Angkor Wat is a vast temple complex built by the kings of the Khmer Kingdom between 1113 and 1150. Khmer society as it emerged in the seventh century was originally based on maritime trade and it was from the beginning heavily influenced by Hindu culture. Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Indian god Vishnu, who was the divine sponsor of the kings, and the temple complex was built in accordance with Hindu cosmology. It had a 65-meter-tall tower at its center, replicating Mount Meru, the home of the gods. The tower was surrounded by vast reservoirs, modeled on the seven seas, and the complex as a whole was surrounded by a 5-kilometer-long moat. The temples are noted for their exquisite craftsmanship and their many statues and bas-reliefs depicting the lives both of gods and ordinary people. In addition to Angkor Wat itself, there were thousands of smaller temples, scattered in a temple network which covered much of what today is Cambodia and eastern Thailand.
The city of Angkor was abandoned in the fifteenth century and thick jungle vegetation quickly invaded. But thanks to aerial laser photography, it is now possible to better understand how the city was laid out. It formed a vast grid system, with roads, temples, gardens and squares, and was home to some one million people. King Jayavarman VII, 1181-1218, fortified the city to better withstand military attacks. In addition, he built hospitals where medical treatment was free for all subjects, and turned Angkor Wat into a Buddhist temple but he did not reject the Hindu gods.
Angkor Wat is a symbol of today’s Cambodia. It appears on the country’s flag, stamps and money. The temple complex only had a few thousand annual visitors in 1993, but now it has some three million. Concerns have been raised regarding the environmental impact of mass tourism.