The name of Angkor Thom literally means “Big City” (Angkor: city; Thom: big), and it is not a temple, but the place that from the end of the 12th century became the capital of the Khmer empire, built by King Jayavarman VII. Scattered over its area of about 10 km2 there are several temples, such as Bayon, the Baphuon, and the Phimeanakas, space where the old Royal Palace was located, and several terraces.
The city of Angkor Thom was an impregnable fortress: it is protected by a great square wall 12 km in perimeter and 8 meters high, in turn surrounded by an outer moat 100 meters wide.
A visit to Angkor Thom is worth spending a full half day. We recommend you to visit from the second stop (Bayon temple), it is best to leave the vehicle and visit the rest of the places on foot until the end.
Here are the best places you should not miss when visiting Angkor Thom:
1. The South Gate of Angkor Thom
Of the 5 access gates to the city of Angkor Thom, the south gate is the most popular, as it is the one that communicates with Angkor Wat and is the one that has been mostly restored.
Beyond the great tower that crowns the access door, with its sculpted faces and elephant trunks, the highlight of the south door is the statues that flank the bridge that crosses over the moat, representing the fight between the gods and demons, all of them pulling the Mucalinda snake.
The scene is a representation of the Hindu myth of the “Churning of the Ocean of Milk”, and because of how ugly the faces of the demons can be, it is not difficult to guess who these are and who the gods are.
2. Bayon Temple
Bayon is the most famous of the Angkor Thom (and also one of the most famous in all of Angkor). This jewel is located in the exact center of Angkor Thom, with its 54 towers decorated with 216 huge smiling faces representing the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara.
Although the huge faces are the most obvious attraction of the place, no one should miss the bas-reliefs that decorate the wall of the outer galleries, which for me are even more beautiful than those of Angkor Wat; since in addition to historical battles, they show beautiful scenes of daily life, with a great sense of humor and dazzling artistic talent.
Related post: Must-visit Temples in Angkor Archaeology Park
3. Baphuon Temple
A 200-meter elevated stone platform gives access to the Baphuon, a pyramid-shaped temple representing Mount Meru, the mountain of the gods. From the highest part of the temple -which it is allowed to access, there are magnificent views of the jungle environments.
Going down the opposite side and following the signs to the exit, you come to the west side wall, which in the 16th century was redesigned to shape a massive 60-meter long reclining Buddha. At first glance, it is not clearly perceived, but if you look at it carefully you will see it without a doubt.
Phimeanakas means “Heavenly Palace”, and it is believed that in ancient times it was crowned by a great golden needle. It also has a pyramidal shape representing Mount Meru, and it is the temple located right next to where the Royal Palace used to be, and it had very outstanding importance, despite the fact that its deteriorated state of conservation allows one to admire only part of its old greatness. For some years it has not been allowed to climb it, so it must be observed from the outside.
5. Royal Palace Area
Today there is no trace of the old Royal Palace since, like all buildings except the temples, it was made of wood. In spite of this, the space that the palace occupied comes along on this route, and in addition to its beautiful jungle environment, it allows you to see two large pools. The largest pool was intended for the king’s concubines and, judging from its enormous proportions, it is clear that the king was well entertained. The other pool, much smaller, was that of the soldiers.
6. Terrace of the Elephants
This large 350-meter terrace was the platform from which the king made his audiences, gave his speeches, and watched the parades and shows that took place on the large esplanade opposite.
The name “Terrace of the Elephants” comes from the elephant heads carved on the outside of the base of the terrace. The three-headed elephant is a representation of Erawan, the mount of Indra, the God of heaven.
7. Terrace of the Leper King
Located immediately to the north of the previous one, it is a platform presided over by a statue, known as the Leper King for its deformed hand that seems consumed by leprosy. It is actually a representation of Yama, the god of death since this terrace was the cremation site of the royal family.
Just north of the terrace and at ground level, there is a curious zigzag corridor enclosed between two walls, carved with mythological figures.
When to visit Angkor Thom?
Visiting Angkor Thom is more common in the morning than in the afternoon, as the Bayon Temple faces east. There is always the option of visiting it in the afternoon when it is usually somewhat less crowded. It is really unlikely to be able to visit the Bayon without being surrounded by a crowd: everyone who comes to Angkor visits this temple, and the space you walk through is really tight.
On the other hand, many tourists only visit the Bayon temple and do not continue with the rest of the Angkor Thom temples, so although the Bayon is usually very crowded, the rest of Angkor Thom can usually be visited without overcrowding.