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Angkor Wat History: A Cambodian Monument For The Ages

Angkor Wat in the red sunset light

Angkor Wat has occupied 402 acres across some of the world’s most magical surroundings since the height of the Khmer Empire in the 12th century. Its original purpose is still clear, designed as a Hindu temple dedicated to the god Vishnu. We know this from the orientation of the monument. Unlike other archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, Angkor Wat faces west, a dedication to Vishnu who was associated with the West. Today, Angkor Wat attracts more than 2 million tourists each year. But what happened in between? Here we take a look at a brief history of Angkor Wat through the ages.

When Did Angkor Wat Begin? 

This religious enclosure (‘wat’ is a word borrowed from the ancient Indian language Sanskrit that translates to ‘enclosure’) was built as King Suryavarman II’s state temple in the main surviving city at the time, noted to be somewhere between 1113 and 1150.

Renowned for its Khmer architectural style and build, Angkor Wat’s formidable sandstone pillars rise 213 ft (65 meters) in height, exuding divine power. In fact, a sturdy material called laterite was actually used, which in turn was encased with softer sandstone used to carve the reliefs. A chain of canals was used to transport these blocks from their birthplace in the Kulen Hills, about 18 miles (30 km) to the north.

Having been founded by Khmer natives, it was soon taken over by their enemies the Chams, 27 years after the king, who originally declared the construction of Angkor Wat, had passed away.

Closeup of Bayon Buddha face

Impressive Buddha carvings

A Religious Conversion

Following this, Jayavarman VII  (the new king), restored the empire and built a new capital and state temples of his own to the north of Angkor Wat. Nearing the end of the 12th century, the domain transformed from a Hindu center to a Buddhist worshipping ground.

Ever since Angkor Wat has been occupied and never been completely abandoned, with religious and non-religious folk alike attracted to this monumental symbol of Cambodian history.

Carvings visible among ruins

Statues and carvings can be found among ruins

The Last 100 Years

The last 100 years have seen huge changes for Angkor Wat, with a series of significant restoration sprints beginning in 1908, the majority of work being undertaken in the 1960s, and then later between 1986 and 1992. Due to natural erosion, around 20% of the structures are deteriorated or damaged in concerning ways. Paying attention to this, countries like China, France, and Japan are working rigorously with Angkor Wat conservation programs and UNESCO to restore and maintain this gigantic piece of antiquity, safeguard the land, and secure it as a monument of Cambodian past, present, and future.

Amazingly its original construction has helped with its preservation. In addition to using canals for transporting its building blocks, the waterways have ensured groundwater levels have not risen too high or fallen too low, thereby preserving the longevity of the land and much of the estate. The best example of this can be seen with the best-preserved temple in the city being surrounded by a 3 feet deep (4 meters) and 650-foot-wide (200 meters) moat.

More recently, discoveries have been made concerning the inner workings of the temple itself. In just the last nine years, since 2010 over 200 paintings have been unearthed from the chambers. These depictions show elephants, boats, orchestral ensembles, and even people riding horses.


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This entry was posted May 13, 2019
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