The Khmer Emperors of modern day Cambodia had built many cities each more remarkable than the other. Angkor Thom was the last city built by the Khmer Rulers before their decline. Angkor Thom also is the most enduring city ever built by the Khmers. Built in the 12th century by Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom houses magnificent temples like Bayon, Baphuon, and Phimeanakas. Angkor Thom is so fantastic that some believe its only competition is from Atlantis, the lost world of Plato!
Phnom Penh the capital of Cambodia and is connected by direct flights from Bangkok, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kualalumpur, Ho Chi Ming City, Vientiane and Guangzhou. Direct flight to Siem Reap which is the nearest town to Angkor Thom is available from Bangkok and Singapore. Visitors coming from Thailand and Vietnam can also reach by Road. From Phnom Penh, Siem Reap can also be reached over River in 6 hours.
The most common way to get around Angkor Thom are bicycles, motor-bikes, tuk-tuks, cars and vans. However, if you want to go around in style like the ancient Khmer did, and then takes an Elephant! Elephant rides are available at Bayon in the morning and at Phnom Bakheng in the evening.
Angkor Thom was not built on a new site. It was in fact built in the 12th century over an earlier city called Yashodapura. Jayavarman VII had recaptured the territory back from Cham invaders in 1182. He fortified the site and made Angkor Thom his new capital. Jayavarman VII also built a new state temple in Angkor Thom called Bayon.
Angkor Thom lies on the banks of Siem Reap Rover which is a tributary of the Tonle Sap River. Angkor Thom is spread over an area of 9 square Kms and has an 8 meter high wall running around it. Thom also has a moat surrounding the city. There are 5 entrances to the city, 4 in each direction and a victory gate which is 500 meters North of the East gate. Each gate is embellished with a giant face. The victory gate has stone elephants in the pose of plucking lotus flowers.
Bayon Temple is the grandest structure within Angkor Thom and was built by Jayavarman VII as the state temple. Bayon Temple lies exactly in the center of Angkor Thom. At the entrance you will be enchanted by 200 faces of Lokeshvara or the compassionate Buddha staring at you from the towers.
The outer walls have exquisite bas-relief work depicting scenes from the Wars fought by the Khmer Kings as well as everyday life in Khmer. The outer galley has 2 libraries in the courtyard.
The Inner Gallery of Bayon has bas-reliefs depicting scenes form Hindu Mythology in contrast to the Wars shown in the Outer Galley. The most common subjects are the Holy Trinity of Hindus- Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. There are also beautiful Apsaras or divine dancers spread across the Gallery. A very interesting exhibit here is that of a King fighting a giant serpent and later lying on a bed after contacting Leprosy from the venom of the serpent.
The upper terrace of the inner Gallery features the famous face towers. These towers have 3-4 gigantic smiling faces.
The central tower rises 43 meters from the ground and has a sanctuary in its heart. The sanctuary houses a statue of lord Buddha in meditative pose. The Buddha is shielded from the elements of nature by the serpent king Mucalinda.
Dawn is the best time to visit Bayon as the 200 faces of Lokeshvara turn golden as the Sun rises.
Baphuon Temple was built in 11th century by Udayadityavarman II who was the Khmer Emperor from 1050-1066 AD. Baphuon was dedicated to Lord Shiva and was converted into a Buddhist temple by the 15th century. Baphuon is connected to the Royal Palace on the southern side. The Temple is built on a sandstone base and has five levels, each of the same size.
Baphuon was a trend setter of sorts in Khmer architecture. It started the trend of building stone galleries with a tower in the center. Chou Ta-Kuan, who was the envoy of Chinese Emperor Chengzong, visited Angkor Thom in paid the best complement to Baphuon when he said 'the Tower of Bronze...a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base.'
Phimeanakas is a walled temple within Angkor Thom and used to serve as the worship area for the Khmer Kings. It is believed the temple had a golden top during olden times. Legend says that the Khmer King was approached by the Nine headed Serpent Naga disguised as a woman. There was a curse that unless the King slept in the Phimeanakas Temple with the Naga, he would die!
There are 2 ponds inside Phimeanakas with carvings of crocodiles and other marine life.
Pre Rup Temple was built by Khmer Emperor Rajendravarman in 962 AD. Pre Rup is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is supposed to have been built on an area where an Ashram for Lord Shiva used to exist.
The central structure is a Pyramid 50 metres at base which in the form of 3 tiers to a platform on top. Built with brick, laterite and sandstone, Pre Rup temple was where the royal funerals took place. The custom was to ritually rotate the ashes of the body in different directions.
Pre Rup is best visited early morning or in the late afternoon when the red laterite glows brilliantly with sun light.
Elephant Terrace was built by Jayavarman VII in late 13th century as the royal reception pavilion. It is a large platform with several carvings of elephants. What is interesting is that you cannot see the elephant carvings standing on the terrace itself. You need to come down and it is visible only from a distance! The staircase leading to the terrace is also embellished with statues of elephants in the pose of picking up lotus flowers with their trunks. Towards the lower side of the Elephant Terrace, you can also spot carvings of Garuda and Lions.
(Apsara Dance Performance in Siem Reap)
As in Angkor Wat, the layout of Angkor Thom also symbolized the universe. The moat around the exterior walls stands for the cosmic ocean from primordial times. The entrance if guarded by 108 deities and demons, a number from the mythical ‘Churning of the Ocean’ episode. Nagas in each side of the causeway represent Vasuki the serpent from Hindu Mythology. The seven headed Nagas also symbolize the bridge between the world of gods and men.
Angkor Thom has been featured in many Hollywood Films. In the Movie Lara Croft and the Tomb Raiders, Angelina Jolie and her gang visit Angkor Thom to collect the first piece of the triangle of light. Angkor Thom also features in the Movie Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem. In this movie the ancient Montorok is located in a temple located in Angkor Thom.
There are some fascinating villages on the river near the Angkor area. The most famous of these are Chong Khneas, Kampung Phluk and Kampung Khleang. These are floating villages where houses are built on bamboo stilts. Lake Tonle Sap also has villages on it. Chong Kines is a fishing village where residents live in bamboo stilted houses on the Lake.
Apart from a Bird Sanctuary, this floating village also had a temple and school on the lake!
For a travelogue on the worlds largest Temple and Cambodia's most famous landmark, visit Angkor Wat.