjoying birds-eye views of the temple from a helicopter or hot air balloon.
Please speak to a member of our team about the options available to visit the great temples of Angkor. There’s so many things to see and do during your stay in Siem Reap and our team will be able to help you plan the perfect itinerary for your stay.