Angkor Thom

Jayavarman VII's state capital

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What we say: 3.5 stars

Jayavarman VII ruled the Khmer empire from around 1181 to 1220, with the site remaining in use for hundreds of years after his death. Work commenced on the city more or less as a rebuilding project after the previous state capital was sacked by marauding Chams.

While the vast majority of people are believed to have lived outside the city's walls — towards the East and West Barays and Siem Reap river — nothing remains of their wooden dwellings and the enclosure itself has been largely taken back by the forest.

The scale of Angkor Thom is daunting. It measures 3km in length on each of its four 8m-high walls — all of which was once surrounded by a moat up to 100m wide. While today much of the moat has been given over to rice cultivation, it would be a safe assumption that the moat was once inhabited by something with a snappier bite than carp. There are five 20m-tall gates, one on each of the south, west and north walls, with the eastern wall having two. The northernmost of the two eastern gates leads from the Royal Palace to the Eastern Baray. The centrepiece of Angkor Thom is the magnificent Bayon.

Most enter Angkor Thom via the southern gate as it's the closest to the main entrance to Angkor Wat. As with all five bridges, the bridge here is flanked by two sets of statues recreating a scene taken from the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. To your left are gods and to the right demons, all dragging on massive naga balustrades. Some of the statues are replicas while others have been transported from the lesser used bridges. The bridge backs onto a splendid example of the four-faced Bayon-style gateway, which with its imposing 10m backing onto a leafy jungle backdrop gives visitors a fine idea of the site's majesty, and also makes for an excellent photo.

The popularity of the southern gate also has a downside — the traffic. In peak season waits of up to 30 minutes are not unheard of as buses, minibuses, cars, motorbikes, remorque motos and elephants jostle for passage through the narrow gateway. During planning the Khmer architects had allowed for the height of an elephant with a howdah and parasols, but not for the width of two 80-seat tour buses passing side by side.

If time allows, it's worth trying some of the other gates for a bit of peace and quiet, and also to garner a glimpse of the site in its more natural, semi-ruined state. One interesting option is to walk along the top of the wall from the southern gate around to the western gate, having your transport pick you up there. Nature lovers and bird watchers should enjoy this route.

Within its walls, Angkor Thom contains a number of temples, including the Bayon, the Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Elephant Terrace, along with a swag of minor sites. Some of these predate the construction of Angkor Thom.

More details
Angkor Thom's southern gate is around 2km north of Angkor Wat's west gate
Last updated: 12th October, 2014

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