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January 28, 2012

Siem Reap: Angkor Thom

A replacement head on the Churning of the Ocean of Milk on Angor Thom's south gate

The ancient Khmer temples near Siem Reap Cambodia are often generically referred to as “Angkor Wat.”  This is incorrect.  Though it is true that Angkor Wat is the best preserved and grandest of the Khmer temples, there is much more to the Angkor region.  Indeed, researchers using satellite imaging have concluded that Angkor was at its peak the largest preindustrial city in the world.  At its fullest extent the functionally integrated urban core covered 390 square miles.  That is more than 17 times the size of modern Manhattan.  Within Angkor’s historic borders are over a 1,000 temples.

The modern map of Angkor

The first temple we visited in Cambodia was Angkor Thom.  We reached this complex of ruins from our hotel in Siem Reap in the back of Mr. Panha’s tuk tuk.  Before entering the Angkor temple area Mr. Panha pulled over and stopped at the visitor center to let us purchase admission passes.  A three-day pass to visit the temples of Angkor costs $30 per person.  (United States dollars are the standard currency in Siem Reap.)  Even after a short time in Cambodia thirty dollars for three days seemed expensive.  How quickly our price perceptions had changed.

We entered Angkor Thom through the south gate.  All five entrances to Angkor Thom are similar.  First a stone bridge crosses a wide moat.  Large impressive sculpture railings depicting the perpetual tug-of-war of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk bracket the road bridge.  On the far side of the moat the entry boulevard passes through Angkor Thom’s gray stonewalls by way of a massive gate complex.  On the tower above the entry portal four large faces stare eternally in the each compass direction.

The Bayon Temple

Bapuon Temple

Angkor Thom is large.  The city complex covers 9 square miles.  Inside the walls there are many temples and many things to see.  Mr. Panha dropped us near the Bayon temple and suggested we spend two hours exploring this and the ruins to the north.  At the time two hours seemed long and more time than we needed.  But by the time we finished our exploration of the Bayon and Bapuon temples and the Leper King and Elephant terraces we had been on our feet for more than three hours.  We could have easily explored twice as long just here but the impossibly steep scrambles up the sides of the temples under the hot sun on the humid day was taxing our jet-lagged bodies.

The Bayon temple was our personal favorite.  Still standing amongst the three-dimensional maze-like complex are 37 towers of the original 49.  Each tower has large faces, from two to four, carved into the stonework.  As you creep through the endless passageways and small courtyards the ancient faces repeatedly come into view.  It feels like a paranoid acid trip; you are constantly being watched.  Always around each corner is another staring face.

Of course there are plenty of tourist faces in the Bayon temple also.  The UNESCO-designated temples of Angkor draw over two million visitors each year.  But at least in the labyrinth of Bayon it was easy enough to happen on spaces that are completely tourist free.  But while we could escape from the masses of people we could never get away from the eerie gaze of the tower faces.

Compared to Bayon, Bapuon Temple feels less exotic or at least less eerie.  Bapuon does not have large stone faces constantly overlooking the tourists.  The rockwork is less sculptural and more patterned.  Though there are common elements amongst all of Angkor’s temples, each structure has it’s own distinct style.

Angkor Thom’s temples and the terraces are impressive feats of construction.  Relatively easy to work laterite supports the structure.  Sandstone blocks, often intricately carved with bas-reliefs and geometric patterns, cover the base laterite rock blocks.  Even in the modern state of decay the temple ruins are extraordinarily complex and elaborate.  One can only imagine how spectacular Angkor’s works were soon after they were completed.  Modern Hollywood set designers would be envious.

A large stone face on the Bayon Temple

Bas-relief image

After our tour we headed with Mr. Panha for lunch at a nearby restaurant.  Cambodian cuisine fits in a niche between the food of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam.  The fare is not quite Thai nor is it the Vietnamese food that we know.  As served to us the Khmer dishes were mild.  We learned later that restaurants cater to the perception of Western tastes and tone down the heat.  If you like your food spicy hot, be sure to ask for the chopped fresh pepper condiment that can be served on the side.  But be careful with this Thai pepper salsa.  It is stupendously hot.

Angkor Thom is a good place to begin explorations of Cambodia’s ancient Khmer temples.  It is so much unlike any place we’ve been.  Exotic, eerie, impressive, astounding, complex, and spectacular, there is an endless list of adjectives that can be applied to describe Angkor.  It is almost overwhelming.

Buddhist monks in Siem Reap


  1. Fantastic images.

    Comment by Conor Cullen — January 28, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

  2. Lovely pix – we were there in November.

    Comment by mrsbr — January 28, 2012 @ 11:04 pm

  3. Amazing Photos! Just stunning! Can’t wait to visit someday! Thank you for posting this!


    Comment by EL — January 28, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

  4. Jealous. I want to go. I probably should have when I was still teaching English

    Comment by Josh Moore — February 1, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

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