15 Awesome facts about Angkor Wat (with some pretty cool pics!)

Mel from Footsteps on the Globe looking out at sunrise at Angkor Wat.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is one of mankind’s most celebrated legacies from the ancient world. This magnificent 12th Century temple complex captivates the imagination of millions of visitors every year with it’s beauty and enduring mystery. Want to learn more about this fascinating wonder before you visit? Here are 15 awesome facts about Angkor Wat (with some pretty cool pics to boot!).

1) Angkor Wat means ‘temple city’ or ‘city of temples’ 

The original name of Angkor Wat was Vrah Viṣṇuloka or Parama Viṣṇuloka which means, ‘the sacred dwelling of Vishnu’. This may explain the west-facing orientation of Angkor Wat, as the Hindu god Vishnu is sometimes associated with the west. 

He is the second god in the Hindu triumvirate which consists of three gods responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world.  

It is believed that Vishnu will return to earth in troubled times and restore the balance of good and evil. And I think I can safely say on behalf of us all, his presence is needed now more than ever in the current climate! 

The front of Angkor Wat reflected in the water.

2) It was designed to represent Mount Meru 

As Angkor Wat was initially built to honour the god Vishnu, it was designed to represent Mount Meru where he resided.  

The five towers at Angkor Wat represent the five peaks of Mount Meru. While the walls and moat symbolise the surrounding mountain ranges and sea. 

Mel from Footsteps on the Globe walking towards Angkor Wat from the back down a sand track.

3) It’s the largest religious monument in the world  

Spreading across 400 acres, Angkor Wat is the largest religious structure ever built. It incorporates 72 monuments and forms part of a complex that extends 15 miles!  

Buddhist monks dressed in orange robes walking between temples.

4) It took 35 years to build 

Of course, we don’t know for sure but according to inscriptions Angkor Wat took 300,000 labourers and 35 years to build. As well as 6,000 elephants! When you think it’s the largest religious monument in the world, that’s one hell of an accomplishment during ancient times. As a comparison, Notre Dame in Paris took 200 years to build and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is still unfinished 138 years after construction began!  

Columns and stone ceiling in the temple.

5) It’s 900 years old  

Angkor Wat was built in the first half of the 12th Century by Emperor Suryavarman II who ruled the region from 1113 to 1150. This would make the temple an incredible 870 to 907 years old depending on when it was commissioned during his rule!  

Stone face carving statues.

6) It was originally built as a Hindu temple 

Although it’s now used as a centre of worship for Buddhists, Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu Temple. Buddhism is now the official religion of Cambodia with 97% of Cambodia’s population following Theravada Buddhism.  

Carved wall with religious figures.

7) It was abandoned in 1431 

Angkor was seized by the Thai Army in 1431 which led to Angkor Wat being largely (but not completely) abandoned. Historians believe that either people fled south as a result of the Thai invasion or a different lineage of the Khmer King took the opportunity to establish his own power as a rival state in the south. No one knows for sure as there is no account of it but that is part of the enduring mystery of Angkor Wat.  

Outer temple with trees and ruins.

8)…then rediscovered in 1860! 

Following it’s abandonment in 1431, Angkor Wat was ‘rediscovered’ in 1860 by French Naturalist, Henri Mouhot. I say, ‘rediscovered’ because people obviously knew it was there. But! It was after Henri Mouhot visited that Angkor became more widely known internationally after his book: ‘Travels in Siam, Cambodia, Laos, and Annam’ was published.

Historical image of the temple amongst trees.

9) It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site 

After suffering years of looting and damage Angkor Wat became legally protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site from 1992. Now future generations of adventurers can enjoy the site for hopefully another 900 years and beyond.

Mel from Footsteps on the Globe smiling in front of the temple and the lake at sunrise.

10) It’s a symbol of Cambodia  

It’s no surprise that Angkor Wat has become a symbol of Cambodia with its beauty and history alone but it’s also a symbol of pride for Cambodians. So much so that it appears on the Cambodian national flag, Cambodian currency and on the front cover of every guide to Cambodia the world over.  

Angkor Wat on a Cambodian note.

11) It receives over 2 million visitors per year 

As a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most beautiful architectural sites surviving from the ancient world…is it any wonder that Angkor Wat draws millions of people to visit every year? Many tourists visit Cambodia for this sole reason alone!

Walk way to Angkor Wat across the moat at sunrise with blue skies and people walking across.

12) Elephant rides are now banned  

I can’t tell you how happy I was to discover this! I was unaware at the time I visited Angkor Wat in 2019 but the Cambodian government had committed to banning all elephant riding by 2020. This was after two elephants in Angkor Wat had collapsed and died due to the exhaustion of carrying tourists on their backs, which is just heart-breaking. 

The practice of exploiting elephants (or any animals) in this way for financial gain is just cruel and unacceptable. If you want to know why elephant riding is so bad, you can learn more here.  

But in more positive news, the remaining 14 elephants now live in a community forest 25 miles away from Angkor Wat and are happily living out the remainder of their lives in peace. Gives you those warm fuzzies doesn’t it?

Black and white photo of an elephant being ridden at Angkor Wat.

13) It’s still an operating Buddhist temple

Angkor Wat is still used by Buddhists as a place of worship today. Better yet, you can get blessed by one! Now, I am not a religious person by any stretch but I do like to keep an open mind so I opted for blessing. As part of the ritual you also receive a blessed Sai Sin bracelet from a monk which in my case was to serve as protection during my travels.

Monk in orange robes blessing a visitor with holy water.

14) It featured in Tomb Raider  

Angkor Wat is world-famous in it’s own right but got the Hollywood treatment when scenes for Tomb Raider were filmed here in 2001. It was the first movie to be shot in Cambodia since 1964 which was one of the reasons the Director wanted to film here. I thought those vines looked familiar…

Mel from Footsteps on the Globe looking up at vines enveloping a temple where Tomb Raider was filmed.

15) It’s had many famous visitors over the years

It’s not just Angelina Jolie who has graced the stone staircases here. One of the lesser known facts about Angkor Wat is just how many famous visitors it gets every year. These have included: Bill and Hilary Clinton, Mark Zuckerberg, David Beckham, Michelle Obama and Beyonce to name but a few! 

Jacqueline Kennedy even risked a visit to Angkor Wat during the Vietnam War to fulfil her lifelong dream of seeing it.  

Imagine visiting Angkor Wat and clocking Queen B across the courtyard!

And there you have it folks, 15 awesome facts about Angkor Wat!

Which facts about Angkor Wat were your favourite? Let me know in the comments below! :)

For more on Cambodia check out my recent post where I share my experience of backpacking through South East Asia.

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