Angkor Thom & Bayon, Cambodia

Angkor Thom and Bayon were the architectural pride of Jayavarman VII, the King of Khmer from 1181 – 1218. This former capital city was one of the largest and grandest in the world. Come tour the temples and see the famous stone faces of this marvelous archeological site in Angkor Park.

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1 Introduction of Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Construction of Angkor Thom began in the late 12th century on the command of King Jayavarman VII. At its peak, the walled-in, capital city of the Khmer Empire named Yaśodharapura grew to over one million residents. Within this 3.5 square mile complex are several fascinating temples in the Bayon style of architecture. An example is this one called Baphuon. Angkor Thom also contains Bayon, the famous state temple featuring huge towers with carved faces. Angkor Thom was abandoned in the early 15th century after the city was attacked in 1431 by Borommarachathirat II, the king of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

Baphuon Temple, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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2 Deva Statues at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Along the 164 foot causeway approaching Angkor Thom’s South Gate are two parallel rows of sculptures. These figures represent devas who are guardian gods. Opposite them (not shown) are asuras or demons. Together they are pulling on a giant serpent named Vasuki, the King of the Nāgas. This portrays Samudra Manthan, the Hindu myth of how Vishnu formed the earth by recruiting spiritual archenemies to Churn the Ocean of Milk. Notice how some of these heads have been reproduced while the closest one may be over 800 years old.

South Gate Bridge, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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3 Kongkear Boats at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

In 1177, the Cham (Champa was a former kingdom in present day Vietnam) used ships to conduct a surprise raid on the Khmer Empire’s capital city. The following year, Jayavarman led counter attacks including a naval battle to defeat Jaya Indravarman IV. Featured on the prow of the battle boats were mythological beasts such as the nāga (right), the garuda (left) and a sea serpent called makara. These are small replicas of the Khmer king’s fleet. The wooden Kongkear boats offer rides around the moat similar to a gondola. In the background is the gopura or gateway forming the southern entrance to Angkor Thom.

South Gate Bridge, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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4 Introduction of Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Shortly after defeating the Cham in 1178, Jayavarman VII became King of the Khmer Empire and launched a massive building campaign. His first project was Bayon located within an area now called Angkor Thom. It was initially a Buddhist temple but later became Hindu. This state temple was structured to resemble Mount Meru, the intersection of heaven and earth. The archeological gem is famous for its 216 giant stone faces on the 37 remaining towers. Originally, there were 49 prasats.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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5 Asian Elephant at Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

This Asian elephant provides rides for the delight of tourists. However, when Bayon in the background was built in the late 12th century, elephants had several critical roles. The beasts of burden were used for labor, war and transportation. The gates into Angkor Thom were large enough to accommodate a procession of soldiers or royalty riding on the backs of their elephants. The man in the photo is the elephant’s keeper called a mahout. The carriage or bench on the animal’s back is a howdah.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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6 Layout of Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Bayon was structured as an isolated mountain in the center of Angkor Thom. It does not have its own surrounding wall but shares those of the former capital city. The footprint measures 524 by 460 feet. At the corners are entrance gates with attached pavilions. Inside of the temple are three concentric enclosures. The first two are galleried while the third sits on a high platform. This first enclosure contains most of the famous face prasats plus the inner sanctuary. The central tower measures 141 feet. Within the complex are several chambers, vestibules and libraries. There are also four sanctuaries. Each one is dedicated to either a Hindu or Buddhist god.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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7 Devata Bas-reliefs at Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

This graceful female image is a devata. The standing goddess represents the forces of the universe and guardian of the Khmer temple. They are typically depicted as young, beautiful and bare breasted wearing an elaborate headdress and sarong. Bayon is blessed with over 11,000 sculpted figures measuring nearly 3,300 feet of bas-reliefs. This makes it one of the best ancient art galleries in Cambodia.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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8 Face Identity at Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

There is debate about the identity of the 216 stone faces at Bayon. Initially it was believed they represented Brahma, the first god in the Hindu triumvirate. This creator of the universe is always portrayed having four faces, similar to the Bayon towers. However, the temple’s creator believed in Mahayana Buddhism, a rarity among Khmer kings who practice Hinduism. So speculation turned to Avalokiteśvara. Also called Lokeshvara, this Buddhist, quasi-divine being is a Bodhisattva. This is a person who qualifies for full enlightenment but has delayed nirvana to support others. This accounts for the peaceful expression. Finally, other scholars claim the faces are Jayavarman VII the Great.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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9 Dancing Apsaras at Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Within Bayon’s third enclosure are several galleries displaying elaborate bas-reliefs. This carving represents the king in his royal court. His majesty is surrounded by celestial dancing nymphs from Hindu mythology called apsaras. Other scenes depicted in the temple include battles, the royal palace and everyday life.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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10 Faces on Prasats at Bayon in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

The experience of seeing over 200 nearly identical stone faces carved into towers is exhilarating. Most of the prasats have four faces looking in opposite directions. The tallest one measures over eight feet. This display on the highest level of Bayon is often tarnished by throngs of tourists crowded onto a small terrace. Consequently, the best way to enjoy this unique excursion is to arrive early.

Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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11 Macaque Monkey at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Macaques are highly dependent on tourism, particularly around the temples at Angkor Thom. It is not uncommon to see as many as 100 or more of these Old World monkeys emerge from the jungle in search of handouts. They may look cute yet they can be aggressive. They are also thieves and will steal anything they can grab, including sunglasses, purses and cameras. Finally, most are infected with herpes B virus. This is often fatal in humans. So, if you want a picture, take it from inside the car and move on towards the temples.

Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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12 Baphuon Temple at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

From the 9th until the 12th centuries, the Khmer kings worshiped Shiva, the third god in the Hindu triumvirate. This deity created and protects the universe. In honor of Shiva, King Udayadityavarman II commissioned the building of the Baphuon Temple. When this three-tier symbolic mountain was completed in the mid-11th century, it was considered to be one of the grandest temples in the Khmer Empire.

Baphuon Temple, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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13 Gopura of Baphuon Temple’s at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Touring the temples at Angkor Archaeological Park can be challenging. Many of the structures are large, encircled by concentric rings called enclosures and often obstructed by vegetation. So when you get the opportunity, climb up to the central tower (prasat) of a temple for a bird’s-eye view. You will be rewarded with remarkable scenes. This is the eastern walkway into the Baphuon Temple found at Angkor Thom. In the foreground is the grand gopura marking the entrance into the third enclosure.

Baphuon Temple, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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14 Three-headed Elephants at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Along a 984 foot wall in the center of Angkor Thom is the Elephant Terrace. On either side of a staircase is a stone sculpture of a three-headed elephant. Their trunks are pulling up lotuses. In Buddhism, this flower symbolizes purity and spiritual awakening. Jayavarman VII was one of the first kings to embrace Mahayana Buddhism. Prior emperors were believers of the Hindu religion. In Hinduism, the lotus represents beauty, prosperity and eternity.

Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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15 Elephant Bas-reliefs at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Along the eastern enclosure of the Royal Palace grounds containing the Phimeanakas is the Elephant Terrace. This was the reviewing platform for King Jayavarman VII to watch parades, public events and welcome back his victorious soldiers. The nearly ten foot high wall is decorated with bas-reliefs such as these elephants portrayed in battle. Other elephant carvings show them being led by their mahouts (trainers). More carving themes include garudas, warriors with lion heads plus scenes from sporting events.

Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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16 Phimeanakas at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

Phimeanakas is a three level, step pyramid with a height of 131 feet. Also called Prasat Phimean Akas, it is located within the Royal Palace grounds at Angkor Thom. This Hindu, “celestial temple” was commissioned by Rajendravarman II during his reign from 944 until 968. After the structure was finished by Suryavarman I, he used it as the epicenter of his Khmer Empire until his death in 1050. According to legend, each night a nine-headed nāga appeared in the central tower as a spirit princess for the pleasure of the king.

Phimeanakas, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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17 Terrace of the Leper King at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

The Terrace of the Leper King is named after Yasovarman I. The king reigned from 889 – 910. He was called the Leper King because he suffered from leprosy before dying in 910. A section of this terrace is supported by a row of five garudas. This mythical creature with the head, wings and talons of an eagle and a human body is a powerful spirt in both Buddhism and Hinduism. Notice the faint reliefs of serpents at the feet of these great birds. The nāgas represent hatred and jealously. They are the enemy of the protective garudas.

Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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18 Tep Pranam Buddha at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

A very large stone Buddha statue sitting on a lotus is the centerpiece of a humble temple in the northcentral section of Angkor Thom. Compared to the other magnificent monuments, Tep Pranam seems insignificant. Yet historically it may be one of the most important, along with the temple Phnom Bakheng. It was commissioned by Yasovarman I in the late 9th century. This is when the Angkorian king moved the capital to Yaśodharapura. This became the foundation of all the temples and cities built at Angkor for the next six hundred years.

Angkor Thom, Angkor, Cambodia
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19 Preah Pithu Group at Angkor Thom in Angkor Archaeological Park, Cambodia

There is a grouping of five, small temples not far from the Terrace of the Leper King called the Preah Pithu Group. Construction of the collection began under King Suryavayman II during the first half of the 12th century. The first four sanctuaries were dedicated to Shiva while the fifth and youngest one is a Buddhist temple.

Preah Pithu U, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
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