Asia Books and Travel

Visiting Cambodia’s Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, Cambodia
Angkor Wat might be the most famous and impressive complex in Angkor, but it is far from the only building there, which includes Angkor Thom and various smaller temples.

Angkor Thom was even more important, as it was the actual capital city where the king resided and ruled from, having been built in the late 12th century. Unlike Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom (Great City in Khmer) is not a single massive complex but a city surrounded by a square wall and moat with many buildings. As with Angkor Wat, it has been uninhabited for over 400 years.

I entered the ancient city from its eastern Victory Gate and as you approach, you can see signs of its significance. The road into Victory Gate is flanked by two rows of small giants seemingly engaged in a tug-of-war with two nagas (mythical snakes) at the ends, while the gate is topped by a massive stone “dome,” flanked by two smaller ones.

The largest and most impressive building inside Angkor Thom is Bayon, which was the state temple and is distinctive for its numerous stone 4-headed statues. It’s a massive dark gray stone temple-palace with several jagged “peaks” or towers surrounding a giant dome.

Despite Bayon’s slightly menacing appearance, it’s got a “friendly” ambiance because the towers feature sculpted faces with a smiling or serene expression. Each peak is topped with 4-headed statues, which is somewhat eerie. The faces are said to be modeled on Khmer King Jayavarman VII (builder of Bayon), who probably thought of himself as a god. Bayon started off as a Buddhist structure but was altered later when the kingdom became Hindu. Bayon was so magnificent I visited it twice, on my second and third days in Angkor.

Another major site is Baphuon, a large three-tiered temple that was initially built as a Hindu temple before being converted to a Buddhist temple in the 15th century.

After exiting Baphuon at its rear, there’s a path that leads into a forested area and a wall that you can go through. I was a little apprehensive when I entered this jungle but I trusted from the map that the Royal Palace and Phimeanakas would be there and that it wasn’t that far from the main sites anyways. Unfortunately I was wrong about the Royal Palace, which doesn’t actually exist anymore (I should have realized that why it’s marked as Royal Palace Area on the map), and I kept staring at my map and looking around expecting to see a palace any second.

Phimeanakas however did exist, being a pyramid with a flat top that you can climb to the top of via a long wooden staircase. Just like Baphuon, it was a Hindu temple and was built during the 10th century, so it has a history of over 1,000 years. It’s much smaller than Baphuon but it’s a cool sight as a compact pyramid in the middle of a jungle. This was also where I got approached by a young kid who started to act like a guide. The boy was followed by several smaller kids, and we all walked a good way before eventually parting, with him asking for a small tip, which I gave.

The Terrace of the Elephants, so named for its elephant statues, is a platform where Khmer kings would stand and view their armies and subjects.

Bayon, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Angkor Thom, Cambodia
BaphuonAngkor Thom, Cambodia
Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Angkor Thom, Cambodia
Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Angkor Thom, CambodiaTerrace of the Elephants   Angkor Thom, Cambodia

Angkor Thom, Cambodia

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