Angkor Wat is a vast temple complex built by the kings of the Khmer kingdom between 1113 and 1150 CE. Khmer society as it emerged in the seventh century was originally based on maritime trade and it was already from the beginning heavily influenced by Hindu culture. Angkor Wat was dedicated to the 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, modeled on 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 five kilometer long moat. The temples are noted for their exquisite craftsmanship and their many statues and bas-reliefs depicting the life of the gods but also the life of ordinary people. There were thousands of smaller temples, related to Angkor Wat, but scattered over much of what today is Cambodia and eastern Thailand.
The city out Angkor, which surrounded the temple complex, was abandoned in the fifteenth-century CE 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. Angkor, in the twelfth-century, was one of the largest cities in the world. The ruler at the time, king Jayavarman VII, turned Angkor Wat into a Buddhist temple, but without rejecting the Hindu gods. He created a powerful army and fortified the city to better withstand military attacks. In addition he built hospitals where medical treatment was free for all subjects.
Angkor Wat is a symbol of today’s Cambodia. It appears on the country’s flag, stamps and on its money. The temple complex only had only 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.