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.
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.
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?
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.