Angkor Wat is a temple located in Northern Cambodia. It is the largest religious structure in the world, located on a 203 acre (820,000 square meter) complex, most of which has been taken over by jungle. It is a distinctive and very famous temple, even appearing on the national flag of Cambodia. The temple is considered a stunning example of Khmer architecture, covered in ornate and beautiful carvings which demonstrate a high level of skill.
This site is located in the province of Siem Reap, and slightly North of the town of the same name. The temple complex is on a rectangular island which is accessed by a causeway, and is oriented in an unusual, Western facing direction. Angkor Wat is built in sandstone, and covered in a number of sandstone carvings. In addition, the decorative carvings inside proceed in reverse of the expected order.
Angkor Wat has a number of distinct towers which loom over the temple complex. Five central towers, which are intended to represent the home of the gods, are surrounded by enclosing walls and more towers. These walls weave a maze of stone and stairs, which yield days of exploration for interested visitors. Parts of the complex have been allowed to return to the jungle, and towering trees and plants can be seen slowly eating away at the buildings.
The complex was initially built as a temple to Vishnu in the 12th century by King Suryavarman II. Because of the backward orientation of the temple and carvings, some archaeologists have suggested that it was meant to be his funeral temple. In addition to the temple, the complex also included the royal palace and a city. In approximately the 14th century, Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple. Although parts of the complex have fallen into disuse, other sections house an active Buddhist temple.
The word “wat” in Khmer, the language of Cambodia, means school or place of learning. Many temples have the title “wat” affixed because educational texts are stored at the temple and monks study there. Visiting monks travel to Angkor Wat along with an estimated half a million tourists each year. In 2002, the site became a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site. UNESCO encouraged the government of Cambodia to take steps to preserve the temple, and provided funding and experts to assist with preservation.