10 Facts About the Temples of Angkor

The temples of Angkor are among the world’s most alluring historical sites, steeped in centuries of culture and history.

May 18, 2024By Lisa Barham, MA & BA Fine Art

temples of angkor


For 600 years, from the early 9th century to the middle of the 15th century, the area surrounding the world-famous Angkor Wat was the heart of the Khmer Empire. Over centuries, as the empire expanded, successive kings built a series of monuments dedicated to the gods, each attempting to better their predecessors in scale and symmetry. This religious devotion culminated in one of history’s most important buildings and created an expansive landscape dotted with historic sites that offer a fascinating window into the past. Here’s what you need to know about the temples of Angkor.


1. There are Hundreds of Temples at Angkor

angkorian temple cambodia
A temple at Angkor Archaeological Park.


Angkor Wat is the undisputed jewel in the crown of Cambodia’s ancient ruins and one of the most famous structures in the world. However, the Temples of Angkor are so much more than this one building. Angkor Wat is the star attraction at the vast Angkor Archaeological Park, which spans from the Tonle Sap Lake in the south to the Kulen Mountains in the north. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, the Archaeological Park is littered with hundreds of ancient temples, from sprawling complexes to small monuments. From 802 CE up until the mid-15th century, a continual series of building projects contributed to creating the most important archaeological site in Southeast Asia.


2. Angkor Wat is the World’s Largest Religious Monument

temples of angkor wat photo
Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Source: Unsplash


Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, the eponymous temple of the ancient capital was built when the Khmer Empire was at its zenith. During the mid-12th century, the empire stretched from modern-day Myanmar to Vietnam and was under the rule of Suryavarman II (1113–50), who commissioned the building of Angkor Wat. It is a supreme example of Khmer architecture. The five corncob towers that crown the top of the temple are an iconic image of Cambodia, standing proud against the sky and most famously pictured at sunrise. Angkor Wat is a great source of national pride and it is featured on the Cambodian flag. It’s interesting to know that Angkor means city and wat means temple.


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The temple was built orientated westwards, which is unusual for Southeast Asian architecture. Intricate bas-reliefs adorn the temple’s surfaces, almost unbelievable in their level of detail. The reliefs depict scenes from Hindu mythology. One of the most important stories represented is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a creation myth that describes the various incarnations of Vishnu.


3. The Temples were Built to Represent the Universe

towers angkorian temple
Towers of an Angkorian temple.


Despite the outward differences of the myriad monuments at Angkor, some similarities run through the buildings. It was typical of ancient Khmer architecture to build temples to represent the cosmos of Hindu mythology. Each temple was usually topped with five towers that represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods, and the heart of the universe in both the Hindu and Buddhist belief systems.


Moats around the temples represent the earthly ocean. Causeways across the moats are often flanked by gods and demons pulling on a giant serpent—an allusion to the Churning of the Ocean of Milk creation myth. Almost all temples were built to face the east and the rising sun, symbolizing life. Angkor Wat is the exception, as it faces the west—the direction of the setting sun, symbolizing death.


4. Angkor was Abandoned in 1431

abandoned temple angkor
Abandoned Temple at Angkor.


In 802 CE Jayavaram II united the many disparate Khmer states, declared himself a devaraja (god king), and founded the ancient city of Angkor which would become the capital of the new empire. For more than half a millennium, the Khmer Empire flourished under the rule of successive god-kings, and Angkor grew into a sprawling city. It was the world’s largest city with a population of around 1 million people at its height. However, after a period of decline, the empire eventually collapsed in 1431 when Thai forces sacked Angkor. The once thriving city was abandoned and a new capital was established at Phnom Penh. Angkor and its myriad temples were left to fall into ruin and the surrounding jungle gradually enveloped the once-beating heart of Cambodia’s only empire.


5. The Temples were Rediscovered by Westerners 

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A Temple in the jungle at Angkor. Source: Unsplash


Angkor was rediscovered by Khmer kings, around 1570, and then again in the mid-17th century. However, not much attention was paid to the city that was lost to the jungle, until the mid-1800s when French explorer Henri Mouhot stumbled upon the temples by accident. Mouhot’s diaries were published posthumously in 1864 and the world became fascinated by the ancient civilization and its temples. Since then, the site has become one of the most-visited places in Southeast Asia. The Temples of Angkor now attract millions of visitors each year.


6. The Temples are Important Monuments in Two Religions

A temple decorated with stories from Hindu mythology.


Hinduism was the major religion in Cambodia for hundreds of years, from the 1st century CE to the early 14th century. This was the religion of the Angkorian kings and many of the temples at Angkor were built to worship gods—most notably Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The temples were designed to represent the Hindu cosmos. They were highly decorated with reliefs telling stories from Hindu mythology. They are also home to statues of Hindu deities.


Buddhism had been practiced alongside Hinduism for many years, but from the 12th century, it became increasingly popular, eventually overtaking Hinduism as the country’s main religion. Today around 96% of the population practices Buddhism. Temples that already existed around the time of the religious shift became places of worship for Buddhists and new temples were built and consecrated as Buddhist temples, including the Bayon.


7. Ta Prohm is the Famous Tomb Raider Temple

ta prohm temple
Ta Prohm Temple.


One particular temple has been immortalized by the 2001 blockbuster Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. In a memorable scene, Angelina Jolie wanders through the ancient, tree-cloaked ruins of a temple in the jungle. The setting for this was Ta Prohm, one of the most mesmerizing sites in the Angkor Archaeological Park. What makes it so special is the extent to which the jungle has begun to claim back the landscape. Trees seem to grow out of the buildings themselves and roots have broken through stone walls. Nature is consuming the site to such a degree that the manmade and the organic have become one, making Ta Prohm the most dream-like monument.


The temple was constructed around 1186 as a Buddhist monastery which would have accommodated 12,000 people living and working in the grounds. Different in design from the state temples, such as Angkor Wat, monastic complexes are known as flat temples as they lack the grand height of those designed as funerary temples. Ta Prohm functioned as a public shrine and a place of worship for all.


8. The Bayon Temple is Decorated with Over 200 Faces

bayon temples of angkor
Bayon Temple.


Among the best-known of Angkor’s temples is the Bayon. It was built as the state temple of Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The design of the temple is unique, and it features dozens of towers decorated with giant half-smiling faces. There are more than 200 representations of the face, although the reason for its proliferation is unclear. Constructed at a time of religious change, the Bayon aimed to embrace all the religions of the kingdom, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. However, it was consecrated as a Buddhist temple, and at its center was a statue of Buddha. During the brief period that the state religion reverted from Buddhism back to Hinduism, this statue was destroyed.


9. Not All the Temples were Built by Kings

banteay srei temple
Banteay Srei temple. Source: Unsplash


Angkor is known as a city of temples built by kings, but there are some notable exceptions. Some of the temples were built by local dignitaries, the best example of which is Banteay Srei. The king granted his trusted guru and his brother land and permission to build the temple, which was consecrated in 967 CE.


Banteay Srei is one of the most beautiful and alluring monuments at Angkor, and certainly the most elaborately decorated. It is constructed from rose-pink sandstone giving it a soft, but striking, color. The walls, doors, and pediments are filled with floral motifs and scenes from the Ramayana, an epic Hindu poem.


10. Angkor Thom was the Khmer Empire’s Last Capital

temples of angkor wat temple
Angkor Wat, the former capital of the Khmer Empire.


Angkor Thom was a fortified city that was once the capital of the Khmer Empire. Its name means the Great City, and it housed the royal palace and several temples, including the famous Bayon and Phimeanakas temple. The Terrace of the Elephants can also be found inside the walls of Angkor Thom. The 1000-foot-long terrace, decorated with bas-reliefs of hundreds of elephants, was once the base of a royal reception hall, which is now lost. It also served as a viewing platform over the surrounding landscape. As with the rest of Angkor, the city of Angkor Thom was abandoned by the middle of the 15th century, following the invasion of Thai forces.

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By Lisa BarhamMA & BA Fine ArtLisa is a contributing writer with a background in art. She holds a BA and MA in Fine Art from the University of Kent, and has worked at Tate Modern and the National Gallery, London. She now writes full time whilst travelling and exploring new countries and cultures across the globe.