Angkor Wat is just about everyone’s main reason for visiting Siem Reap – and we don’t blame them. This marvellous, spectacular complex of ancient Khmer temples is certainly worth the visit, and doubly worth waking up extra early for that sunrise tour. But there are plenty of facts that those who stroll around Angkor Wat’s wonders are blissfully unaware of. Read on for the insider knowledge to help you make a more enlightened visit to Siem Reap’s infamous temples, and get so much more from it as a result.

Ta Phrom temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia - photo by Steve Cornish

There’s a stegosaurus carving at Ta Phrom – or is there?

One thing you might not know about the Angkor Wat complex’s famous Ta Phrom temple – known for the vast tree roots that ensnare it, and its appearance in the Tomb Raider film – is that it features a carving many believe depicts a stegosaurus dinosaur. Science generally holds that the stegosaurus and other dinosaurs existed the Late Jurassic period, some 150 to 150 million years ago, and that they became extinct at least 65 million years ago.

However, some suggest that the apparent depiction of a stegosaurus at Ta Phrom is an indication that humans and dinosaurs lived together around the time of the temple’s construction in the late 12th century.

Take of it what you will: cynics believe the carving is at best a depiction of a boar or rhino than a dinosaur – noting in particular that what are often referred to as spike-like plates on the so-called dinosaurs back may well just be a leaf-design background to the image – or, more likely, that it is a far more recently created hoax.

Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia - photo by quiquefepe

There’s a whole medieval city beneath the Angkor Wat complex

Research published by Siem Reap-based writer Lara Dunston for The Guardian in 2016 revealed the archaeological discovery of multiple previously hidden medieval cities beneath the ground close to Angkor Wat.

Groundbreaking laser-based Lidar technology was first used to survey the ground beneath Angkor in 2012, resulting in the discovery of the city of Mahendraparvata, founded by Khmer King Jayavarman II more than 300 years before Angkor Wat rose to prominence.

But work in 2016 by Australian archaeologist Dr Damian Evans showed that this was in fact only part of Mahendrapravata, identifying multiple other cities between 900 and 1,400 years old beneath the tropical forest floor, believed to big enough to rival the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. That’s a thought to behold as you wander through the temples on your sunrise tour! 

Angkor Wat’s three tiers have specific meanings

Angkor Wat is distinctively designed to incorporate three tiered galleries, but what you may not know is that this was a deliberate design choice intended to evoke spiritual meaning, dedicated to Brahma, the moon, and Vishnu.

The temple’s design is intended to represent the mythological home of the Hindu deities, Mount Meru, considered the centre of the universe.

Monks at Angkor Wat - photo by Ken Shirakawa

Even today, there are active temples around Angkor Wat

While for most visitors Angkor Wat appears purely as a historical monument – one that’s undoubtedly a stunning sight to behold, but is perhaps past its prime – what many don’t realise is that the temple, along with the complex’s Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, and other smaller pagodas nearby, remains in active use for religious worship.

This is especially true during major religious holidays, when the temples continue to attract Cambodian Buddhists in large numbers in spite of the Hindu-style relief work (and even though Hindu temples are not normally used for religious congregation as such).

Angkor Wat faces west where the region’s other temples face east

While most temples in the region face east, including others from the Khmer empire, Angkor Wat stands out as facing in a westerly direction. There is disagreement among historians as to the cause of this, but Angkor Wat was dedicated to the Hindu deity Vishnu, rather than to Shiva or indeed to a Cambodian ruler.

According to Hindu beliefs, Vishnu is the supreme deity in front of whom all others sit; since other Hindu deities are believed to sit facing east, this leaves Vishnu facing west, hence that is also the direction in which structures dedicated to Vishnu are designed to face.

Some also believe that, since the easterly direction is typically associated with death in Hindu culture, Angkor Wat may initially have been intended as a tomb – possibly for King Suryavarman II, who ordered its construction. In addition, the counter-clockwise orientation of bas reliefs at Angkor Wat is interpreted by some to mean that the temple was associated with funeral rituals, though others disagree. Whatever the reason, its westerly facing position makes Angkor Wat the perfect spot to catch an unforgettable sunset.

Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Where to stay in Siem Reap

Looking for a Siem Reap hotel from which to explore all that Siem Reap has to offer, while also being within easy reach of the famous Angkor Wat temples? Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel is waiting for you – click here to take a look at our relaxing rooms, all with free breakfast and use of our gorgeous swimming pool.

Do you know any offbeat facts about Angkor Wat or the surrounding temples in Siem Reap? Let us know – leave us a comment below!

Photos by Matthew Yglesias; Steve Cornish; quiquefepe; Ken Shirakawa.

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