The Significance of Water in Angkor - Glossary page for Hydraulic Systems and Barays

The Significance of Water in Angkor: Hydraulic Systems and Barays

If you’re planning to embark on one of our Premium Siem Reap Tours, you’re in for a treat. Not only will you be exploring the majestic temples of Angkor Wat, but you’ll also be stepping into a world that was once the heart of a powerful empire, a world where water played a crucial role in the lives of its inhabitants.

The Hydraulic City of Angkor

The Khmer Empire, which ruled from the 9th to the 15th centuries, was renowned for its architectural prowess, and nowhere is this more evident than in the sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat. But did you know that beneath the stunning temples and intricate carvings lies an advanced hydraulic system that was centuries ahead of its time?

The Khmer engineers designed a complex network of canals, reservoirs, and waterways, known as barays, that stretched across the entire urban area of Angkor. This system was so advanced that it provided water for irrigation and domestic use, and served as a means of transportation and a source of food.

Imagine cruising down these ancient waterways on our 1-day Angkor Wat Grand Loop Private Tour, where you’ll get to see firsthand the remnants of this impressive hydraulic system.

The Role of Barays in Angkor

Barays, or water reservoirs, were a central feature of the Khmer hydraulic system. These vast bodies of water, some stretching up to 5 miles long, were used to store and manage water from the surrounding rivers and the nearby Tonle Sap Lake.

But the barays were more than just functional reservoirs. They were also a symbol of the Khmer king’s power and divine authority, a testament to his ability to control and manipulate the natural world.

On our Siem Reap’s Tonle Sap Lake tour, you’ll get to explore the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, a vital water source for the ancient Khmer civilization.

The Water System as a Lifeline

The water system of Angkor was not just a feat of engineering, but also a lifeline for the people who lived there. It provided them with a reliable source of water for drinking, bathing, and irrigation. The system also included numerous ponds and channels filled with fish, providing a vital source of food for the population.

But the water system was more than just a means of survival. It was also a symbol of the Khmer Empire’s power and sophistication. The ability to control and manipulate water on such a large scale was a testament to the empire’s technological prowess and organizational skills.

The Legacy of the Khmer Hydraulic System

Today, the remnants of the Khmer hydraulic system serve as a reminder of the empire’s advanced understanding of water management and engineering. Although constructed more than a millennium ago, contemporary engineers and hydrologists still examine the system due to its inventive design and effectiveness..

As you explore the temples of Angkor on our 1-day Angkor Wat Small Loop Private Tour, take a moment to appreciate the ingenuity and foresight of the Khmer engineers. Their work not only sustained a thriving civilization but also left a lasting legacy that inspires and amazes us today.

Siem Reap’s Tonle Sap Lake: Exploring Cambodia’s Largest Freshwater Lake

So, are you ready to step back in time and explore the watery wonders of Angkor?

Significance of Water in Angkor – Key takeaways: 

  • The wealth and success of the Khmer Empire can be directly attributed to the highly developed hydraulic systems and barays that can be found throughout Angkor.
  • The techniques used to regulate the water supply at Angkor are evidence of the excellent engineering capabilities and knowledge of hydrology that the ancient Khmer civilization possessed.
  • Because of Angkor’s large network of canals, reservoirs, and barays, the region was able to effectively irrigate crops, manage floods, and store water, all of which contributed to the city’s continued population and economic growth.
  • Reflecting the Angkorians’ profound relationship with water and the natural world, the hydraulic systems made significant contributions to the religious and symbolic components of the Angkor civilisation.
  • The study of the water management systems of Angkor provides unique insights into the obstacles faced by the empire, including climate change and issues related to water management, both of which may have led to the kingdom’s eventual demise.
  • The sophisticated approaches to water management that the Khmer Empire utilized can provide lessons and sources of inspiration for the development of modern sustainable practices in water resource management and urban planning.

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The Importance of Water

Water played a crucial role in the development and prosperity of the Angkor civilization. 

The management and control of water resources were essential for supporting agriculture and sustaining the population of the Khmer Empire. 

We will explore the significance of water in Angkor, focusing on the sophisticated hydraulic systems and barays that characterized the region.

The Angkor region has a tropical monsoon climate with distinct wet and dry seasons. 

To ensure a stable water supply, the Angkor civilization developed an intricate network of hydraulic systems, including canals, reservoirs, and barays.

Hydraulic Systems

The hydraulic systems of Angkor were designed to collect, store, and distribute water for various purposes, such as agriculture, drinking water, and religious rituals. 

These systems included a vast network of canals, channels, and dikes that connected various water sources, such as rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, to the city and its surrounding areas.

One of the most impressive aspects of the Angkor hydraulic systems is the engineering expertise and planning required to design and maintain them. 

These systems required extensive knowledge of hydrology, topography, and construction techniques, showcasing the advanced technological capabilities of the Khmer Empire.


Barays, or artificial reservoirs, were a prominent feature of the Angkor landscape. These massive bodies of water were constructed to store and manage water resources, ensuring a steady water supply for agriculture and other needs during the dry season.

The largest and most famous baray in Angkor is the West Baray, which measures approximately 8 kilometers long by 2.1 kilometers wide. This colossal reservoir was capable of holding an immense volume of water and played a crucial role in sustaining the population of the Khmer Empire.

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Water and Religion

Water also held significant religious and symbolic importance in the Angkor civilization. 

The presence of water in temple complexes, such as moats and ponds, served practical purposes and represented the cosmic ocean surrounding Mount Meru in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology.

The barays, too, held religious significance, as they were often associated with temple complexes and believed to possess spiritual qualities. Water from the barays was used in religious rituals, emphasizing the connection between water and the divine.

In conclusion, the significance of water in Angkor cannot be understated. 

The hydraulic systems and barays of the Khmer Empire showcase the civilization’s advanced engineering capabilities and their ability to harness and manage water resources effectively. 

The importance of water extended beyond practical concerns, permeating the religious and symbolic aspects of Angkor society, and ultimately contributing to the success and prosperity of the Khmer civilization.

Liquid Legacy

The ancient city of Angkor, once the heart of the Khmer Empire, remains a testament to the grandeur and sophistication of a civilization that thrived for centuries. 

Water played a crucial and multifaceted role among the many elements that contributed to its success. In this blog, we delve into the significance of water in Angkor, exploring its impact on the city’s history, culture, religion, and the daily lives of its inhabitants. 

As we journey through the various aspects of this liquid legacy, we uncover the lessons it holds for us today and the challenges in preserving this remarkable heritage.

The Hydraulic City – Angkor’s Water Infrastructure

The city of Angkor was, in many ways, a hydraulic city. Water was the lifeblood that allowed the metropolis to function, and the Khmer Empire’s engineers were masters at harnessing this precious resource. 

The city’s extensive water infrastructure, including canals, moats, reservoirs, and barays (giant artificial lakes), served various purposes, from flood control and irrigation to religious ceremonies and aesthetic enhancement.

The Angkorian hydraulic system was designed to adapt to the region’s monsoon climate. During the wet season, the system collected and stored rainwater. During the dry season, it distributed the stored water to the surrounding agricultural lands, ensuring a steady crop supply. 

The vast network of canals facilitated transportation, making it easier for people and goods to move throughout the empire.

This chapter explores the intricacies of Angkor’s water infrastructure, delving into its construction, purpose, and technological innovations that made it possible. 

We also examine the role of water in the city’s urban planning, how it influenced the layout of temples and other buildings, and how this unique system helped support the city’s population and economy.

Sacred Waters – The Religious Significance of Water in Angkor

Water was not just a practical resource in Angkor; it was also deeply intertwined with the spiritual beliefs and religious practices of the Khmer people. In this chapter, we explore the sacred nature of water in Angkorian society and how it manifested in the city’s temples and rituals.

The religious significance of water can be seen in the temples’ architecture. According to Hindu and Buddhist cosmology, many Angkorian temples were surrounded by moats or situated near bodies of water, symbolizing the primordial ocean from which the world was created. Water also played a central role in religious ceremonies and rituals, such as ablutions, offerings, and purification rites.

As we delve deeper into the sacred nature of water in Angkor, we examine how it connected the people to their gods and the cosmos and shaped the city’s spiritual landscape.

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Engineering Marvels – The Barays and Water Reservoirs of Angkor

Angkor’s barays and water reservoirs are some of the most impressive and enduring examples of the city’s hydraulic engineering prowess. 

These massive artificial lakes played a crucial role in storing and distributing water throughout the city, ensuring a steady supply for agricultural and domestic use. 

In this chapter, we delve into the construction, purpose, and significance of these engineering marvels and the challenges faced in their creation and maintenance.

The West Baray is the largest and most famous of Angkor’s barays, a colossal reservoir measuring approximately 8 kilometers long and 2.1 kilometers wide. 

It was constructed in the 11th century and could hold up to 50 million cubic meters of water. The barays were designed to collect and store rainwater from the surrounding watershed during the wet season. 

A network of canals distributed water to the city during the dry season.

The construction of these massive reservoirs was a remarkable feat of engineering, requiring immense labor, materials, and planning. 

The barays were built by excavating the earth and using the excavated material to create large earthen dikes, then reinforced with stone and brick. The reservoirs were also equipped with complex systems of gates, sluices, and spillways to regulate water flow.

In this chapter, we explore the ingenuity and technical skill that went into creating these impressive structures and the environmental and social factors that influenced their design. 

We also discuss the ongoing efforts to preserve and restore these ancient engineering marvels, which remain important lessons for modern water management practices.

Water for Life – Agriculture and Irrigation in Angkor

Agriculture was the foundation of the Khmer Empire’s economy and the primary source of sustenance for its population. The success of Angkorian agriculture relied heavily on the city’s advanced water management system, which ensured a consistent water supply for irrigation, even during periods of drought.

In this chapter, we delve into the role of water in Angkor’s agricultural system, examining the various crops grown, the techniques used to cultivate them, and the sophisticated irrigation systems that made large-scale agriculture possible. 

Rice was the main staple crop, but the people of Angkor also cultivated various other crops, including vegetables, fruits, and spices.

The city’s water infrastructure allowed for the creation of vast rice paddies, which were irrigated through an intricate network of canals, dikes, and ponds. 

This irrigation system allowed for the controlled water distribution to different agricultural fields, ensuring that each crop received the appropriate amount of water at the right time. This level of control was crucial for maximizing crop yields and supporting the city’s population.

As we explore the agricultural practices of Angkor, we also consider the ecological impact of these large-scale agricultural endeavors, as well as how the city’s agricultural system adapted to the changing environment over time.

Beauty in Motion – The Art of Water in Angkor

The aesthetic beauty of water was an essential aspect of Angkorian culture and was incorporated into many aspects of the city’s art and architecture. In this chapter, we examine the role of water as an artistic medium and how it was used to create stunning visual effects and enhance the spiritual symbolism of the city’s temples and monuments.

Water features, such as fountains, pools, and cascades, created a sense of movement and dynamism in the city’s art and architecture. 

These features were often incorporated into the design of temples and other religious structures, adding to their visual appeal and symbolic meaning. 

For example, the intricate carvings and sculptures that adorned the walls of temples often depicted scenes involving water, such as mythical creatures and deities associated with water, as well as scenes of daily life centered around water, like fishing and bathing.

In this chapter, we explore how water was used as an artistic medium in Angkor, from the design of temple complexes and their surrounding moats to the intricate carvings and bas-reliefs that adorned the walls of these structures. We also discuss water’s symbolism and cultural significance in Angkorian art and how it connected the people with their spiritual beliefs and the natural world.

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The Rise and Fall – Water’s Role in the Decline of Angkor

While water played a crucial role in the growth and prosperity of Angkor, it may have also contributed to its eventual decline. In this part, we examine the factors that led to the city’s fall, focusing on the role of water and its management in this process.

Environmental changes, such as prolonged droughts and unpredictable monsoon patterns, likely significantly strained Angkor’s water management system. 

These changes may have led to the city’s hydraulic infrastructure deterioration, resulting in decreased agricultural productivity and a decline in the city’s population.

In addition to these environmental factors, the city’s water management system was also vulnerable to human factors, such as mismanagement, neglect, and conflict. 

As the Khmer Empire’s political and social structures weakened, maintaining the vast hydraulic system became increasingly difficult, exacerbating the city’s vulnerability to environmental stressors.

In this chapter, we explore the complex interplay between environmental and human factors that contributed to the decline of Angkor and how the city’s water management system, once its greatest strength, may have ultimately contributed to its downfall.

Lessons from the Past – Sustainable Water Management in Angkor

The hydraulic system of Angkor was a remarkable achievement in sustainable water management, and it holds valuable lessons for modern societies grappling with similar challenges. 

In this part, we explore the principles and practices of sustainable water management in Angkor and how these ancient techniques can inform contemporary approaches to water resource management.

One of the key lessons from Angkor’s water management system is the importance of adaptability and resilience. The city’s hydraulic infrastructure was designed to accommodate the region’s variable climate, collecting and storing water during the wet season and distributing it during the dry season. This flexible approach allowed the city to thrive despite the challenges posed by its environment.

Another important lesson from Angkor is the value of integrating water management with urban planning and design. 

The city’s layout and infrastructure were carefully designed to optimize the use and distribution of water, ensuring that the needs of the population and the environment were met.

In this chapter, we explore these and other lessons from Angkor’s water management system, considering how they can be applied to modern contexts to promote sustainable and resilient water management practices.

Preserving Angkor’s Liquid Legacy – Challenges and Opportunities

The preservation of Angkor’s water-related heritage is a complex and ongoing challenge, requiring the collaboration of local communities, governments, and international organizations. 

Let’s discuss the various efforts undertaken to protect and restore the city’s hydraulic infrastructure and its associated cultural and historical significance.

These efforts include the restoration and maintenance of the city’s barays, canals, and temples and the development of sustainable tourism initiatives that promote the conservation of the city’s water resources. 

Additionally, researchers and conservationists are working to better understand the city’s water management system and its relationship with the surrounding environment to develop more effective strategies for preserving this unique heritage.

As we explore the challenges and opportunities associated with preserving Angkor’s liquid legacy, we consider this work’s importance in protecting the city’s past and ensuring a sustainable future for its water resources.

In conclusion, the story of water in Angkor is rich and multifaceted, encompassing various aspects of the city’s history, culture, religion, and daily life. As we have seen throughout this book, water played a crucial role in the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire, shaping its social, economic, and political landscape.

Today, preserving Angkor’s water-related heritage is a pressing concern, as the city’s ancient hydraulic infrastructure faces numerous challenges, from environmental stressors to human interference. However, it is important to remember that the story of water in Angkor is not just one of decline and destruction but also resilience, adaptability, and innovation.

By studying and learning from Angkor’s liquid legacy lessons, we can gain valuable insights into sustainable water management practices and the importance of integrating water resource planning with urban design and cultural heritage preservation. 

As we confront the challenges of the 21st century, the story of water in Angkor is a powerful reminder of water’s vital role in the health, well-being, and prosperity of human societies and the importance of safeguarding this precious resource for future generations.

As we continue to explore, preserve, and learn from Angkor’s unique relationship with water, we hope that this book has provided a deeper understanding of the significance of water in this remarkable city and the many ways in which it shaped the lives and beliefs of the people who called Angkor home.

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