There is nothing quite like the beauty and grandeur of the Angkor Wat. Travelers flock from every corner of the globe to be in awe of this magnificent structure. From the wee hours of the morning, until 6 pm, thousands gather at the Angkor Wat every day and stand in bewilderment of its structure, history and significance. It’s on everyone’s itinerary by default, but what temples are visited thereafter differs between every visitor.

Personally though, Angkor Thom is that one other place besides Angkor Wat you must visit. It should be second on your default places to visit within the Angkor complex and visitors should set aside at least half a day to explore Angkor Thom in depth.

Background

Set over a 10 sq km, Angkor Thom is said to be the last great capital of the Khmer empire. It was built as a heavily fortified city in response to the surprise takeover of Angkor by the Chams. King Jayavarman VII decided that his empire would never again be so vulnerable. The walls of city enclosed residences of priests, officials of the palace and military, buildings for administring the kingdom and three state temples, most notable of them the Bayon at the center of Angkor Thom. Beyond the 12m high walls lie a massive moat that would have made it difficult for invaders to take over the city.

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The royal palace that you will see at Angkor Thom have been identified of an ealier date of kings of the 10th century. However, the absence of archeological evidence of King Jayavarman VII’s palace suggests that the buidlings that the time were constructed of wood and thus no longer exists. It is also said that the city supported a population of one million people during its height. Dwellings of ordinary citizens also are said to have been built with wood which no longer exists as the hardier stone structures we see today.

South Gate

As you appraoch Angkor Thom from Angkor Wat towards its south gate, the first thing that grabs you is the entrance to the gate. A row of 54 stone structures on either side flank the causeway leading into the entrance of the gate. Demons on the right and gods on the left holding the body of a 9 headed serpent which symbolizes the churning of the ocean of milk, a popular mythical legend of the Khmer empire.

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A tiny temple dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara stands on each corner of the wall whose inscription reveals King Jayavarman VII as the builder and fives charter of the city of Angkor Thom.

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Bayon

If there is one thing you can’t miss within Angkor Thom, its the iconic Bayon temple. The giant stone faces of Bayon have become a symbolic image that conjurs to mind classical Khmer art and architecture. 37 standing towers, most of them holding four carved faces oriented toward the cardinal points represent what historians believe a combination of Buddha and Jayavarman VII himlsef. This however is a matter of debate. Bayon was Jayavarman VII’s state temple and in a lot of ways represents the peak of his building campaign.

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The faces are not the only captivating feature of the Bayon. Its bas reliefs potray extensive carvings that reveal scenes from everyday life – including market scenes, cockfighting, chess games and child birth. It is inspiring to think that jayavarman recorded the history of his times, both during war time and peace for future generations like us to see how life was lived.

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The Elephant Terrace

The Elephant Terrace, decorated with extensive carvings and statues of elephants towards both ends was used as a giant viweing stand for the kind during public ceremonies. It also served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall. As you stand on top of the terrace, try to image the granduer of the Khmer empire at its height, with its military might parading down the in full procession.

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The Leper King Terrace

RIght next to the Elepahnt Terrace is the Terrace of the Leper King. A 7m high platform on top of which stands a seless statue. It is argued that a few of the Khmer kings had lepresy, however, it is also beleived to be the Yama, the god of death and thus the platform served as a royal crematorium.

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Phimeanakas and the Royal palace

The temple of Phimeanakas even older than Angkor Thom itself is said to have been where kings during the 10th century located his royal palace. Not a lot of visitors visit this temple, so it might be one of the few places you might catch yourself alone, which is not a bad thing considering the hoards of visitors you encounter at every turn.

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There are a lot more sights within the complex of Angkor Thom you can see, it might take longer than half a day to fully explore Angkor Thom, however, keep in mind that Angkor Thom is one place besides Angkor Wat you must visit.

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Anil likes devouring copious amounts of Pho Cuon in Hanoi, Momos in Kathmandu and Kachoris in Udaipur. When not eating, you will find him bungy jumping off bridges or listening to talks by Neil deGrasse Tyson and Alan Watts.