Southeast Asia's classical empire of Angkor moved it's capital over the centuries several times. All of them were placed in the same area, means some kilometers north or east of nowadays Siem Reap in Cambodia. One of these capitals, and it was also the last and the best-known of Angkor's capitals, was Angkor Thom, what means 'big city' or 'big capital'. The famous Bayon was the state temple of Angkor Thom, placed right inmiddle of the four times three kilometers long, square-shaped areal.
Angkor Thom wasn't the first of Angkors capitals on the site. A former capital, Yasodharapura, overlapped the site of Angkor Thom at the northwestern part. Two of the significant buildings from the Yasodharapura era were the former state temples Baphuon and Phimeanakas. The latter was then integrated into the new royal palace.
Angkor didn't end at the city walls of Angkor Thom. On the contrary, it stretched out for many more kilometers in all directions. At it's 'best times' it was populated by a million inhabitants. Considering that, one could call Angkor Thom a 'city in the city', or the royal quarter of Angkor, where the most representative buildings and constructions were concentrated.
By the way: in the epic computer game 'Civilization IV', Angkor Thom appears as a city of the Khmer empire (and Angkor Wat as one of the world wonders).
Visiting Angkor Archaeological Park is not cheap. When I was here for the first time in 2006, a three-day ticket cost me 65 US$. Meanwhile (10/2015) it's down to 40 US$. But that's just the beginning. One has to pay for transport (by distance much more expensive than anywhere else in the whole country), accommodation and food at least. Siem Reap is meanwhile a very expensive place. Real estate prices went up rocketlike and the tenants have to let the visitors pay the price for it and the high rents. A large tourist industry offers many things for the consumers, and many scums happen here. Siem Reap, respectively the circle who owns it, got rich very fast by all the tourists.
According to estimations there is an annual income of 150 million US$ made by the park's entrance fees alone. It's sad to see how little of the money comes back to the site. In the last nine years I see practically no improvement in the infrastructure. All what has been done in the meantime was done by foreign organizations. The Apsara authority who administers the park and the Sokha Group who cashes the ticket fees did obviously the least they could for the site.
The roads are very bad. There are few, by no means enough road signs (as everywhere in Cambodia) in the park for the visitors orientation. There is far too much traffic in the park, and no public transport system. There are no explanation tables who give at least basic information about the sites, except the few who were put up by the foreign restorators. There are no safety measures taken for the visitors. When one has to climb the ruins, they usually miss a railing. Climbing over some parts one feels the stones are loose and move, what can easily cause an accident. There is so much more to do in restoration work and the money is there, but it's not going into the monuments. Many young Cambodians are around in the park, begging to tourists or selling them cheap crap. They could learn something useful, restoration work for example. But it's not done. The country's ruling class does not care at all for the People of Cambodia. Angkor is private property, and the management and the owners behind let the monuments, the very pride and symbol of the country, rather decline. They, the former communists, have no interest but to grow ever superricher and collect luxurious cars, villas and gulf courts for their pleasure.
The West Gate is the least visited of the five gates of Angkor Thom. It's pretty instable and supported by wooden constructions at the bottom. The gopura is held together with a steel rope, an insufficient solution.
Sokha company, who runs Angkor Archeological Park, makes at least 60 million dollars a year with the entrace fees. Other estimations are up to 110 millions. However, they give little, if anything, back for restoration. There is much, much to do in the park, but it's all done by international organizations on foreign costs.
The causeway over the moat is berieved of it's demons who pull the two naga balustrades.
All images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 9/10/2015
Victory Gate is in a much better shape than West Gate, but still looks poor. Most of the demons are beheaded. The road along here leads to Takeo and famous Ta Prohm. There is a lot of traffic here meanwhile, even at the bottom of the low season, in September.
The girl right is begging tourists for money. Unusually, she is alone, for Cambodian kids appear normally in groups. Not few kids are forced by their parents to beg, and if they bring not enough money home, there can be trouble. Child abuse is a frequent thing in Cambodia.
All images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 9/10/2015
The east gate is, like the west gate, barely visited. It lies inmiddle of secondary forest. When leaving Angkor Thom through the east gate, the road get's worse and narrow, and finally shrinks into a common jungle path.
The gate seen from both sides, parts of the wall and the faces. Images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 10/2015, 2016
For a closer look on the Gates of Angkor Thom click the chapters.
Angkor's old rival, the Cham empire, what had it's center in what is nowadays south Vietnam, sent in 1177 CE a great navy upwards the Mekong River and the Tonle Sap Lake to target Angkor. In a great sea battle on the Tonle Sap Lake they defeated in a surprising strike the Angkorean forces, killed Angkor's king Tribhuvanadityavarman and gained control over Angkor. Though, there remained resistance against the Cham, led by a prince who later became king Jayavarman VII, one of the most significant Angkorean kings. Jayavarman organized troops and succeeded to drive the Champa out of Angkor, winning another naval battle on the Tonle Sap Lake. In the following years the Champa were repeatedly defeated and became even a tributary of Angkor, after their capital was sacked.
In the aftermath of the 'reliberation' of Angkor in 1181 CE, Jayavarman became the coronated new king of Angkor and ordered to build a new capital, which was Angkor Thom.
The first half of the 13th century might mark the zenith of the Angkorean empire. The capital of Angkor with the new centerpiece Angkor Thom reached a size bigger than all the European cities of the time, including London, Paris and even Rome. One has to mention here (again) that Angkor was still much bigger than the inner core, Angkor Thom, which was reserved for the king, the aristocracy with the high priests, the new state temple (the Bayon) and for great representative events on the 'Victory Road' near the Terrace of the Elephants. Around this centerpiece, the mass of Angkor's population lived, the peasants, the craftsmen, more priests and the majority of the men who formed the army. Most of these people lived in the typical Southeast Asian shacks and stilt huts of the simple people, built of wood and bamboo, with grass or leaves forming the roofs. These buildings weren't sustainable and therefore disappeared traceless over the time, eaten up by the tropical nature.
However, at it's largest expansion, the capital inhabited up to a million people and was therefore the largest preindustrial city in world's history.
Representative Angkor Thom therefore was (and is) an area of three kilometers in both length and width. It's four sides are aligned to the points of the compass. It was surrounded by an eight meters high wall made of laterite stone, of which was outside a 100 meters wide water trench dug out. At the inner side of the wall soil was accumulated to enforce the walls and enable soldiers from inside to reach the top of the walls. It's still possible to climb up to the top of the wall and walk along on it.
Inside there is a road net, which is connected to the outer area by five city gates. Basically there are two roads crossing the area and meeting in the center point, at the Bayon. From the Bayon these roads lead into the four compass directions to four of the gates. A fifth gate is placed north of the east gate. It's called the 'Victory Gate' and it's road, the 'Victory Road', is leading straight to the royal palace. Best known is Angkor Thom's south gate, the one which connects to the road to nearby Angkor Wat (just 1,700m away).
The gates of the city wall are all very representative and show a giant head with four faces showing in all directions on the top of a towerlike construction (called 'gopuram'). Their height is 22m, the gate opening is 7m high and 3.50m wide, and therefore high enough to move through it on the back of an elephant. The city gates are made of sandstone and can cope in their quality with the ancient buildings of the old greek. In their original state they have been probably equipped with two heavy wooden doors and a massive bar to close the doors from inside.
When approaching one of the gates from outside, one has to cross a wide naga bridge, which leads over the outer moat. On the right and left sides of the bridges are 54 gods and daemons placed, who carry two nagas.
The most important state buildings were concentrated inside the city walls of Angkor Thom. In the northwestern part was the king's palace, together with a temple pyramide called Phimeanakas. This construction was then extended by the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King and the great (victory) square, alltogether a great areal for military parades or presenting great representative games and shows.
Also remarkable are the mountainlike temple Baphuon and the two buildings called northern and southern Khleang, who were kind of halls placed opposite to the Terrace of the Elephants. Also opposite to the Terrace of the Elephants are two ponds and twelve towers called Prasat Suor Prat. In the geometrical center of the whole square-shaped arrangement of Angkor Thom is the famous and most outstanding Bayon placed.
Besides, ancient Angkor was famous for it's sophisticated canal system. A dense grid of canals led through Angkor Thom. They partially served as a transport system, partially they were used as a freshwater source, as well as a bathroom and, not to forget, for wastewater disposal. The water flowed from the northeast to the southwest, drained eventually to the western baray (a rectangle-shaped, artificial lake) outside Angkor Thom. Probably the water was taken out of the Siem Reap River, using the natural gradient of the land towards the Tonle Sap Lake.
It's remarkable that, despite the millions of international arrivals of tourists at Angkor nowadays, there has never been a Westerner in Angkor when it was still a vibrant capital of great significance. The first arriving Westerners at Angkor were some Portuguese who showed themselves impressed by Angkor Wat. It's not clear if they have seen much of Angkor Thom as well, for at this time it might have been overgrown by dense jungle already.
Jayavarman VII's state temple Bayon (originally: Madhyadri; Khmer: Prasat Bayon) is the second famous building of Angkor, following Angkor Wat. It's particularly impressive for it's well-known 200 Bodhisattva heads who look in every direction and 'see' everything. It's maybe kind of an early big brother project. It's also highly supposed that the face represents Jayavarman VII's own one, who was highly revered as a godking (dhamaraja), a new royal legitimation concept in difference to the former Hindu concept of a king as an incarnation of Shiva. A Bodhisattva is someone in the Buddhist mythology who has reached enlightenment, but decided not yet to enter nirvana, but instead to remain on earth for some more time to teach others and show them 'the way' (to reach enlightenment as well). That was, according to Buddhist mythology, what the real Buddha did.
There are plenty of more constructions in the 9km2 large areal of Angkor Thom. Not all of them were built in the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1206/1220). Some of them are older and were part of the former Angkorean capital of Yasodhapura, which was overlapping partially the same area. Other constructions were continued or altered in later times, particularly in the reign of Jayavarman VIII, who reverted the state religion back to Hinduism and destroyed a number of Buddhist sanctuaries.
An example for an older building is the Baphuon, which dates back to the mid-11th century. Baphuon is a monumental temple mountain and marked once the center of the older capital Yasodharapura; it therefore served as Yasodharapura's state temple as the Bayon did for Angkor Thom. It's a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva. The Baphuon is also mentioned by the Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan.
Inmiddle of the Baphuon a tall bronze tower jutted out and gave the building an impressive look. In later centuries it collapsed, probably due to static weakness of the inner core.
This inner core of the construction was formed by an artificial earth hill. Most of the stone construction around the core is made of sandstone, only some outer walls were made of laterite.
Baphuon is placed not far northwest of the Bayon and closely south of the royal palace area. From the road between the Bayon and the northern gate one is passing the east gate of the Baphuon. One walks then on a 172m long walkway with a sandstone floor flanked by sandstone pillars. Passing through a pavillon at the end one reaches a terrace, which forms the base of a pyramid. A stairway now leads up to the base of the tower. At the terrace and the surrounding gangways are galleries who show scenes of the Hindu mythology and represent great quality of craftmanship.
Baphuon dates back a century before Angkor Wat, and was the central state temple of the time. It's a massive and steep building, which was in recent years completely restorated. Baphuon shows a number of well-restored fresquos, depicting legends and people of the time. The whole complex is built in sandstone.
All images and photocomposition by Asienreisender, 9/10/2015
Pyramide-shaped Phimeanakas temple was built in the 11th century in the reign of Suryavarman I. It has a base of 36m to 28m and a height of 12m. Later it was integrated into the royal palace area of Jayavarman VII's Angkor Thom. Unfortunately no reliefs survived the tooth of time. At my last visit in 9/2015 it was impossible to cross the surrounding moat and to climb the monument.
Phimeanakas is the temple in which, according to an old legend, a serpent or naga lived. At nighttime the serpent would change into a woman and the king was obliged to make love with it to prevent Angkor from being ravaged by disaster.
Zhou Daguan noted that the temple consisted of gold. Maybe the tower or more parts of the building were covered with beatgold as it is to see still nowadays at many temples in Buddhist countries.
Restoration started in the time of French rule in Cambodia in the 20th century, but was interrupted in the world wars, the two Indochina wars, the Democratic Kampuchea years, the following Vietnamese occupation time... Since the early 1990s a number of international organisations take some care for the monuments of Angkor. The site is a UNESCO World Heritage since 1992.
A particular challenge was the restoration of the Baphuon. It was fallen apart in 300,000 single pieces and called 'the worlds largest puzzle' to solve for archeologists. A French team started with the restoration in the 1960s, but had to leave Cambodia in the war time when the Khmer Rouge took over power. The French team already sorted masses of stones and sticked numbers on them. Later all these records of the positions of the stones were lost, so that the resumption of the work was again a difficult task. Interestingly, any single stone was of an individual size and shape and had it's very certain place to be put in. The old Khmer builders didn't use mortar for their work, but precision. The restoration of the Baphuon was completed then in 2011. Since a perfect reconstruction is just impossible, a 10,000 stones were left over at the end. They now dot the floor around the Baphuon.
LIDAR - Laser Revelations
A new lazer technology, called 'LIDAR' (Light detection and ranging), has been applied to Angkor and an area northwest of Angkor at Kulen Mountain in April 2012. LIDAR works from an airplane (at Angkor they used a helicopter), sending laser rays to the ground and measuring it out in a way much more precicely than other yet known methods. LIDAR penetrates dense vegetation and other covering shields on the ground and reveals patterns behind. It is also able to detect even small items of the size of a few centimeters, and not metal only.
Applying LIDAR, a large map of ancient Angkor could be reconstructed, including old 'highways', canals and many pools who were centered in blocks of flats. It also showed that Angkor was bigger and inhabited more people than previously supposed. The ancient city of Angkor covered a total size of 370 km2. A dense canal net existed in Angkor Thom, providing water in all parts of the city.
At Kulen Mountain the hidden ancient city of Mahendraparvata has been discovered in the jungle. Mahendraparvata was a greater Khmer city which dates back to the early days of the empire, the time of Jayavarman II and maybe before. It is 300 years older than Angkor Wat.
This article is based on several visits to Angkor Thom. Moreover it's based on a number of publications. You find a list of them on the Literature page. Particularly John Tully's 'A Short History of Cambodia' and Maurice Glaize's 'The Monuments of the Angkor Group' were inspiring. It comes together with uncounted articles from newspapers, magazines, (qualified) websites and movies, both fiction and documentary. Sometimes, a good talk with a connoisseur of a certain topic provides me with facts, ideas, inspirations and innovations and/or reveals a mistake.