angkor thom: core of grandeur
The first densely populated city in history should be credited to the Angkor Civilization. And the capital of this ginormous city is Angkor Thom. At its height, Angkor Thom may have governed a population of one million people in the surrounding area. Outranking Paris, London and Cairo.
Means “The Great City” in Khmer language, it was founded by Angkor’s greatest king, Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181-1219), who came to power following the defeat of the former Khmer capital by the Chams blah blah blah…
Angkor Thom was built in a nearly perfect square, the sides of which run north to south and east to west. It was surrounded by a square wall (jayagiri) 8m high and 12km in length and further protected by a 100m-wide moat (now dry), said to have contained ferocious crocodiles.
A gate opens exactly in the middle of each wall, from which a bridge extends over the moat to the area outside the royal city. The original royal palace at Angkor Thom, built in the 10th and 11th centuries, was probably built of wood and no longer stands.
The vast area of the Angkor Thom ruins, over a mile on one side, contains many stone temples and other features to explore. The city has five monumental gates (one in each wall plus an extra in the eastern wall), 20m high and decorated with stone elephant trunks and the king’s favorite motif, the four faces of Avalokiteshvara.
Each gate, which leads onto a causeway across the moat, is flanked with statues of 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right. This is a theme from the Hindu myth of the Churning of the Milk-Ocean (illustrated in the famous bas-relief atAngkor Wat).
The south gate is the best restored and most popular, but also the most busy since it leads directly to Angkor Wat. The east and west gates, found at the end of uneven trails, are more peaceful. The east gate was used for a scene in the Tomb Raider movie, in which the bad guys broke into the “tomb” by pulling down a giantapsara (actually made of polystyrene).
The causeway leading to the gate of Angkor Thom is my personal favorite.
TIP: When you visit Angkor Thom, don’t forget to bring bottles of water (lots of it), sunblock, sunglasses, towel or umbrella. It can really be scorching hot and dusty.
Here are some of the popular structures inside Angkor Thom:
The Terrace of the Leper King is a decorative platform topped by a statue surrounded by four lesser statues, each facing away from the central statue. The central figure is probably a Khmer ruler who allegedly died of leprosy, either Yasovarman I or Jayavarman VII.
The Terrace of the Elephants served as a viewing platform for royal parties and depicts elephants and garuda (a mythical bird-like creature).
Probably the the center structure of this civilization is the Bayon Temple (circa 1190) is a Buddhist temple but retains elements of Hindu cosmology and imagery. Standing in the exact center of the walled city, it represents the intersection of heaven and earth. It is known for its enigmatic smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara and its extraordinary bas-reliefs.
The Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of serene and massive stone faces on the many towers which jut out from the upper terrace and cluster around its central peak.
Bayon Temple is popular among tourists and pilgrims alike, Buddhist monks are paying homage particularly to this structure because the only Angkorian state temple to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha.
The temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes.
The outer gallery: depictions of historical events and everyday life
The inner gallery: depictions of mythical events
A bit north of the Bayon is the stalwart Baphuon, a temple built in 1066 that is in the process of being put back together in a way that gives visitors an idea of what original temple construction might have been like.
The temple is said to be a huge jigsaw puzzle. Scholars said it was the Tower of Bronze…a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than ten chambers at its base.’ In the late 15th century, the Baphuon was converted to a Buddhist temple. A 9 meter tall by 70 meter long statue of a reclining Buddha was built on the west side’s second level, which probably required the demolition of the 8 meter tower above, thus explaining its current absence. The temple was built on land filled with sand, and due to its immense size the site was unstable throughout its history. Large portions had probably already collapsed by the time the Buddha was added.
Phimeanakas Temple, located on the site of the now-disappeared royal palace, is another pyramidal representation of Mt. Meru. Most of the decorative features are broken or have disappeared, but it is an interesting structure and can be climbed for good views of Baphuon Temple.
Angkor Thom is huge, during it’s glorious years, its span is even bigger than Manhattan. Reading through historical materials before hitting the road is really a must to fully appreciate its beauty. We totally ignored the scorching heat of the equatorial summer sun when we were there. Raveling Angkor Thom’s rich past was enough to fill a whole day of our itinerary.