Travel guide to visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia

The majestic and forgotten city of the Khmer kings


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Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

GPS: 13.414221014805, 103.86898047414

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Angkor temple is located in the northern province of Cambodia in Siem Reap, in a fertile valley between the Tonlé Sap Lake and the mountain range of Phnom Kulen. It is composed of approximately 200 temples, sanctuaries and royal palaces erected between the 9th and 15th centuries by several rulers of the Khmer Empire. The self-proclaimed god-king Jayavarman II was the founder of this vast empire after having conquered several territories. When most tourists visit Cambodia they love to visit the Angkor Wat complex to visit the best-preserved monument of the old capital of Angkor which is the now Buddhist temple complex of Angkor Wat which is a world heritage site. The construction of Angkor Wat was built so that it occupies the central position of the capital city of a vast kingdom that ruled over the entire peninsula of Southeast Asia in the Middle Ages.

Symbolising the mythical mountain of Mount Meru, the monumental complex and temple-mountain of Angkor Wat includes a set of five towers carved in the shape of lotus buds. This architectural jewel of Angkor Wat is considered a top tourism destination for visitors where the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat read counterclockwise. Embodying the quintessence of Khmer art, was built at the request of King Suryavarman II in 1140 to honour the Hindu god Vishnu and make it his mausoleum after he died. Therefore the temple is associated with funeral rites for King Suryavarman and is in this way associated with death. The original name of the temple was vrah viṣṇuloka meaning the “the shrine of Vishnu”. Built in a space of 40 years, the Cambodian Angkor Wat prospered thanks to the implementation of an innovative irrigation and water management system. This system optimises rice cultivation while controlling the seasonal phenomenon of the monsoon. Cambodia’s visitors to Angkor Wat may look at a plan of Angkor Wat to see how Angkor Wat is oriented with an extensive network of roads, canals, water basins, dams and dykes which have been built around large areas of settlements, monasteries and royal palaces. There is a moat and an outer wall more than a kilometer long which is another indication that the temple Angkor Wat is unusually oriented towards larger-than-life architecture where the sacred dwelling is ideal for photographs and images from Angkor Wat. Chinese diplomat zhou daguan lived in angkor for one year from 1296 to 1297 where he would have discussed important deities and figures.

Initially devoted to Hinduism and Hindu culture and originally built as a Hindu temple, Angkor Wat in Cambodia was transformed into a place of Buddhist worship by decision of King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century. He built new temples, more sophisticated than Angkor Wat’s previous ones, in the nearby royal city of Angkor Thom. On the death of the sovereign, a long phase of decline begins. It was caused by the ageing of the hydraulic network, combined with deforestation, soil erosion, great periods of drought and a series of floods. The city of Angkor Wat temple was plundered by the troops of the Kingdom of Champa in 1177 before being occupied in 1352 by the Sukhothai Kingdom then vandalised by the Ayutthaya Kingdom in 1431. These successive attacks marked the fall and end of the Khmer Empire and the Khmer king in the 15th century. Bringing together beliefs linked to Hinduism and Buddhism, this high place of pilgrimage and ancient monument and state temple of Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and is made of sandstone blocks and laterite forming the wall at Angkor Wat and cut from a quarry in the area. This historic site of this state temple and capital city, treasured by the Cambodian government and discovered by French explorer Henri Mouhot, is a national symbol of Cambodia throughout the world for those who visit Angkor Wat.

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  • The gigantic proportions of Angkor Wat (the site is protected by a moat and a 5 km long surrounding wall); the classical Khmer architecture of the Temple City (its five towers, once covered in gold, are decorated with various animal and plant motifs)
  • The carved galleries and the ornamentation of numerous bas-reliefs; the 2 km long fresco displaying sculptures of dancing celestial nymphs (called Apsaras in Hindu mythology)
  • The main tower and the statue of the god Vishnu of Angkor Wat; the fantastic panorama from the top of the main shrine
  • The Ta Phrom temple invaded by the jungle and the roots of strangler fig trees; the flat temple of Banteay Srei; the other mountain temples symbolizing Mount Meru in Hindu cosmology (including the Pre Rup, Ta Keo, Bayon and Phnom Bakheng temples)
  • The Buddhist temples of Preah Khan, Banteay Kdei and Neak Pean; the Hindu temples of Phimeanakas, Pre Rup and Preah Vihear
  • The splendid temples located within the walls of the royal city of Angkor Thom (including the Baphuon and the Royal Palace); the extravagant bas-reliefs of the Terrace of the Elephants and the Terrace of the Leper King
  • The luxuriant and opulent vegetation cover of the surrounding nature; the tangle of stones that seem to come straight out of the jungle; the complex and innovative system of the hydraulic network set up by the Khmer civilization (network of dykes, canals and basins)
  • The ruins of the ancient city of Mahendraparvata discovered in 2013 40 km north-east of Angkor Wat; the sacred mountain of Phnom Kulen; the carved riverbed of the Kbal Spean site (also known as “The River of a Thousand Lingas” in reference to the representations of Shiva carved into the riverbed as a tribute to Lord Shiva)
  • The Siem Reap Archaeological Museum (Angkor National Museum) focusses on the history of Khmer civilization; the activities organized within the framework of the Angkor Sankranta cultural festival (event held every year in April to celebrate the traditional Khmer New Year); the hydrological system of the lake and the Tonlé Sap River (whose watercourse reverses naturally every six months towards or away from the Mekong River)
  • At its peak, Angkor was focusses
    seemingly the largest medieval city in the world (its population may have reached nearly a million) and remains the largest religious complex ever built. Hundreds of thousands of workers, helped by elephants, are said to have participated in its construction. The territory of the Khmer Empire extended over 1,000 km² beyond the borders of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
  • According to Sanskrit inscriptions found on site, the temples of Angkor were erected not only as a place of worship but also as a means of uniting the population and collecting a local tax. The stone buildings were reserved only for the gods, while the dwellings were made of wood and thatch (which is why there are very few visible traces of these constructions that have been altered over time).
  • The set of bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat is the longest series of bas-reliefs in the world.
  • The city would have played an important astronomical role for the Khmers. Aligned with the rising sun, the site of Angkor Wat deliberately counts 1/2 degree of offset on the cardinal points so that the sun rises precisely above the complex. The whole structure is thus built according to the sun’s trajectory.
  • Ta Phrom temple is adorned with an unusual sculpture resembling a large herbivorous dinosaur with a row of fins on its back, the stegosaurus. Created at the end of the 12th century, this mysterious bas-relief reminds some people of the presence of dinosaurs in the humid jungles of South-East Asia in the Middle Ages. A more credible theory suggests the shape of another animal, probably a rhinoceros, buffalo or chameleon with a series of decorative spikes that may represent lotus petals (often used artistically in Khmer monuments) or a palm tree in the background.
  • New research techniques, such as lidar (airborne laser), have led to significant discoveries in recent years. The most eminent is the discovery of the ancient city of Mahendraparvata in the mountainous area of Phnom Kulen, whose construction appears to predate the ancient foundations of Angkor Wat (early 9th century). Stelae on the site indicate that this forgotten capital was built by the founder of the Khmer Empire (the god-king Jayavarman II). According to archaeologist Jean-Baptiste Chevance (head of the Phnom Kulen Program of the Archaeology & Development Foundation) it served as an urban model for the construction of Angkor Wat.
  • Against the advice of UNESCO, the Cambodian government has approved a project to create a huge water park a few hundred metres from Angkor Wat in 2021. Named Angkor Lake of Wonder, this leisure park will include a vast hotel complex and could threaten the fragile environment of the archaeological site (pollution emissions, reduction of water reserves, alteration of landscapes, over-attendance by tourists…).
  • Tonlé Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. During the monsoon rainy season (between April and the end of October), the surface area of the lake can be multiplied five or six times and it is not unusual to see its waters overflowing extensively into the nearby fields, rice fields and forests.
  • An original and efficient way to get to as many temples in the Siem Reap region could be to rent a bicycle, a motorized two-wheeler or to use a tuk-tuk (tricycle taxi).
  • The best time to visit the busiest temples (Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom) is at sunrise from 5 am.
  • Entrance tickets are sold at ticket offices located on Apsara Road (road located between the centre of Siem Reap and the archaeological site of Angkor Wat). One-day, three-day and seven-day passes are available (the three-day option is undoubtedly the best to discover the maximum number of temples at your own pace). They include entry to sites located outside Angkor (such as Beng Mealea in the east and Banteay Srei in the north of the archaeological park).
  • Angkor Wat retains a religious function and ceremonies are still held there. It is therefore recommended covering your shoulders and legs within the temples.
  • Be careful if you wish to explore on your own the Phnom Kulen National Park, where the first capital of the Khmer Empire (Mahendraparvata) lies. The last place of retreat of the totalitarian Khmer Rouge, this remote area still lives under the threat of anti-personnel mines. Still little known to visitors, this massif has many archaeological remains including lingas (sculpted river beds) and is the home of the rivers that irrigated the city of Angkor Wat (Puok, Siem Reap and Roluos).
  • The capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, exhibits one of the most important collections of Khmer art in the National Museum of Cambodia (sculptures, ethnographic objects, ceramics, statues, bas-reliefs, ornamental motifs, ancient books…).

Where to eat

  • Votey Bormey
    (typical Cambodian dishes)
  • Sala Baï Restaurant School
    (supporting young people)
  • Damnak Lounge Fine Dining
    (personalized welcome)

Where to go

  • Pub Street
    (immersion in local life)
  • Angkor National Museum
    (great archaeological remains)
  • Flight of the Gibbon
    (through Angkor Wat's canopy)

Where to stay

  • Angkor Wattanak Pheap Hotel
    (very pleasant place)
  • Hotel Santa Clara
    (small charming hotel)
  • Shinta Mani Club Siem Reap
    (heavenly stay)