Nestled deep within the lush jungles north of Siem Reap, Cambodia, lies the ancient walled city of Angkor Thom. Built in the 12th century as the capital of the mighty Khmer Empire, this sprawling complex is one of the most awe-inspiring historical sites in Southeast Asia. Despite being abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle centuries ago, Angkor Thom remains a testament to the once great Khmer civilization.
A Brief History of Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was established by the legendary king Jayavarman VII and served as the capital of the Khmer Empire until its eventual decline in the 15th century. The city was built on the site of an earlier royal settlement that had existed since the 9th century. However, Jayavarman VII decided to completely rebuild and expand the city on a truly monumental scale. At its peak, Angkor Thom was home to over 1 million people within its 10 square mile area. The king’s ambition was to create a ‘Great City’ that would reflect the power and prestige of the Khmer Empire.
The city is surrounded by an intimidating square wall that stretches over 3 kilometers on each side. This towering barrier of laterite, earth, and stone is reinforced by a 100 meter wide moat and punctuated by magnificent entry gates. Each of the city’s gates is crowned with 4 enigmatic faces of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, looking out over the kingdom’s four cardinal directions.
The Bayon – Angkor Thom’s Centerpiece
At the heart of Angkor Thom lies the Bayon, the mesmerizing state temple commissioned by Jayavarman VII to represent Mount Meru, the mythical home of the Hindu gods. The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene, smiling faces carved onto its 54 gothic towers. These huge visages bearing the likeness of Avalokiteshvara gaze down with half-closed eyes upon all who enter the city.
In its heyday, the Bayon would have been richly decorated and painted. The temple’s bas-reliefs depict vivid scenes of everyday life in 12th century Cambodia as well as episodes from Hindu mythology and the empire’s historical battles and rituals.
More Notable Sites Within Angkor Thom
In addition to the Bayon, Angkor Thom contains many other fascinating temples and monuments that make this ancient city such an exceptional place to explore.
- Baphuon – This enormous 11th century pyramid temple sits just north of the Bayon. It was the state temple built by Udayadityavarman II before the construction of Angkor Thom. After being left in ruins for centuries, the Baphuon has been extensively restored in modern times.
- Terrace of the Elephants – A 350 meter long terrace decorated with sculpted elephants that served as a platform for the king to view processions and public ceremonies.
- Terrace of the Leper King – North of the Terrace of Elephants lies a double terrace adorned with dramatic naga carvings. It was likely used by royalty as a viewing gallery.
- Phimeanakas – Located within the walls of the Royal Palace, this Hindu temple with a golden tower was built by Rajendravarman in the 10th century.
- Tep Pranam – A Buddhist temple where the king would pray and perform ceremonies, located close to the Royal Palace.
As one of the most significant surviving remnants of the legendary Khmer Empire, Angkor Thom provides an enthralling look into Cambodia’s past splendor. Though reclaimed by the jungle long ago, this ancient city still conjures a vivid picture of what life was like for the officials, priests, and ordinary people who dwelled within its walls 800 years ago. Exploring the ruins of Angkor Thom, just a short distance from the modern town of Siem Reap, is an unforgettable experience that offers insight into one of Southeast Asia’s greatest civilizations.