One of the main reasons for my deciding to take the Viking River Cruise through Vietnam and Cambodia was the opportunity to visit Angkor Wat, the largest religious monument in the world.  It had been on my “bucket list” for quite some time, and this UNESCO World Heritage Site certainly didn’t disappoint.

What struck me immediately upon arrival was the sheer size of the complex, for it would take quite some time to simply walk around its perimeter.  Its moat is 1.5 km. long and 200 metres wide, and the stone causeway that leads to the outer enclosure is 250m long and 12m wide.  A statue of the mythical Naga, the seven-headed serpent protector of Buddha, greeted me at this causeway, along with a statue of the guardian lion, and as I walked toward the central tower, I found an entrance hall that served as an antechamber to the inner courtyard of the enclosure.  I could then see the enormity of the central complex of Angkor Wat itself, as it was visible straight ahead of me, at the end of another raised promenade.  As I approached a lotus pond that was now in the foreground, prior to reaching the temple itself, I was able to stop for the best ‘photo op’ of them all, for the mammoth temple, with its five elevated towers, was reflected in the pond.  This is a particularly popular spot for photographers at sun-up.

As I continued on my journey, I discovered that the central temple complex consisted of three tiers, each made of sandstone, and each of these rectangular areas became progressively smaller and higher than the one before.  A series of intricate carvings stretched around the entire outside of this central temple complex, and it was then that I realized that it was not only the grandeur of this complex that was so intriguing, but it was also the decorative flourishes, artistry, and intricate stone carvings that embellished it. Bas-relief galleries lined several of the walls and told enduring tales of Cambodian legends and history.

I entered an inner courtyard and ascended to the first level of Angkor Wat. As I passed through the Gallery of a Thousand Buddhas, I found that many of the Buddha statues had been removed, stolen, or damaged over the years, so only a handful remained intact. As I ascended to the second storey level, via a steep staircase (without a handrail), I found that the corners of this section were marked by towers that were topped with symbolic lotus buds.  I also found a plethora of apsara (heavenly nymphs) carvings.  Then, as I continued my ascent, I found that the staircase to the top level was so steep that a handrail was provided – and it was still a challenge to reach the summit. Apparently it’s not meant to be easy to reach the heavens!  This upper level is known as the Bakan Sanctuary, and there’s a hallway, with quite a series of steps (both up and down), that leads around the entire perimeter.  However, the views made it well worth the effort to get around!  It’s quite a height (213m/699 feet), so I could see much of the surrounding area from up here.  I had to wear proper clothing to visit this most sacred of areas (which could be shorts to the knees and a shirt that covered my shoulders). Then, after my visit, I had to make the even more treacherous descent down those steep stairs!

Angkor Wat was originally constructed in the early part of the 12th century for King Suryavarman II as a Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu  Historians believe that it was to be both a temple and mausoleum.  It’s estimated that it took about 30 years to build this massive complex, using about 300,000 laborers and 6,000 elephants. It was eventually transformed into a Buddhist temple, so statues of Buddha were then added to the already rich artwork. It remains as an archaeological wonder to this very day.

Angkor Wat is located near Cambodia’s modern city of Siem Reap.  However, it was a significant part of what was known back then as Angkor, the capital of the Khmer Empire and the largest city in the world at that time. This religious monument is now the centerpiece of Angkor Archaeological Park, which is home to several incredible ancient structures, including the Bayon (with its huge stone carved faces) and Ta Prohm (where immense tree roots strangle the Buddhist temple). Angkor Wat is the largest and best preserved of these architectural masterpieces, and it’s said to be a miniature replica of the cosmic world.  Its central tower symbolizes the mythical mountain, Meru, and the five towers correspond to the five peaks of Meru (a sacred mountain in both Hindu and Buddhist cosmology).

Angkor Wat, this remarkable ancient temple located in the jungle, is so grand in design and held in such respect in Cambodia that its image even appears on the Cambodian flag.  It’s the best preserved example of Khmer architecture, and it’s attracting a great many tourists to this fascinating destination. Be sure to carry water with you on your tour of this monument, for it can get very hot here.