Angkor Thom | as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato

Angkor Thom | As fantastic As The Atlantis Of Plato

“I confess I hesitate to write this, it appears as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato.”

Friar António da Madalena 1609

Angkor Thom, located just outside Siem Reap, Cambodia, was the former heart of the Capital City of the Khmer Empire.  Today taken over by the jungle, it was once absolutely spectacular.

map of angkor thom
Map of Angkor Archaeological Park and Siem Reap

The larger metropolitan area was the city once known as Yashodharapura, although it is now referred to as Angkor. It covered what is now the entire Angkor Archaeological Park and was the largest city in the pre-industrial world.

Angkor Thom today refers to the walled inner city where the State Temples, Royal Palace and the Ceremonial center of the Empire lay. In its heyday its name was Indrapattha, the city of the God Indra. It’s modern name, Angkor Thom translates as Angkor – city, Thom – big, just as Angkor Wat translates to City Temple. Angkor Wat is not inside Angkor Thom, but was part of the larger city surrounding it and about 100 years older.

Background History To Angkor Thom

Angkor thom Map
Figure 2. Angkor Thom

Yashodharapura became the city of King Yashovarman I in 889 when he built his State Temple, Phnom Bakeng in the Angkor area. But there was probably rice growing villages on the site previous to any of the early Kingdoms. The ruins of 6th century temples nearby indicate there was a significant community a hundred years before the Khmer Empire at least. Lovea, a village less than 20 kms away has been occupied for at least 4000 years.

Later rulers constructed their State Temples in the area and the Baphoun and Phimeanakas were built inside the future Angkor Thom. After the city was sacked and burnt by invading armies in the late 12th Century it was rebuilt by King Jayavarman VII and he constructed Angkor Thom as his administrative, ceremonial, religious and royal center.

King Jayavarman VII. Lived c1123-1218, Reigned 1181-1218

Jayavarman VII angkor thom
Figure 3. King Jayavarman VII (c1123-1218)

Jayavaman VII[1] recognized as the Khmer Empire’s most powerful King, and one of the most prolific builders in history. Yet, he is also suspected of initiating the decline of the Empire by over stretching its resources.

Jayavaman VII is a complex character about whom little is known. Even his date of birth is unclear, some sources cite 1120, some 1125 and others settle somewhere between.

In his 30s and 40s he lived in Champa, now Central Vietnam. The Cham were traditional enemy of the Khmer Empire since 950 although their culture appears very similar. Jayavarman may have been captured in battle in 1149 when the Khmer were forced out of northern Champa which they had occupied in 1145. In 1166 Jayavarman returned to Angkor when a usurper took the Khmer throne from his brother. He arrived too late to prevent the overthrow and didn’t challenge the new leadership.

The Cham invaded again in 1177 and 1178 and defeated the new King. The city was sacked and burnt, Angkor Wat and other temples looted and the Empire humiliated under foreign rule. Jayavarman organized resistance and independence movements and drove the Cham out after a Naval battle on the Tonle Sap. He was crowned King in 1181 and brought all the warring factions under control. By this time, he was in his late 50s and began a prolific building program which included rebuilding the Capital City.

Bayon Temple Reflection at Sunrise
Figure 4. The Bayon Temple at sunset
 Bayon ancient and present
Figure 5. The State Temple of Jayavarman VII, the Bayon. Ancient and Modern views. Angkor Guide Book

Many of his temples, including the Bayon were built rapidly and never fully completed.  It is said he may have also been suffering from leprosy and combined with his advanced age when he took the throne, prompted this rapid building spree.  He constructed the Terrace of Leper King, and the story of its name may refer to him.

Bayon from the Southern Entrance
Figure 6. Bayon from the Southern Entrance.

Bayon bas relief showing incomplete carvings
Figure 7. Bayon bas relief showing incomplete carvings

He named Angkor Thom Indrapattha, the city of the God Indra. He mixed Hindu and Buddhist iconography in his building works, smoothing the transition of religion from Hindu to Buddhism.   He was only the second Buddhist King of the Khmer Empire and may have converted under the influence of his wives.

The bas reliefs around two levels of the Bayon, his State Temple, tell his story from his return to Angkor, the land and military battles against the Cham and the Victorious Parade afterwards.  They also show daily life and temple building; it was the bas relief which answered the question of how the stones of the temples fit so well together and how the temples were constructed.

Bayon Bas Relief showing workers tamping the ground prior to construction.
Figure 8. Bayon Bas Relief showing workers tamping the ground prior to construction.
Bayon Bas Relief showing workers rubbing stones together to ensure a perfect join
Figure 9. Bayon Bas Relief showing workers rubbing stones together to ensure a perfect join.

Jayavarman’s works reflect his philosophy of feeling the pain of his subjects as if it were his own and he looked after his people’s spiritual and physical needs. He built 102 hospitals open to all during his reign and expanded the educational centers, one of his most remarkable temples, the Preah Khan was built as a university. He built highways to connect his expanded empire with rest stops placed at a day’s travel apart.

The five gates into the city are topped with faces looking in the four cardinal directions. The faces represent the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Lokeshvara. King Jayavarman identified with this Bodhisattva and the faces bear his likeness.   The Bodhisattva are supported by the three headed elephants which are associated with Indra. 

Angkor Thom Gates, Louis Deporte 1824
Figure 10. Angkor Thom Gates, Louis Deporte 1824. Note the four heads supported by the multiheaded elephant.

Until recently it was accepted that the faces on the Bayon towers were similar, until the University of Tokyo took 3D scans of the temple and examined the library of faces.  What they found suggests there is much more to these faces than was known, they have been grouped into 3 categories which have been interpreted as Devata (Goddesses), Asura (Devils) and Deva (Gods).  The meaning behind these groupings is still being researched.

the bayon faces
Figure 11. The Bayon faces
3D images of the Bayon faces, University of Tokyo
Figure 12. 3D images of the Bayon faces, University of Tokyo.

Jayavarman also built monuments and temples outside the walled city, indicating that the walls he built were not for military defense or protection of wealth or citizens. Angkor Wat is outside the walls; a temple so richly decorated that looting it became the pastime of every army who took control of the area right up until the 1990s. His walls were built for spiritual defense and although they may have slowed an Army, they wouldn’t stop it. 

The City Layout

The city is divided into four quadrants with five gates, four of which are arranged centrally in the cardinal directions. The roads from these gates lead directly to the Bayon, Jayavarman’s state temple mountain.  The fifth gate, the Victory Gate leads directly to the Royal Palace and the Ceremonial area of the Terraces of the Elephants and Leper King.  The Eastern Gate is the Gate of the Dead, and there are several explanations for the name. One is that the dead soldiers from the battles were brought through this gate, the other is that it is where criminal were escorted to their executions.

The Gate of the Dead, Angkor Thom.
Figure 13. The Gate of the Dead, Angkor Thom.
Central Angkor Thom and the Ceremonial Area
Figure 14. Central Angkor Thom and the Ceremonial Area

Each of the gates is at the end of a bridge over the 100m wide moat. The bridges are lined with the myth of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. On each side a Naga is being used in an eternal tug of war with the Devatas on one side and the Asura on the other, each stone statue was carved with a unique face.  The bridges and their iconography also provide spiritual protection to the city.

Carte De Poste D'Angkor
Figure 15. Carte De Poste D’Angkor. Antique French Postcard. Note the celestial tug of war lining the bridge
Angkor Thom South Gate. Note the Gods and Demons lining the bridge
.Figure 16. Angkor Thom South Gate. Note the Gods and Demons lining the bridge.

The vast Royal Palace was built on the Ceremonial terraces. Nearby lay the former State Temples, the Baphoun beside the Palace and behind is Phimeanakas.  A vast parade ground was between the Ceremonial Terraces and the Prasats of Khleang and Suor Prat Towers.  These towers were used for punishment according to a Chinese account of the late 13th Century:

“In front of the palace there are twelve small stone towers. When two men dispute over some unknown matter, each of the contestants is forced to sit in one of them while the relatives stand watch at the base. After three or four days, he who is wrong shows it by suffering some illness – ulcers, or catarrh, or malignant fever – while the other remains in perfect health. Thus right or wrong is determined by what is called divine judgment.”[2]

The city has a moat around the outside of the walls and a reservoir on the interior. The moat keeps the water table high and supports the walls, if it begins to drop, it is filled from the reservoir.  This reservoir was also used to take waste water and sewage out of the city.

The city supported a large population and also held a bronze, stone and other workshops as well as a large residential area.  As everything but the temples and ceremonial terraces were built of wood, they haven’t survived the ravages of time.  The Royal Palace was also wood and archaeologists have been able to estimate its size and layout from the postholes and some remaining beams. 

The Lidar scans of 2013 and 2015 showed that the inner city was built up with roads and canals with a huge urban area.  The citizens in the city had an urban infrastructure that contemporary European Cities would not achieve for another 700 years. They had an effective transportation system, water and drainage, including the removal of sewerage and waste, and agricultural system that produced three rice crops a year and the huge bounty of the Tonle Sap. They also enjoyed a low-density urban area which allowed families to live in individual separate homes with enough garden space to grow vegetables and raise small livestock. 

Figure 17. Plan of the canal and other infrastructure of Angkor Thom from Lidar images.

The city was abandoned by the Royal Court and elite in 1431 but some people remained in the area.  Jayavarman’s building projects and expansion of territory may have stretched the Empire beyond its capabilities and contributed to the eventual decline of the Khmer Empire.  Certainly, much of the new territory he conquered was lost soon after his death and no other large Temple was built after his reign. The population of the city had started to drift away over the decades prior to 1431 as the power of the Empire declined.

Gates to Angkor Thom

Figure 18. The first photograph of the Gates to Angkor Thom taken by. John Thomson 1865.

There is some evidence of Angkor Thom being reoccupied at later dates.  A Portuguese Friar visited in the 16th century (discussed below) and Japanese inscriptions indicate a community was there in the 17th Century.  The French in the 19th century was just the last in a long line of ‘discoverers’ of the city in the jungle.

Descriptions of Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was certainly one of the most magnificent cities of its time. Descriptions of the city when it was at its height come to us through the pen of a minor Chinese Diplomat who lived there for a year in 1296.  Zhou Daguan (c 1266 – 1346 CE) was part of an emissary of the Emperor Temür Khan, the second Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty and the 6th Mongol Emperor.  His part in the diplomatic mission between China and King Indravarman III is unknown. When back in China in 1309 he wrote a book, The Customs of Cambodia which describes the city and daily life in the Khmer Capital.  He was especially impressed with the Royal Palace and regretted he was not allowed to visit it.

“The Royal Palace stands north of the Golden Tower and the Bridge of Gold: it is one and a half mile in circumference. The tiles of the main dwelling are of lead. Other dwellings are covered with yellow-coloured pottery tiles. Carved or painted Buddhas decorate all the immense columns and lintels. The roofs are impressive too. Open corridors and long colonnades, arranged in harmonious patterns, stretch away on all sides…

The dwellings of the princes and principal officials have a completely different layout and dimensions from those of the people. All the outlying buildings are covered with thatch; only the family temple and the principal apartment can be covered in tiles. The official rank of each person determines the size of the houses.”

Figure 19. Royal Palace  area. Key: 1.  East gopura 2. Sanctuary remains 3. Remains of four sanctuaries 4. Cruciform terrace 5. Phimeanakas 6. East pond 7. Large pond (Srah Srei) 8. West pond and Queens Terrace 9. Wall, basin and base structure remnant 10. Annexe with basin. Courtesy Ron Charles L Huillier  

Recently a project entitled “Virtual Angkor” has reimagined the city and temples from the time the Empire was flourishing. Their images are based on archaeological and architectural evidence and eye witness accounts.  They show a magnificent Imperial City which stunned visitors, even those who had been to Chinese Imperial cities.  To see the images, please go here.

King Satha, King of Cambodia discovered giant statues and walls on a hunting trip deep in the forest near Angkor Wat in the 16th Century.  It is said he employed over 6000 workers to clear the encroaching forest to reveal the walled city of Angkor Thom. He may have reoccupied the city for a time during his reign in the 1580s.

Portuguese Friar António da Madalena was part of the entourage of King Satha when he visited Angkor Thom.   Madalena was well travelled and had seen some impressive cities, including Rome. He was one of the earliest European Christian Missionaries into Southeast Asia and had travelled overland from the Siamese Court at Ayutthaya. 

The Portuguese Empire in the 16th Century were just as enthusiastic missionaries as they were merchants.  They had a presence, grudgingly in Japan and China, but also in Thailand, Myanmar and India. They saw Asia as millions of lost souls ready for conversion to Christianity.  Friar Madalena’s Christianizing mission in Cambodia failed, although he did ingratiate himself enough with the King to be invited to visit Angkor Thom. 

The Portuguese Capuchin Friar amazed description of the city he witnessed in 1586:

“I confess I hesitate to write this, it appears as fantastic as the Atlantis of Plato. Today the city is uninhabited. A learned man supposed these to be the works of Trajan.…the finest, the best regulated, and the cleanest of all [cities] in the world…On one of the sides of this town there were incomplete monuments which seem to have been the palaces of kings, because the workmanship, sumptuousness and grandeur immediately look royal in their numerous cornices, leaf decoration, figures and other ornamentation which delight the eye and witness to the skill of their sculptors.”

Angkor Thom Today

Angkor Wat lays directly to the south of Angkor Thom and a little closer to Siem Reap. Therefore, most visitors enter Angkor Thom through the South Gate.  The sealed road leads directly to the Bayon Temple and the ceremonial and former Royal Palace area just beyond.  Nearby are the former State Temples of Baphoun and Phimeanakas.  These are the major sites in the city and are the easiest to access.


More than 75% of the former city is still covered in forest.  Many of the ancient monuments remain, most of which can be accessed via the dirt tracks throughout the forest.  Some can be reached via motorbike, but others require hiking. For the adventurous you can really get into your jungle explorer vibe and be richly rewarded by ‘discovering’ these lost temples in the jungle for yourself!


Local Guardian of Angkor Thom

Local Guardian of Angkor Thom
Figure 20. This friendly boy lives near the southern entrance to the Bayon, he may join you on your visit.

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