If you think there’s nothing that could top Angkor Wat’s charm, think hard again. The last great capital of the Khmer Empire, the fortified city of Angkor Thom contains remarkable temples which, when summed up, could surpass the greatness of Angkor Wat. Some of these monumental structures found inside the vast Angkor Thom are Baphuon, Phimeanakas, and Prasat Bayon.
Angkor Thom was built as a response to the surprise ravaging of Angkor by the Chams. Jayavarman VII decided that his empire would never be susceptible at home, so the city is enclosed by a square wall 8m high and 12km in length. Beyond the solid walls is a massive 100-m wide moat. This layout of Angkor Thom would have stopped all but the bravest invaders.
Each towering gate of Angkor Thom has the sublime mind-bending faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara staring out over the kingdom. These faces of divine god-kings might have intimidated visitors approaching the temple for the first time back in the olden century.
Coming from Ta Prohm, we entered Victory Gate at the east of the complex. Like the rest of the gates in Angkor Thom, Victory Gate is flanked by the representation of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, but many of the stone figures have gone headless (South Gate has the most well-preserved figures).
From the Victory Gate we drove for about 3km to reach the center of Angkor Thom—The Bayon. As a tourist visiting Angkor Thom for the first time, I was informed that I should reserve Bayon as my finale. Despite of the imaginary voices that seemed to entice me to advance with Bayon, I strongly fought the urge by turning my back and instead headed forth towards Baphuon.
Baphuon is a large temple-mountain in Angkor Thom. It has undergone an extensive but troubled restoration, making it brittle like a vertebrate without its vertebrae. The abandonment of this temple left what seemed to be the “world’s largest jigsaw puzzle” behind it.
The back forests of Angkor Thom are interconnected with trails, making the links between the temples possible. From Baphuon, I trekked the back road to Phimeanakas. In that short trail I came across gargantuan trees with engtangled roots seamlessly protruding from the ground.
At first glance, Phimeanakas resembles one of the Mayan pyramids in Chichen Itza, Mexico. This laterite and sandstone pyramid is the tallest scalable temple in Angkor Thom.
Phimeanakas means “Celestial Palace” and some say that is was once topped by a golden tower. Legend has it that it was inhabited by a serpent, which would transform into a woman, and the kings of Angkor were required to make love with the serpent every night to avoid his fall or the kingdom.
Tep Pranam is a long walkway with a Buddha figure at the far end measuring 4.5m high. Another Buddha is found on the west end of Tep Pranam. From Tep Pranam I was led to Preah Palilay.
The chimney-like temple of Preah Palilay is located about 200m north of the Royal Enclosure’s northern wall. This magical complex resembles the setting in the movie The Hobbit, but no hobbit resides here. Preah Palilay is one of Angkor Thom’s secret weapons when it comes to landscaping as the setting depicts that in a fantasy film of some sort.
From Preah Palilay I headed back to the main road and found myself facing a fortress-like structure with detailed carvings on its wall. It was the Terrace of the Leper King. The figures inside it amused me.
Walking in the labyrinth of Terrace of the Leper King was a little creepy because of the amount of head carvings placed on the walls. They seemed looking at me as I walk about. I would have gone frantic if I entered it alone. Shortly after getting out of Terrace of the Leper King with other tourists, my excitement aroused for Bayon.
The Bayon is a collection of 216 coldly smiling faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara decorating the 37 standing Gothic towers. Bayon looks like a rubble from a distance, but once you see these towering faces at the upper tier, you’ll be amazed you’ll get a minor goosebumps.
The giant stone faces of Bayon have become one of the most recognizable images in relation to classic Khmer art and architecture. There’s actually a “secret” spot on the uppermost tier of Bayon where one will just stand on a rock and will see a mesmerizing view of three aligned Bayonic faces.
When you go to Siem Reap and could only see two temples, Angkor Wat and Bayon should be the ones. Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom are my favorite sites in the Angkor Archaeological Site. They exude so much character. They possess power that could effortlessly make someone fall in love with them. They are a testimony to the greatness of Khmer geniuses that once lived in the Khmer Empire.