However many times you’ve seen it on film or in photographs, nothing prepares you for the majesty of Angkor Wat. Dominated by five majestic, corn-cob towers, this masterpiece of Khmer architecture, consecrated around 1150 to the Hindu god Vishnu, is thought to have taken around thirty years to complete. Stunning from a distance, as you approach its intricacy becomes apparent, with every nook and cranny filled with fine detail, each new feature surpassing the last. If time allows, it’s worth visiting at different times of day to see how the colours of the stone change with the light.
Experts have long debated whether Angkor Wat was built for worship or for funerary purposes, because the site is approached from the west and the gallery of bas-reliefs is designed to be viewed anti-clockwise, both of which are associated with death. Nowadays, it’s generally accepted that it was used by the king for the worship of the devaraja during his lifetime, and became his mausoleum upon his death.
Entry to the complex is from the west, via an impressive laterite causeway built from massive blocks of stone. Paved with sandstone and edged by a crumbling naga balustrade with terraces guarded by lions, it crosses the 200-metre-wide moat to the west gopura of the fourth enclosing wall.
The west gopura stretches for nearly 230m and has three towers, plus entrances large enough to allow elephants to pass through. Inside the southern section of the gopura, invariably garlanded with offerings of flowers and enveloped in a fog of incense, is an eight-armed statue of Vishnu, over 3m tall. Looking out from the gopura, there’s a panoramic view of the temple. The first of Angkor Wat’s fabulous apsaras, born from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, are delicately carved into the sandstone on the eastern exterior of the gopura, their feet foreshortened and skewed to the side, possibly because of lack of space.
From the gopura, a second causeway leads to the temple, 350m long and even more impressive than the one across the moat. The buildings partway along are libraries, the one to the north already restored, the southern one still undergoing work.
In front of the temple is the cruciform-shaped Terrace of Honour, framed by the naga balustrade; apsara dances were once performed here and ceremonial processions received by the king. Beyond the terrace, a short flight of steps leads up to the third enclosing wall, whose western gopura is linked to a cruciform cloister and two galleries.