It’s hard to imagine a structure larger and more majestic than Angkor Wat, but the pieces of Angkor Thom add up to a greater whole. The appropriately called last great capital of the Khmer empire.
Angkor Thom is a popular tourist destination in the Angkor Archeological Park, located near Angkor Wat and about 15 minutes from Siem Reap. Bayon Temple, Terrace of the Elephants, Terrace of the Leper King, Baphuon Temple, and several other temples can be found in Angkor Thom, which simply means “Great City.” On a trip to Siem Reap and its ancient ruins, it’s a must-see.
Angkor Thom: The Richest City in Southeast Asia
The last great capital of the Khmer empire, founded by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century, was a city in its own right. It was the wealthiest city in Southeast Asia, with a population of over 1 million inhabitants and a land area of over 10 square kilometers.
Incredibly, Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat, wrote a summary of Angkor Thom in 1296 that could have been published today:
“The wall of the city is some five miles in circumference. It has five gates each with double portals… Outside the wall stretches a great moat, across which access to the city is given by massive causeways. Flanking the causeways on each side are fifty-four divinities resembling war-lords in stone, huge and terrifying…”
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Temple of Bayon and Baphuon
The mind-boggling state temple of Bayon is located in the geographic center of Angkor Thom. A three-tiered pyramid temple with 54 small towers crowned with massive all-seeing enigmatically smiling faces, this ornate Buddhist building is a three-tiered pyramid temple. Bayon is also referred to as “the temple of the faces” because of this. These are absolutely breathtaking and well worth the trip. But what do the expressions on the faces mean? What do they stand for? The sculptures may have depicted King Jayavarman VII as an all-seeing God-King, according to one interpretation (and there is little doubt as to his creative genius and inflated ego).
Another submission is that the 54 towers reflected the 54 provinces of the kingdom, with the King surveying all in front of him. We’ll certainly never know, which is only fitting for a memorial with an enigmatic smiling face as its signature. But one thing is certain: we’ll never stop attempting to solve the puzzle.
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The somewhat older Baphuon, founded by King Udayadityavarman in the mid-11th century, is just to the north of Bayon. Since the Khmer Rouge smashed archaeologists’ diligent archives, leaving about 300,000 stones to be placed back in the correct order, it now has the unwelcomed moniker as the “world’s biggest jigsaw.” A partial reconstruction has been undertaken after extensive study, and an elevated walkway provides a fascinating view of the building.
Finally, you should schedule time to visit the Elephant Terrace and the Leper King Terrace. The Elephant Terrace was once the base of a gilded wooden palace that has since vanished, but stone-carved elephants and garuda (giant eagle-people) adorn the terrace’s 2 meter wall. The Terrace of the Leper King, named after a stone statue found here, is located at the north end. Who the Leper King was and how he got his name are unsolved mysteries that have sparked endless speculation.
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