The place that most people think about when they plan a visit to the ancient city of Angkor is Angkor Wat. Built in the 1100s, Angkor Wat has stood the test of time by remaining mostly intact and extremely well preserved over the past nine centuries, given Cambodia’s turbulent past. It is the largest religious structure in the world and looks more like a huge walled city than a temple.
Angkor Wat was originally built as a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Vishnu by king Suryavarman II during the golden years of the Khmer Empire.
However, when kings of a different religion would came to power, they regularly transformed the temple to that of the Khmer Empire’s new official religion, which of course, was the religion of the new king. Because of this, you will see that the entire first floor has a large carving of a Hindu legend while the second floor has over a dozen Buddhas. This switch back and forward between Buddhism and Hinduism was seen as normal and expected, so present day Cambodians are relatively religiously tolerant.
The first thing you notice when approaching the area is the huge moat that surrounds the structure. The front entrance of Angkor Wat is the one closest to the road from Siem Reap, so you will see a huge crowd of tuk-tuks and bicycles out front. A wall encompasses the entire temple, just past the moat. Upon crossing the main gate, you will finally realize how massive Angkor Wat really is. An enormous courtyard separates the wall from the three-cone-shaped structure (the one you usually see in pictures). This iconic picture is actually just the central part of Angkor Wat. Near the entrance are two buildings that used to be used as libraries and are largely intact, but sadly, without books.
Take your time exploring this marvelous temple. Many people mistakenly rush Angkor Wat because they plan to visit all of the main temples in a single day. This is what I did, and have regrets about it till this very day. It is one of the reasons I want to back. Take a few days in Angkor and do one or two temples a day. The ticket is good for seven days, so there should be no rush. There are no set courses or paths to take, so explore every nook and cranny, and you will be sure to find something interesting that the people rushing around missed.
Be aware that there are no signs or explanation of any kind in the temples, and you have to reserve official guides in advance at your hotel / hostel. They cost around 25 USD (per temple I believe), which is kind of steep, but well worth it. In the souvenir shop within Angkor Wat, (on your left from the main entrance) you can also acquire an “unofficial guide” for about 10 USD, which is not supposed to be legal, but when faced with no other choice, its better than nothing. Last but not least, make sure to sit down and take it all in. After all, you are in one of the most amazing sites in the world.