Angkor Wat is a name that conjures up images of temples in the jungle and of Lara Croft in her best Tomb Raider finery. However, that name refers to only one of many temple complexes in the UNESCO-listed region. One of my absolute favorites, was Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom means “the great city” in Khmer. The 12th-century royal Buddhist city is especially famed for its grand Bayon Temple, and rightly so.
The city of Angkor Thom 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. At the height of its power it is said that Angkor Thom may have governed a population of one million people.
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 8m high and 12km in length and further protected by a 100m-wide moat [now dry], said to have contained ferocious crocodiles. 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 [now close your eyes and spell that!].
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.” The south gate is the best restored and most popular, but also the busiest 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 villains break into the “tomb” by pulling down a giant apsara.
Impressive Bayon Temple [c. 1190 C.E.] 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” and is known for its enigmatic smiling faces of Avalokiteshvara and its extraordinary bas-reliefs. If you see only one sight at Angkor Thom this should be it.
While Angkor Wat should not be missed, Angkor Thom, particularly the Bayon Temple, is a site that alone is worth the trip, and should be on everyone’s bucket list.