Angkor Thom: Cambodia’s Last Khmer Capital



The Empire Builder’s Handbook says that the campaign must start at home. Supporters, subjects, and sycophants need tangible proof that the king has the wealth and power to rule and expand the kingdom.

And in the late 12th century, when Jayavarman VII built Angkor Thom there was no question that he knew how to impress.


Artist’s representation of how Angkor Thom originally appeared.

Located just down the road from Angkor Wat, this fortified city was the last capital of the Khmer Empire. The king’s palace was inside the walls as well as quarters for Buddhist priests, and offices for government and military officials. Once a substantial urban complex, it now spreads out over acres of dusty fields and shaded woodlands.



Security measures for the compound included a moat, defensive walls, and gates on the four compass points. Today’s main entry is a bridge leading to one of these intricate gates, and the ornate, sculpture-laden bridge provides a hint of the treasures awaiting inside.

Each side of the wide bridge is flanked with large stone figures: 54 serene, smiling gods on the left and an equivalent number of angry, grimacing demons on the right.


Vehicles aren’t allowed through these gates, so it’s the drop off point for tourists, which generates an absolute melee of tuk-tuks, taxis, and mini-buses. Local entrepreneurs know that this klatch of confused tourists is ripe for the picking so there are restaurants, snack stands, guides, trinket hawkers, and even elephant rides available.

Intricate and well-preserved bas-relief sculpture showing Khmer warriors going into battle.


Inside the city walls there is a collection of temples, monuments, and fabulous bas-relief sculptures depicting historical events, scenes from everyday life as well as important battles.


But the temple that visitors enjoy the most is the Bayon.



If you’re looking for gawking, camera-clicking, selfie-posing crowds, this temple is the place to find them. Best known for its beautiful, serene, and massive stone faces it has become the trademark “Smile of Angkor.” Originally, there were 54 four-headed towers; 216 heads if you do the math. Today a remarkable 37 towers still survive, and a climb up steep stairways brings visitors literally face-to-face with these iconic heads. What was once the inner sanctum and the path of kings, is now open to any intrepid tourist willing to make the trip up. And your reward at the top is selfie-heaven.


There’s some disagreement as to who these faces actually represent. Of course, the top choice is King Jayavarman VII himself. Jay-7 gets my vote because if you’re an omnipotent god/king, why wouldn’t you plaster your face all over the capital … 216 times?

The Terrace of Elephants, located just outside the palace, was used as a viewing platform for the king.

Ancient Angkor has many exotic, must-see ruins and, for good reason, Angkor Thom is one of the most popular. Architecturally, it’s very different than Angkor Wat, which makes this pair of ruins a Cambodian twofer that definitely should be on your agenda in SE Asia.

Happy Trails,
James and Terri

Photo Credits: 1. Gisling 2. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

48 thoughts

    1. Cathy, we were surprised at how different Angkor Thom was from Angkor Wat. As you know, there’s so much to see at Angkor, that it would be easy to get “templed out.” The variety of styles was amazing. ~James

    1. Pam, the scale of Angkor is impressive indeed. It’s spread out for miles and miles, and recent archaeological research shows that it was even bigger than was originally thought. ~James

    1. Bea, one of the things that lots of tourists do is watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. As you can imagine it’s a zoo, and apparently has a good deal of assertive wedging-in to get the best spots. That’s not really our scene, but getting to the ruins early is always a good idea. ~James

  1. James and Terri I gazed at the photos with my mouth hanging open. You really are stirring up the Asia wanderlust over here. The faces are incredible and I am astounded that so many remain. Not to mention the elephant terrace where I should like to sit for a day or so.

    1. Sue, the elephant terrace was in front of the palace and it was used as a viewing platform for the king to review his victorious troops returning to Angkor. It still amazes me that these carvings have held up for so long given Cambodia’s climate. ~James

  2. I love the varied expressions on the statues and it’s easy to imagine that they were based on long ago inhabitants of this fascinating region. We are planning a trip to Asia this year (finally 🙂 ) and Cambodia is on our list. While Angkor Wat has been on my bucket list since I first heard about it years ago, this is the first time I’ve heard of Angkor Thom. Maybe it’s overshadowed by its more famous counterpart but Angkor Thom looks like a place well-deserving of the spotlight in its own right. Amazing! Anita

    1. Anita, that’s great that you’re going to Angkor. There’s LOTS to see, so do your research and a bit of planning before you get there. It’s geographically spread out, and there are a number of ruins scattered about. Angkor Wat and Thom are large and architecturally different, and we enjoyed them. But honestly, our favorite was Ta Prohm. Watch this space for out next post. And BTW, save a day to explore Siem Reap and its skin-eating-fish: ~James

    1. Thanks Bertie. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I’ve found that to truly appreciate a place I have to know a bit of its history to help put the modern culture in context. ~James

    1. Yes Kathy, like most well-known destinations, Angkor has its crowds. On this trip we also stopped at Petra, which has a similar problem, so we were mentally prepared to try and keep our cool. ~James

  3. I can’t wait to see both Angkor Wat and Anchor Thom … someday. I keep thinking it’s my next trip and it keeps getting bumped for something else. I simply must get there soon!

    1. Lexie, there are just too many great places to see. But if you’re like us, if you think about it long enough, you’ll get there. The collection of ruins and the size of the park is unlike anywhere else we’ve seen. And it’s a major cash cow for Cambodia, so it’s not going anywhere. I hope you can visit soon. ~James

  4. Wouldn’t you love to travel back in time and see this in its prime? I have a series of photos from in front of the giant heads but no selfies – I had a wife take them of me!

    1. Jeff, I’m sure if I had lived at that time, I would have had a really great view of the outside of the walls of Angkor Thom. I probably would have been a street sweeper. 🙂 ~James

  5. I went to Angkor Thom first thing in the morning of my second day in Siem Reap and I wasn’t disappointed at all. In fact, it became my favorite temple in the entire archaeological complex. Probably the fact that there were still very few tourists helped. Even I, who grew up making multiple trips to thousands-year-old temples in Java, was amazed by Angkor Thom and its emblematic yet enigmatic giant faces. Such a remarkable temple it really was.

    1. As you know Bama, nothing at these Angkor temples is done by accident. Every surface, sculpture, and direction has some symbolic significance. It’s one of those ruins where good information is essential. We had downloaded a couple of walking tours to our iPad, and it made the experience so much better. As for the crowds, they are a fact of life at Angkor, and we both vowed to not let the crowds negatively influence the experience. Of course, we kept our mantras handy at all times. ~James

  6. It’s interesting how in many ways the temples, stone depictions of daily life, battles, or whatever was important are similar in Asia and the Americas. Designs were different but the themes were pretty much the same.
    I like the smiling faces on one side and angry on the other. You really wonder what that was all about! Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thanks Marilyn. As I said in my comment to Bama, nothing at Angkor was done by accident. The Hindus first and later the Buddhists, were huge believers in symbolism in their temples and all other buildings. Meso-Americans did this sort of thing as well, at about the same time, on the other side of the world; which may make the case that it’s part of evolution in the human animal. Food for thought. ~James

  7. Incredible structures and I would love to see it in person. How long would you recommend to spend in the area to see all the temples and not to feel overwhelmed? I have never been to Cambodia, but it has been on my bucket list for ages. Your photos are beautiful😄

    1. Thanks Gilda. The answer to the “How long” question always depends a bit on personal preference. We’ve always had the philosophy of quality over quantity. We want to be able to appreciate what we see rather than just tick things off a list. However, having said that, you’ll probably only make one trip to Angkor, so you really want to see the best of the best. We spent a couple of days at the ruins, and were happy with what we saw. Some visitors recommend a week, and some say you can see it in a day. From our experience, we don’t want to get “templed out” so two days was fine for us. There aren’t tons of things to see in Siem Reap, but you’ll want to save at least one day for wandering around town. I hope that helped. ~James

    1. Thanks Peggy. I agree that photos are a challenge there. When we visited, it was hot and very sunny, so the bright light and shadows made it tough. And then there’s the challenge of the crowds as well. ~James

  8. Great photos!! Brings back wonderful memories of one of the most magnificent places on earth. We were living in Viet Nam when I read one day that October was the best time to go to Angkor Watt as it was “out of season.” A week later we were there experiencing it for ourselves.


    1. Peta, we visited Angkor as a part of an RTW, so we couldn’t plan for the best time to visit. But honestly, Angkor fits in the “I wouldn’t miss it regardless of the crowds” category. The crowds can be a nuisance for sure, and it sometimes requires that I repeat my mantra, but in the end, I wouldn’t have missed it. ~James

    1. Thanks so much Jo. At this very moment we are warm and cozy at home, in front of our Christmas tree, listening to Frank Sinatra’s version “Deck the Halls” for the 15th time. After this cup of coffee, we’ll tear into gifts … couldn’t be better. And we wish you a very Happy Holiday as well, and a great 2017! Thanks for continuing to follow along. ~James & Terri

  9. This place looks amazing!! The pictures and text make me want to visit! Wishing you both a wonderful Christmas season and a fabulous 2017, wherever it may take you.

    1. Thanks Darlene. Angkor had been on our list for ages, and we’re so happy to finally have made a visit. The ruins are unique in the world, and the art and architecture are a reminder of some of the positive things that empires can do. It looks like you had a busy and fun trip back stateside, and you obviously covered a lot of ground. We wish you a wonderful holiday season and a successful and fun 2017. ~James

  10. James and Terri – you’ve caught such expressiveness in those sculptured faces. It is fascinating to think about how people created these treasures. No 3-D copy machine for this artwork 🙂 Susan

    1. The faces on the bridge were such a delight – each one different and unique. They reminded us of the Xian Terracotta Warriors – so many different expressions. ~Terri

  11. You’re inspiring me! Although this area has been on our thoughts and minds for years, we just haven’t gotten it together to go. Thanks for the enticing pics. And the mention of tourist trinkets — who wouldn’t want to plan a trip with that vision in mind! (Not that I don’t already have trinkets aplenty!) Hope your year is off to a good start.

    1. Rusha, this really is the other side of the world, and Cambodia isn’t the easiest place to get to, but if you go to the trouble, there’s so much to see in SE Asia. There’s nowhere that I know quite like Angkor, and if your travels take you to this part of the world, don’t miss it. ~James

  12. Hey there!
    How awesome those pictures are!
    I love looking at your photographs, especially those from Cambodia, because I will be in Cambodia to work in a Childrens village for a year starting in July. I would really appreciate if you would have a look at my blog as well!

    1. Thanks for your comment Dominik and for dropping by the blog. We really enjoyed our time in Cambodia. Angkor had been on our list for years and we’re really glad that we were able to finally visit. I’m sure that living and working in Cambodia for a year will be interesting and exciting. Best of Luck. ~James

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