Angkor Thom was once the world's biggest city, a royal capital to impress and amaze. Much remains, though more has been lost, and we can still see many beautiful stone carvings on the terraces and temples.
We left our hotel at 7 a.m. to get to Angkor Thom as early as possible. This huge walled city was built over the eleventh and twelfth centuries after the Cham peoples occupied Angkor - Angkor Thom means "Great City".
Under King Jayarvarmin VII this massive 3km square fortified and moated city, dating from the late twelfth to early thirteenth centuries, reached its apogee with the building of the magnificent Bayon Temple.
At the time it was the world's largest city, with around a million inhabitants, and was divided into five areas, home to different "types" of people such as royalty, ministers and palace workers.
The city is surrounded by a square wall and moat with four entrances at the cardinal points. The south entrance is very impressive. A causeway over a wide moat is lined with statues of gods and demons who look to be engaged in a tug-of-war.
Water, in the form of canals and ponds, played a large part in the layout of both Angkor Thom and Angkor Wat.1
The statues depict the myth of the "Churning of the Sea of Milk".2 A massive naga is held on one side of the causeway by 54 deities called "devas" - these start at the naga head. On the other side 54 demons, called "asuras" hold the half of the naga terminating in the tail. The push and pull of the devas and asuras causes the naga body to undulate, churning the sea of creation.
Some of the statues have been restored. Like the statues of the terracotta army in Xian, these are individuals with different expressions, some serene, some grimacing.
At the end of the causeway an arched gateway is surmounted by colossal heads facing north, south, east and west. Each head appears to wear a massive pointed crown.
Through the south gate we approached Bayon Temple where the four entrance roads into the city meet. There is a further entrance north of the Gate of the Dead on the east side called the Victory Gate.
The Bayon Temple is the celebrated highlight of the Angkor Thom ruins. Though it looks crumbled, if you look closely the detail reveals itself. It is composed of many conical towers, once covered in carved faces, and many remnants of these can be seen.
Climbing a set of steps we entered the temple between pillars carved with elegant ladies and dancers into an outer covered corridor which surrounds the temple, its walls covered with remarkable bas relief carvings.
The carvings portray a wide variety of subjects from sea battles and armies to domestic scenes, birds and animals.
Further carvings of mythological subjects can be seen on a slightly higher second encircling corridor, enclosed by the first, and set at the base of the inner terrace which is higher still.
On the inner terrace, the famous massive stone towers are carved with 216 serene smiling faces.
The temple has small shrines within its walls with offerings and incense sticks.
We spent quite some time on the roof, admiring the carvings. We were lucky there were few people here - as our guide had predicted!
Baphuon Temple lies to the north-west of Bayon, surrounded by trees, and reached via a long causeway on the eastern side, raised above the surrounding ground with ponds at the side. On the causeway is a ruined open pavilion, perhaps a once-ornate gopura3 - a monumental tower forming a temple entrance.
Baphuon was built in the middle of the eleventh century, in the reign of Udayadityavarman II, and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.3 When the temple was converted to a Buddhist temple in the 16th century large sections were demolished to provide stone to create a reclining Buddha statue on the west side, now barely visible.
The unstable ground on which Baphuon was built caused problems and it has been undergoing a restoration process on and off since the 1960s.
In shape it is a layered pyramid, and may once have been covered in sheets of bronze!3
A more complete gopura stands on a beautifully layered wall which surrounds the inner temple. Originally this wall formed the floor of an internal corridor around the temple. There would have been similar gopuras on all four sides.
We walked along the causeway, through the ruined pavilion to the temple through the outer gopura which has been reconstructed.
Turning south we walked along the internal corridor, now open with no walls or roof remaining, then west to the south gopura. We climbed the very steep staircase up the south side of the temple, to the next level. Here a corbel-roofed gallery encircles the temple, with square openings and gopuras at the entrances on all four sides.
At the very top level of the temple is a colonnaded gallery surrounding a very ruined pyramidal structure.
We descended by the north stairs where our guide was waiting for us, then made our way round to the west gate to try to make out the reclining Buddha statue - very difficult!
Because many of the buildings in the palace compound were made of perishable materials, little has survived. Though a temple, walls and gates were constructed of stone, the palace and residential quarters seem to have been made from wood, which seems a bit strange, at least in the case of a royal palace.
The site, 600m x 260m,4 enclosing the palace and associated structures, was begun in the tenth century. It was surrounded by a wall and 25m moat. The wall was pierced by five gates, one to the east and two each on the north and south sides.
Inside were vast and sumptuous Royal Palaces of which very little remains. The only other building of note that is known for sure is the temple of Phimeanakas, which can still be seen. Its name means "celestial palace of the gods".4
A number of pools are located on the north side of the site. The terraces surrounding the largest pool are decorated with carvings of sea creatures, birds, animals, seven-headed nagas, garudas and deities.
Phimeanakas is a pyramidal temple compose of three terraces, each four metres high. The staircases on all four sides sweep directly to the top level of the temple. They are flanked by proud stone lions, all badly weathered, some vandalised to remove the faces.
The east gate is approached by a monumental staircase decorated with stone lions and seven-headed naga balustrades. The road to it connects directly with the Victory Gate entrance to Angkor Thom.
To the east of the compound, in a north-south orientation, are a line of twelve stone towers called Prasat Suor Prat.5 It doesn't seem to be known what they were used for. As the only other building to survive, the stone-built Phimeanakas, is a temple, it would seem that only the most important of structures were made of stone, i.e. those with a religious or perhaps defensive role; though again, it seems odd that the palace tself was not stone. Perhaps the Prasat Suor Prat Towers also had a religious function.
Between these stone towers and the compound is a wide area which it is speculated may have been a military parade ground.4
One of the jewels of Angkor Thom, the Terrace of the Elephants stretches to either side of the east staircase leading into the Royal Palace compound.
360m long, 4m high and 15m wide6 the terraces are named for the many elephants carved along their length. It is speculated that they may have been used for the king and his household to view military parades or other spectacles performed on the wide piece of ground to the east. Wooden palace buildings may also have been built on the terraces, perhaps open pavilions to provide shade for those watching the spectacle.
The Terrace of the Leper King, just north of the Terrace of the Elephants, is named after a lichen-covered statue, missing some fingers and toes, which once stood on the terrace.7
It is covered with bas reliefs, mostly of human figures connected with the royal court arranged in seven tiers to a height of around 6m.
The terrace is actually two parallel walls and the space between them was for centuries filled with earth. This protected the wonderful sculptures with which the interiors of the walls are carved.