Forget St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, the Grand Mosque in Mecca or the Belz Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, the largest religious building in the world lies within the sedate rice fields and waterways of Northern Cambodia.
The name Angkor Wat carries a wonderfully mythical, adventurous feel to it and this is one sight that truly lives up to its grand billing. Built in the 12th Century at the centre of the Khmer Empire, the temple, which was built as a Hindu centre of worship but later converted to Buddhism, spreads over an area of roughly 402 acres – making it about half the size of Central Park in New York.
It is a place of mystery, where, despite the thousands who visit daily, you can still find yourself wandering through a deserted corridor and across rough stones that have seen century’s worth of human traffic. Today it is one of the most spectacular and popular tourist attractions on the planet, yet somehow manages to retain its jungle temple charm.
Angkor Wat Today
Before we jump back to the construction process, which according to a local legend took place over just one very busy night, let’s start with Angkor Wat in the present day.
In the days before Covid, Angkor Wat teemed with tourists, with over 2 million visitors coming to the temple just outside the town of Siem Reap each year. The main attraction of course is the famed temple, ideally with a sunrise picture taken from the other side of a small lake that has become the photo of Angkor Wat.
The main temple complex lies on a small island with bridge access from two sides. But this iconic building only begins to tell the story of this area. As you fan out from Angkor Wat, countless smaller temples can be found to the north, east and west. Some are large and well known, such as Angkor Thom and the Bayan, others small that on occasions look like they’re in the process of being reclaimed by nature. You need days to see it all.
The Khmer Empire
The Khmer, or Angkorian Empire to use its other name, roughly defines a period between the 9th and 15th Century in Cambodia, but also included significant sections of modern-day Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, reaching a peak area of around 1,000,000 km2 (390,000 sq mi) – around two and half times the size of California – and a population of roughly 2 million.
At its height, the Khmer Empire was one of the most powerful in the region with its borders slowly expanding through conquest. The first capital is thought to have been Mahendraparvata, a city spanning an extraordinary 40 to 50 square kilometres (15-19 sq miles) built on a plateau in a mountainous region called Phnom Kulen. Today, you would have absolutely no idea that one of the great medieval cities once stood here, in fact, you probably wouldn’t go anywhere near the area as there are plenty of landmines leftover from the days of the Khmer Rouge – more on that particularly horrific period a little later in the video.
Eventually, the Khmer ruler decided on a new spot for a capital city and the foundations were laid for Yasodharapura, the first major settlement in the Angkor region. The Empire split apart at the beginning of the 10th century before reuniting in the 12th Century after plenty of turmoil and the odd Game of Thrones-esque family feud. This sparked the Khmer Empire’s golden age and led to many of the extraordinary constructions that we see in Angkor today.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a local story of how Angkor Wat was built over a single night by a divine architect. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that’s probably not true but certainly makes for a charming story.
The real construction process of Angkor Wat isn’t always clear. We roughly know who built it and when, but the abandonment of the complex and the temples around it as major population centres for several centuries has left plenty of holes. Many historic constructions have been found to include a foundation stela or contemporary inscriptions that give clues about the original structure, but at Angkor Wat, these are completely missing. In fact, the name Angkor Wat is a modern interpretation, we don’t even know what this great Khmer site was called when construction began. Angkor simply means ‘capital city’ in the Khmer language, while Wat translates as ‘temple’.
It’s thought that work began at Angkor Wat sometime in the 12th Century, during the reign of Suryavarman II, king between 1113 and 1150 AD. Unlike other Khmer temples before it which were typically dedicated to the Hindu god Shaiva, Angkor was dedicated to Vishnu. The general belief is that the main complex was built as the King’s personal temple, but also broadly acted as the capital of the entire empire. However, also distinct from other Khmer temples, Angkor Wat orientates to the west rather than the east which has led some to question whether Angkor Wat was in fact a funerary temple.
The layout of the temple can roughly be described as five squares of diminishing size one inside the other, with the final three each slightly raised to give the impression of a pyramid. The largest square is a 3.6 km (2.2 miles) wall that circles the entire complex which in turn is surrounded by a 190 metres (623 ft) wide moat which forms a 1.5km (0.9 miles) by 1.3km (0.8 miles) rectangle.
Between the outer wall and the wall of the second enclosure would have been where the city itself was. As was the case with all secular buildings at Angkor, the city buildings were constructed using perishable materials, meaning that there is absolutely nothing left of the settlement which satellite imaging has revealed was the largest pre-industrial urban centre in the world during its peak.
The second enclosure, or gallery, measures 187 metres (614 ft) by 215 metres (705 ft) and includes small pavilions at each corner. The smallest square is the central sanctuary and includes the five iconic towers set in quincunx shape (what you see when you roll a dice and five appears), four at each corner, each one facing either north-west, north-east south-east, or south-west, with the central tower the largest, reaching 65 metres (213 ft) in height and which aligns perfectly with the spring equinox. There is a tantalising piece of text from the 13th Century that described the towers at Angkor as being gold plated, though we can’t be entirely sure about this. But what a sight that would have been.
And I said, we don’t know much about the process, but we have a fairly clear idea about materials used. Angkor Wat was primarily built using sandstone and it’s thought that between 5 and 10 million sandstone blocks, weighing up to 1.5 tons each, went into the construction. This enormous amount of sandstone was quarried from Phnom Kulen Mountain some 40 kilometres (25 miles) away then floated down the Siem Reap River on rafts. Once at Angkor, these blocks were chiselled into shape then hauled into place with the help of around 300,000 people, 6,000 elephants, a huge system of coir ropes and pulleys, and bamboo scaffolding. All in all, construction work at Angkor used considerably more stone than all of the Egyptian pyramids combined and also needed to be hauled much further. This was a mammoth operation that few structures before it could equal.
Sandstone was used for the most visible aspects of the Angkor Wat but not everywhere. A local clay known as laterite was used for the outer walls and other concealed portions. While the exact binding agent isn’t known, it’s thought to be natural resin or slaked lime. Inside, most of the stones were laid without motor and relied on mortise and tenon joints, an ancient construction method still commonly used with furniture today, in which one section plugs into a purposely created hole in another, or simply with gravity.
While the walls and iconic towers have always been the main draw, the vast amount of bas reliefs through Angkor Wat is simply astonishing. These stone carvings that have been done to create a slightly 3D effect can be found throughout the complex and around 2,000 sq.m (21,525 sq ft) worth of them can be found in Angkor Wat. These typically depict legends and cultural events that helped shape the Khmer Empire over time.
While Angkor Wat would never be completely abandoned, its heyday was remarkably short considering the astonishing work it entailed. Shortly after the death of King Suryavarman II in 1150 AD, work ceased on the still unfinished Angkor Wat. While all the major construction work had long been completed, many blas reliefs were abandoned after the king’s death.
Twenty-seven years later, Angkor was sacked by the Khmer’s traditional enemy, the Chams from the coastal region of what is today Vietnam. It’s unclear just how bad the damage was, but the new king, Jayavarman VII, concluded that the Hindu gods had abandoned him, and Angkor Wat and the decision was taken to up and move capitals yet again, this time just slightly north to what is now Angkor Thom, while the state temple was moved to Bayan, also nearby.
But things continued at Angkor, though in a very different way. Over the coming years and eventually centuries, Angkor Wat was transformed from a Hindu place of worship into a Buddhist one. Many of the inscriptions and carvings were altered during this period, though enough was left to leave clues of what had come before it.
The Khmer Empire as a whole was also sagging. A series of kings pulled the land back and forth between Hinduism and Buddhism, while powerful external forces, most notably the Mongols, gathered in strength. By the start of the 14th Century, the once great Khmer Empire was in a state of steady decline. A combination of internal power struggles, revolts, foreign invasions, plagues, and ecological breakdown involving irrigation systems and subsequent droughts sent the empire nosediving.
The area around Angkor Wat was finally abandoned as any formal seat of power sometime in the 14th Century, with Phnom Penh now becoming the capital of the struggling Cambodian Kingdom.
19th & 20th Centuries
Small groups remained in and around Angkor throughout the centuries, in particular Japanese settlers who believed Angkor to be the famed Jetavana garden of the Buddha.
Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863 and the exotic mysteries of Angkor Wat slowly began to garner attention across the world, kickstarted by the French naturalist and explorer Henri Mouhot who wrote extensively about the area in 1860. But 170 years ago, things looked very different at Angkor Wat. The forests had crept forward and devoured many of the smaller temples, while the main complex was showing its age.
The 20th Century saw substantial restoration work at Angkor Wat, first by the French, then by newly independent Cambodia which emerged in 1953. But work came to a shuddering halt as darkness descended on the country in 1975.
When the Khmer Rouge, a communist guerrilla insurgency, swept into power lead by the enigmatic, yet psychopathic Pol Pot, it began a period that saw 1.5 million to 2 million people killed – 25% of the Cambodian population at the time. Pol Pot’s master plan to evacuate the cities and send everybody to the countryside to toil in the fields was a colossal failure that led to purges and famine that completely altered Cambodia’s social makeup. No doubt you’ve heard of the horrors of the killing fields, a place where tens of thousands were murdered, and where bones and clothing can still be seen mixed in with earth. The catastrophe finally ended in 1979 after the Khmer Rouge picked a fight with the neighbouring Vietnamese and came off decidedly second best.
If you look closely at several bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat you can clearly see bullet holes created during the brief fighting in the area between Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese. But the entire complex was miraculously spared during the nation’s darkest hour.
However it wasn’t so lucky when it came to art thieves, often operating out of Thailand, that ransacked the area during the 1980s, stealing whatever they could until Cambodian authorities finally stepped in to stop the destruction. Or should I say, the private company, SOKIMEX, who effectively rented the site from the Cambodian government between 1990 and 2016 – a shady, politically connected organization that no doubt made a fortune from ticket sales.
The City Rises Again
Angkor may be just a shell of its former glory, but once again it is teeming with people. In 1992 it was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List, and if ever there was a deserving participant in the fabled list, it’s Angkor Wat.
As I said at the start of the video, this is one popular attraction bursting with frustratingly slow and incredibly loud tourists that somehow still manages to deliver. Now over 900 years old, Angkor Wat carries a wonderful air of grandeur and is certainly one of the most important megaprojects of the Middle Ages. A place that used more stone than all the pyramids, created one of the largest urban settlements in the world in the 12th Century and continues to leave those who visit it in raptured awe.