Angkor Wat

Travel Guide: Explore Angkor Thom, the Ancient City of Temples 

Angkor Thom is one of the most breath-taking scenes you could ever wish to see. Located in north-western Cambodia, this temple complex will surely surprise you. The site spans 400 kilometres squared and became a world heritage site in 1992. Angkor Thom translates to ‘large city’, suitably named as it is the world’s largest religious structure by land area. This ancient city was built in the early 12th century under the rule of King Suryavarman II. Over one thousand buildings are scattered throughout the site, including 72 large temples and hundreds of smaller ones. The country of Cambodia is rich with history, the temples of Angkor Wat being only a small portion of it. 

Early History of Angkor Thom

Entrance to Angkor Wat
Credit: Viator

Angkor Thom is thought to have been the largest preindustrial city in the world. Archaeologists determined that the city had a population of near a million at the height of the Khmer Empire. The size of the city is said to be close to what Los Angeles is today. It was constructed in a way that glorified the then king, as well as the gods. The city was the capital of the empire from the 12th Century. Before that Mahendraparvata was the capital of the empire though it was short-lived. The empire lasted from the 9th to the 15th century. Evidence suggests that the Khmer Empire was one of the most sophisticated and prosperous kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Spreading across over 1,000 kilometres squared, it was also a large Empire. 

Countries that were a part of the empire include present day Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and southern Vietnam. Records show that in 1431 armies of the Thai state captured and pillaged the city and left it half abandoned. Chinese records show that the city of Angkor was still thriving in the late 13th Century. However, the next first hand account was in the 1th Century. That account stated that the city had been abandoned. All that was left of the city were the ruins of what was once the most magnificent capital in Asia. Of all the buildings in the city most of the focus has been on Angkor Wat. This focus has been due to Buddhist monks taking care of the structure. Due to this, the temple has become a very important Southeast Asian pilgrimage site. 

Historical Interest in Angkor Thom

Drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mouhot
Credit: TheCollector

The site has also been of great interest to the Western population. The French colonial regime deemed Angkor a site of great interest in 1863. Later on, in the first half of the 20th Century, the government sponsored the French School of the Far East. This allowed comprehensive research to be done on the site. The majority of information we have on Angkor is from the research carried out by this group. The archaeologists  who were a part of this group also completed a partial reconstruction of parts of the site. 

Due to wartime and political strife in the 20th Century, Angkor Thom was no longer what it once was. Angkor Thom became a victim to thievery and war damage. The main issue, however, was neglect. Once it became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992 things began to change. International efforts to preserve the site began and many countries around the works aided in the restoration. Some years after the beginning of the restoration, radar scans were carried out on the site by the US. New buildings and other structures were uncovered by the imaging. Further research was done using the new information and researchers formulated a hypothesis as to why the city was abandoned. The scans showed that the city experienced heavy flooding due to deforestation and overuse of the land.

The Architecture of the Temples of Angkor Thom

Stone relief at Angkor
Credit: SailingStoneTravel

Over the years of the city being built the artistic style of the buildings changed. This was due to a religious movement in Hinduism that shifted focus from the god Shiva to Vishnu then to another cult. The city of Angkor Thom was built in a way that religious and political concepts from India could be included. This helped to incorporate the Indian and local traditions. Structures in the city itself reflect the cosmology that is seen in Hindu tradition. Angkor is centred around a pyramid temple which symbolises the home of the gods, Mount Meru. Much like the entire city, each temple also reflects Mount Meru’s location. Even the structures such as the canals and reservoirs reflect Hindu tradition. The vast system of irrigation symbolises the waters of the cosmos. Similarly, the edge of the cosmos is reflected through the temples’ outer walls. 

Eventually as the city was completed all of the temples became pyramid temples to reflect the cosmos. The temples were used for more than glorifying kind, capital and deities. They also served as a centre for members of the royal family to become identified with the gods. This was usually done with the greatest gods such as Shiva or Brahma. By identifying with one of these gods, it was thought that immortality was assured. 

The most famous temple in Angkor, Angkor Wat, was built by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century. This temple was a funerary temple. The king intended for his remains to be kept in this temple. By doing this, he proved that he identified with the god Vishnu and gained immortality. Within the glorious temple of Angkor Wat there are many beauties. Hundreds of statues of angelic dancers decorate it as well as bas-reliefs showing scenes of important Hindu poetry. 

Bayon Temple

Bayon Temple
Credit: LonelyPlanet

Bayon temple was the last temple to be built in Angkor Thom. King Jayavarman VII began its construction in his old age as a symbol of Buddhism. The building, originally meant to be a Buddhist temple, was altered by his heir when he became king. This alteration was done due to the brief shift back to Hinduism seen in the mid 13th century. The temple underwent more changes years later during the reign of the Theravada Buddhist Kings. Due to these changes that occurred, the temple is architecturally unique in Angkor Thom. Unlike temples such as Angkor Wat, Bayon is not quite so impressive from a distance. To truly appreciate its beauty, you have to see what lies in its details. Two galleries depict battles and historical events as well as traditional stories. Over 11,000 figures decorate the relief in tremendous detail and giant faces adorn an elevated gallery.

Bayon temple is decorated with hundreds of faces. Some historians argue that these peaceful faces represent the king that began its construction. Others think that they depict Lokesvara, enlightened compassion. Because of this, the carvings are often called the ‘200 Faces of Lokesvara’. Unlike the other temples in Angkor Thom which have features situated facing the four directions, Bayon’s towers face many.  Many of the standing towers have four faces, which could represent the cardinal directions, but some have three or less. The central tower has many more faces, some reaching two and half meters tall. It is thought that the temple originally had 54 towers to represent the 54 Khmer Empire provinces. Others have suggested that there used to be 49. Either way, today 37 towers stand tall in the temple of Bayon. 

Baphuon Temple

Baphuon Temple
Credit: TheRoadToAnywhere

Built in the 11th Century, Baphuon is one of the largest temples in the Angkor Thom complex. Unfortunately much like many of the other temples, it is not in the best condition. Located at the end of a 200m walkway, this temple is majestic. It was built before the city of Angkor was officially established and is a mountain temple dedicated to Shiva. Records show that in the 15th century it was converted to a Buddhist temple. It now has a massive Buddha statue decorating the west side of the building. This Buddha is one of the largest in Southeast Asia. Due to the temple being built on sandy soil, structural problems have been rife. This foundation caused instability and experts claim that it is likely that part of the structure collapsed. The rubble from the collapse is likely what was used to construct the Buddha.

The temple of Baphuon is the pioneering structure for its design style. Baphuon styles are known for the intricate carvings cover all  surfaces. The carvings on these structures depict scenes from mythology as well as realistic scenes. Often you can find carvings of men in battle, depictions of epic poems and animals. The temple, like many others in Angkor Thom, represents Mount Maru, home of the gods. A bronze tower used to adorn the temple, reaching a height of 50m. Today, however, the temple stands at 34m tall. Due to its foundation, the whole temple was on the brink of collapse in the early 20th century. After a failed restoration attempt in the 1960s, the project for the largest three dimensional jigsaw puzzle in the world began in 1996. This project took 16 years to complete but the temple was saved and restored.

Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm Temple
Credit: ShermansTravel

Unchanged since explorers rediscovered it, Ta Prohm is one of the most phenomenal sights in Angkor Thom. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his mother. An inscription details that some 80,000 people either attended or maintained the temple. There are details of over 600 dancers and close to 3,000 officials having worked there, as well as 18 high priests. Additionally, the inscription mentioned that the temple housed many valuable items. Before the fall of the Khmer Empire, gold, pearls, silks and diamonds were kept within its walls. When the empire fell, the temple was ultimately abandoned, allowing the forest to reclaim it. 

The trees that encompass Ta Prohm are over 500 years old. While only adding to the atmosphere and beauty, the vegetation has taken its toll on the structures. The roots and thick stems have grown underneath buildings and through cracks in the walls, dislodging rocks. Because of this, many corridors within the temple are blocked. Not only did the temple hold treasures like pearls, but history tells us that it was home to a lot more. In the complex were 260 statues of gods, 566 group residences and 39 towers with pinnacles. Like many other temples in Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm also has beautiful reliefs and carvings. One of the most fascinating of these carvings is one that is thought to depict a stegosaurus. Is it possible that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time in this community?

Why Would You Want to Visit Angkor Thom?

Ta Prohm Dinosaur Carving
Credit: ShermansTravel

Besides being one of the most jaw-dropping places in the world, Angkor Thom is rich with history. It was the capital of an empire and the home of kings. Every temple in the complex tells a different story and shows us a different part of its history. Despite all of the struggles that this city has seen it stands tall. There are over a thousand buildings to see and 72 large temples, only some of which were mentioned here. However, Angkor is not only large buildings and temples. Some of the true beauties of this place are the intricacies. The faces carved into Bayon, the reliefs of Angkor Wat. Each detail is as important as every temple and those who built them wanted us to see that. Whether those details are faces of the kings or the mystery of the stegosaurus, they are stunning.

Astounding temples aside, Angkor Thom is an incredible example of what could be achieved without modern-day tools. The symbolic importance of the city should be known to all. The architecture and artistic significance is almost unmatched. Not only are the temples testaments of the empire, but also the canals and reservoirs used by the city. 

Visiting Angkor Thom

Angkor Wat Tuk Tuk
Credit: BayonTabiTour

Angkor Thom is about 6km from Siem Reap, a so-called resort town. Since Cambodia is tropical, monsoons can pose a very real problem. That being said, visiting Angkor out of season, or between the months of June and October is less busy. If you think that crowds are not for you or might ruin the experience, it may well be worth going at this time of year. It might be a little bit rainy and sweltering hot, but the complex will not be jam-packed full of tourists. 

The park is open from 5am to 6pm, with 5am being the ideal time. It should be noted that if you are planning on visiting in the tourist season, you may want to get there quite a bit earlier. There are many spectacular places for photography opportunities and everyone else will want to be first in line. Hiring a tuk tuk, motor taxi or a bicycle is recommended.

The size of the complex makes it difficult to get around on foot. If you are not a native Cambodian you will need a pass to enter the site. Tour wise, there are many different choices. Visitors can opt for a morning, afternoon or full day one at very reasonable prices. For those with more of an interest in the archaeological site, there are even 3 and 7 day tours. You do not have to book any of these tours though, it is possible to make your own way around. If you do this, however, you will probably not learn all you could about the history and culture the Angkor has to offer. 

If you like learning more about history and travel, the whole world awaits! Be sure to check out my article on the Catacombs of Rome.

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