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Angkor Thom - Acient capital of the Khmer empire, Cambodia

29-04-2020 34 Views
Angkor Thom is a laterite coumpound of temples which is the last the most enduring capital of Khmer Empire. It was established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII after driving out the Chams, who destroyed the old capital Yasodharapura. He fortified the city by building a high wall around it, in turn enclosed by a 100 meter wide moat. Therefore, it is an almost square city surrounded by 8 meter high walls a little over 12 kilometers long with five impressive gopura gates providing access to the city. The city’s name translates to “large city” or “great city”.
The compound of Angkor Thom is larger again than Angkor Wat but the temples here are easier and quicker to explore albeit spread quite far apart. The main entrance gate (South Gate) sits just west of the moat at Angkor Wat and there are further gates leading North, East and West to other parts of Angkor. A number of Angkor Thom’s main attractions include Bayon with 23 towers each carved with smiling Khmer faces (below left) and Baphuon a three-tiered temple mountain with an stretching walkway.

South Gate of Angkor Thom
South Gate of Angkor Thom


Older temples already at the grounds

The city lies on the west bank of the Siem Reap River, a tributary of Tonle Sap, about a quarter of a mile from the river. The south gate of Angkor Thom is 7.2 km north of Siem Reap, and 1.7 km north of the entrance to Angkor Wat.  At the site where the new city was built, a few older monuments were already in place, most noticeably the Baphuon Temple (mid 11th century) and the Phimeanakas (10th or early 11th century).

Baphuon Temple - Pyramid Temple in Angkor Thom
Baphuon Temple - Pyramid Temple in Angkor Thom


Jayavarman VII’s new Royal Palace & state temple

King Jayavarman VII built his state temple, the Bayon, at the center of the city. Just to the North he built his Royal Palace. Since it was built of perishable materials, nothing of it remains today except for the Royal Terraces that were made of stone. The Elephant Terrace and the Leper King Terrace formed the Eastern boundary of the Palace enclosure. The city was inhabited by tens of thousands of common people who lived in wooden houses, that have long gone. The city was highly developed with a system of roads and waterways, as well as four hospitals.

The Royal Palace Angkor
The Royal Palace Angkor


Decline and late 19th century rediscovery

After the Khmer Kingdom went into decline, the city was at one point deserted and left to the jungle. In the 19th century, the site was rediscovered by French explorers, soon after which the EFEO (the École Française d'Extrême-Orient) began clearing works and restoration of the monuments overgrown by thick jungle.


Entrance gates to the city

The city is surrounded by high defensive walls, 3 kilometers long on each side. To the inside of the wall is an earth embankment, which allowed the Khmer good views of approaching enemy armies.

Access to the city was through five gopura gates, one at the center of each wall, an extra one (the Victory Gate) on the road from the Royal Palace to the East Baray. The gates were built between the end of the 12th century and early 13th century. The gopuras consist of a central tower, 23 meters in height, flanked by two smaller towers.

Angkor Thom Victory gate
Angkor Thom Victory gate


The giant faces on the towers 

The towers, known as “face towers” similar to those at the Bayon, contain four very large heads on top of the gates facing each of the four cardinal directions. They are believed to represent Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The central tower contains 2 faces looking in opposite directions; each of the smaller towers have 1 face each looking in one of the remaining two directions.

Faces of Bayon temple, Angkor Thom
Faces of Bayon temple, Angkor Thom

A great deal of knowledge about the history and daily life in Angkor was gained from the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Angkor for a year until July 1297. According to him, there was a fifth head on the gopura’s top at the time, of which nothing remains today.

On the ground level of the gates on either sides of the entrance is a large sculpture of Airavata, the three headed mythological elephant with the God Indra sitting on his back. The opening of the gates are 7 meters high by 3½ meters wide in which there were originally massive wooden doors that were closed at night. Most visitors to Angkor Thom use the well preserved South gate, that was restored in the 1950’s.


Causeways crossing the moat

Crossing the moat to each of the city’s five gates is a causeway lined on either sides by stone figures holding a huge snake. The figures represent 54 Devas (a Hindu deity) on one side, 54 Asuras (demons battling the Devas) on the other side pulling a giant snake. This scene is associated with the storey of “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk”, an ancient Hindu story. The story tells that the ocean was churned by Devas and Asuras to extract from it the nectar of immortality. The snake Vasuki (King of the Nagas) served as the rope, Mount Mandara (probably represented by the Bayon temple) was used as the churning pole.


Structures of Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom is in the Bayon style. This manifests itself in the large scale of the construction, in the widespread use of laterite, in the face-towers at each of the entrances to the city and in the naga-carrying giant figures which accompany each of the towers.

Angkor Thom the one place besides Angkor Wat you must visit
Angkor Thom the one place besides Angkor Wat you must visit

Angkor Thom contains the remains of a large number of temples and Palaces of different ages and styles, includes:
  • Bayon (the most noticeable temples at Angkor Thom)
  • Baphuon
  • Phimeanakas
  • Prasat Suor Prat
  • Preah Palilay
  • Preah Pithu
  • Tep Pranam
  • Terrace of the Elephants
  • Terrace of the Leper King
  • Khleangs
  • Prasat Chrung
  • North Gate
  • Mangalartha
  • North Gate bridge
  • South Gate moat

Best time to visit Angkor Thom

  • The dry season starts in November and ends in February. This is a relatively cool and dry period, but it is also very busy.
  • Between March and May, the heat is barely tolerable.
  • From April until October is the low season, a time of regular rain showers, when humidity will be higher than during the rest of the year, causing the air to feel rather muggy. But less tourists.

Be aware !

  • Some parts of Angkor have not been won back from the jungle yet; others are yet to be restored and in a state of dilapidation. This may cause hazardous situations.
  • There are stories going around that there are still landmines in the far-off parts of the temple complex, so it is recommended to remain on the footpaths.
  • On weekends and during holidays, Angkor Thom will be swarming with tourists and Cambodians alike. It can become very hot and climbing some of the stairs may pose a real challenge.
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