Angkor Thom cradled the Bayon Temple and the massive stone faces that guaranteed a King's immortality.
This was the last Capital City ever built by the final King to ever rule the Khmer Empire at Angkor.
Angkor Thom is not unlike Angkor Wat in its design. It is 7 square kilometers in size, was surrounded by an 8 foot high wall and encircled by a large moat of water.
You'll probably enter through the South Gate Entrance. Once inside, it becomes difficult to get your bearings and know just where you are or what you are looking at.
After all, The moat has long dried up and the walls have mostly crumbled, leaving much of the city indistinguishable from rubble, fallen rocks and some large trees.
The King before him had used the best and sturdiest materials available to build his place in History, leaving King Jayavarman VII with the scraps to build with.
But 7 Square Kilometers of Angkor Thom is a lot of area to go searching on a pedal bike for the Sights that remain standing or have undergone restoration.
Only a good map will give you a picture of how the structure originally looked and the original location of what you want to find.
We had missed so much on our first visit to the Angkor Archaeological Park because we never really knew what we were standing on or what we were looking at.
We promised ourselves that we would find someone who knew where to find the best sights within Angkor Thom and the best times to get there.
We booked a good budget priced Guided Tour of the Angkor Temples for our second visit.
Our Tour of Angkor Thom turned out better than we thought and cost little more than buying our own tickets to the Angkor Park and renting a Tuk-Tuk for the day to take us where we wanted to go.
If you want to be chauffeured to each sight by Tuk-Tuk on a full-day, expect to be charged as much as $50USD. A good deal would be to barter it down to $35USD but either way it is good to have someone who knows where you are going.
Just be careful of which driver you choose. Some will ask for money up-front 'I Need Some Gas' but don't pay until the end. They will also try to turn a 'full-day' into a 3-4 hour trip before they begin asking for more money again.
They are a hassle to deal with but it will give you such an advantage over tourist that just showed up at the gates.
I guess we also took the Tour of the Angkor Temples to avoid those hassles. Our 11 hour tour turned out costing us $65USD. No hassles, Hotel pickup in an Air-conditioned mini-van as well as a personal tour guide and lunch at the top of a 1000 year old temple.
There are many stone temples in varying degrees of decay within Angkor Thom. Some are not worth seeing while others should not be missed.
We'll tell you which is which, why it's that way and how best to get there.
The tour picked us up at our favorite hotel and we headed for the South Gate entrance to Angkor Thom.
Everyone heading to Angkor Wat uses the South Gate Entrance as the doorway to the Angkor Archeological Park. It is the best preserved and most beautiful gateway so it is also the most popular.
I once watched a Tuk-Tuk and an angry female elephant battle to get through the gateway at the same time. It has become a regular traffic jam at the South Gate.
I would normally recommend using the East and West Entrance Gates to Angkor Thom because they are quiet and less crowded but also barren in comparison.
The South Gateway is one of only 5 original entrances to Angkor Thom. It is a stone bridge or causeway that rises over the now barren Moat and passes through the fortified walls that once protected the entire Capital City.
There are stone railings on both sides of the causeway. Mounted atop the railings are beautifully carved statues of 54 Gods and 54 Demons.
It is a representation of the classical Hindu myth called the 'Churning of the Milk-Ocean'. It is also a facade. King Jayavarman VII only included Hindu Icons to placate the Hindu Faithful while he plotted his way out of historical oblivion.
The The Bayon Temple was the first stop on our tour. It was once considered the beating heart of the new Capital City.
The Bayon Temple is one of few structures that have remained intact and a distinguishable part of this Ancient Khmer City. Most of the city is so badly decayed that it is impossible to know what you're looking at.
We found the Bayon at the center of a roundabout for the road that winds through the other temples. You'll understand what I mean when you see it.
Much of the Temple has collapsed in upon itself but there is a stone pathway leading into the entrance of the Temple. The first thing that will strike you are the multiple towers of the Bayon and the many massive stone sculptures of a human face at every corner and religiously significant spot.
Each sculpture is the image of King Jayavarman VII (Theories differ).
The faces at the Bayon Temple don't resemble King Jayavarman VII as well as they once did. The sculptures were modified and augmented over time by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist Kings after the death of King Jayavarman VII.
Here is the Bayon Temple as you'll Find it Today
There is no real dispute among scholars of Ancient Angkor that the Stone carvings are of the Khmer King Jayavarman VII.
The question is ... 'Why would a King create so many massive stone carvings in his own image and place them in the most prestigious and sacred parts of his city?
Because King Jayavarman VII inherited power over the Khmer Empire when it was only a shadow of its former self. It's riches had been spent and even the land had been plundered of its natural resources.
He greatly feared being lost to the annuals of Angkor History and he had good reason to fear that end.
He came to power after the death of King Suryavarman II, the greatest and most prolific King to ever rule the Khmer Empire. This view was shared by the Khmer people of the day and by the scholars that study Angkor History today.
King Suryavarman II planned and constructed Angkor Wat along with almost every prominent structure that still stands today in the Angkor Archeological Park.
It must have felt like a terrible injustice to inherit the Khmer Empire after its greatest leader had already built the most audacious Temples in Angkor History.
It must have felt like a big loss of face.
So, King Jayavarman VII builds Angkor Thom as his new Capital City and places some of the largest stone carvings ever created of his own image.
He then placed the carvings in every corner and in every place he could. The Bayon Temple is home to the largest collection of sculpted impressions ever created within the Khmer Empire.
Maybe it was King Jayavarman VII's way of 'taking back his face'.
This is an actual sculpture of King Jayavarman VII
See any resemblance?
Jayavarman VII was a smart man who saw himself as a "Devaraja" or "God-King" just as any of the Khmer Kings that had come before him.
He stood squarely at odds with each and every one of his predecessors. They were all influenced by Hindu Doctrine and regarded themselves as consubstantial with the Hindu God Shiva.
Jayavarman VII identified himself with the Buddha and the Bodhisattva. That was a removal from everything familiar to the people of Angkor.
Angkor Thom is actually a three-dimensional representation of Buddhist Cosmology. The King kept Hindu Zealots at bay by incorporating many traditional Hindu elements into the Temple.
His goal was to slowly integrate the Buddhist belief system into the fabric of the social structure. He strove to convert their religious belief system from Hindu to Buddhist.
A new belief system would undermine every major achievement worshipped under Hindu Doctrine. Predecessor Kings and their achievements would be considered insignificant.
Angkor Wat had been dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. It would lose significance to a population loyal to a Kingdom of Buddhists.
Jayavarman VII ended up doing well for himself. He died before fully completing his goal of changing the religious beliefs of the Khmer people from Hindu to Buddhism.
Today 74% of the population of Cambodia practices Buddhism in one form or another. Jayavarman VII didn't manage to belittle the astonishing achievements of King Suryavarman II with his big bad Angkor Wat but he certainly was not lost to history.
Angkor Wat is a pretty hard act to follow but Jayavarman VII sure left his stamp on Khmer History.
An inscription was found written on the outside of the City of Angkor Thom. It says, "Jayavarman is Groom and this City His Bride".
The Terrace of the Elephants was the next stop on our tour. It is an impressive, 2.5 meter tall, 350m-long terrace wall that has been adorned with carved elephants and Elephant trunks carved from stone.
This Terrace runs from the heart of Angkor Thom past the Baphuon, the Phimeanakas and onto the Royal Palace.
There are some very nice quality sculptures of a five-headed horse and others of hunters, warriors and Khmer dancers. We got there before noon because the wall faces East, making for the best photo opportunities before the noon-day sun rises high.
The Terrace of the Elephants was like a stadium, offering views from high above for the King to View public ceremonies, inspect his fighting forces and served as the king's Grand Audience Hall.
The Baphuon Temple was a huge, three-tiered temple that measured 120 Meters East-West by 100 Meters North-South at its base. It was 50 meters tall before Buddhists tried to install a reclining Buddha and knocked 50 Meters off the top.
It was built as the State Temple of Udayadityavarman II and dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. It is located to the Northwest of the Bayon Temple.
By the 20th century, much of the temple had largely collapsed. Unfortunately, the temple was built on unstable land that contained too much sand.
Because of the Temple's massive size (And Weight) the site was unstable throughout its history and has sagged and sunken over time. But a French team of archeologists started restoration in 1995.
As of November 2010, partial visitor access was once again restored, although not to the central structure. But it is a remarkable sight.
In April 2011, after 51 years, the archaeologists finished the restoration of the temple. King Norodom Sihamoni of Cambodia and Prime Minister Francois Fillon of France were among those who first toured the renovated temple during the inauguration ceremony on July 3, 2011.
So, now is a good time to visit Angkor Thom. Much of the site can be viewed and explored.
The Phimeanakas is in the shape of a three tier pyramid but is actually a Hindu temple. You can climb up to the very top using the steep, stone staircase.
At Phimeanakas the stairs' condition is terrible and steeper than you might think. I walked the first part of the stairs on my hands and feet yet was nearly standing upright.
The railing is solid, though so I think it is a must to climb to the top of the Phimeanakas.
It is an incredible vantage point to look over the surrounding area. You can tell that there was once much more to the Phimeanakas because of the multitude of Stone Foundations protruding from the grass and soil.
This suggests that much has been lost over time and since Angkor first encountered modern man.
The Terrace of the Leper King is a decorative platform topped by a statue surrounded by four lesser statues, each facing away from the central statue. The central figure is probably a Khmer ruler who allegedly died of leprosy, either Yasovarman I or Jayavarman VII.
The Terrace of the Leper King is at the north end of the Terrace of the Elephants. We had a wonderful lunch here amongst all the ruins. Much of the sights are close together so you can find a place up high and get a good view of the surroundings.
The terrace was named for the statue of the 'Leper King' that sits on top. No One really knows why this name came about and even fewer know why.
The statue of the leper king on display is fake, anyway. The original resides in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
Angkor Thom is a few kilometers past Angkor Wat on the same road that leads from Siem Reap city to the gates of the Angkor Archeological Park.
That's about 9 or 10 kilometers from the center of Siem Reap, depending on what Angkor Accommodation you choose.
Our tour stopped at the Baphuon temple, the Royal Enclosure and the Phimeanakas before finishing the morning at the Terrace of Elephants and Terrace of Leper Kings.
They are the main sites that you want to try and get to. See what a Tuk-Tuk driver would do it for and see how far you can barter him down.
We had an awesome lunch on the Terraces but it was not a feast. A simple tuna sandwhich and a bottle of water was all we had but the scenery was spectacular and there was no one else there.
So bring a knapsack with a few sandwiches, let the water bottles freeze solid in your fridge (They'll melt to water quickly) and have your own picnic.
The huge crowds we'd seen in the early morning had nearly all gone and I knew we'd timed our visits to avoid crowds all day long.
Make your own tour in the order we did. It seemed that we were always a few hours ahead of anyone else, then entered Angkor Wat when everyone had seen enough after 4 hours of exploring.
We headed to the Famous Angkor Wat after lunch and spent the last half of the day there before ending it with a sunset view up Bakheng Hill.
If you happen to have legs then it is possible for you to do this climb blind-folded. I just don't see anyone doing all that we did with our private guide (Just 2 of us) for cheaper than $65USD.
Entrance Tickets are $20USD ... Tuk-Tuks will charge you $40USD ... Food for $6USD ... but the absence of arguments, hassles and bartering was priceless.