Jayavarman VII ruled the Khmer empire from around 1181 to 1220 during which time he decided to strengthen his capital and protect it from further attacks — leading to the walled city of Angkor Thom. Surrounded by moats, an imposing laterite wall and five gates to enter and exit from, the site remained 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.
The vast majority of people would have lived outside the city’s walls — a huge low density population spread out towards the East and West Barays and Siem Reap river — though nothing remains of their wooden dwellings and the enclosure itself has been largely taken back by the forest. Research in 2013 using LiDAR laser scanning technology confirmed the walls did not enclose the downtown area and that in fact the entire landscape was more complex than ever before known by researchers, with satellite cities connecting to the central metropolis.
The scale of the city of Angkor Thom is daunting. It measures three kilometres in length on each of its four eight-metre-high walls. Approximately, at least — it isn’t exactly a perfect square and is one degree off being positioned precisely north, but not a bad effort for builders of the time. All of this was once surrounded by a moat up to 100 metres wide, which formed part of the city’s elaborate hydraulic network. 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. These days you can enjoy relaxing – though expensive — gondola boat rides along the stretch of the moat between the South and West Gates, which is particularly picturesque come sunset.
There are five 20-metre-tall gates, one on each of the south, west and north walls, with the eastern wall having two – Victory Gate and the East Gate, the latter also known as Death Gate possibly because convicts were sent here to be executed. The northernmost of the two eastern gates leads from the Royal Palace to the Eastern Baray; a man-made Angkorian reservoir that is now dry, unlike the soggier West and Northern Barays.
Most enter Angkor Thom via the southern gate — in the best condition of the five — 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. In 2014 a tourist accidentally knocked off the head of a replica here. Best not to lean on these. The bridge backs onto a splendid example of the four-faced Bayon-style gateway, which with its imposing 10 metre 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 totally 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. The West Gate is relatively little used — we’ve not even seen a ticket guard on duty here — while the East Gate is especially photogenic thanks to having more of a track, rather than road, running through it.
Few tourists realise that you can escape the bustle of the South Gate by walking up along the top of the laterite wall (access is possible from any of the gates). You can either walk or cycle round the entire perimeter, safe in the knowledge that with an (almost) uniform shape you’re not going to get lost. There will be some areas where the wall has crumbled a little, so you may have to get off your bike and walk short stretches. With shady forest paths and a small temple — Prasat Chrung — on each corner of the four walls, this is an easy way to get away from the crowds. Nature lovers and bird watchers should enjoy this route. If you don’t want to stretch your legs too far, simply arrange for your driver to pick you up at the next gate.
Within its walls Angkor Thom contains a number of significant temples, including the Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the Elephant Terrace, along with a swag of minor sites. Some of these predate the construction of Angkor Thom. The centrepiece of Angkor Thom is the magnificent Bayon with its beatifically smiling faces.