Angkor Thom (Siem Reap, Cambodia)

Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, It was surrounded by a square wall (jayagiri) 8m high and 12km in length and further protected by a 100m-wide moat (now dry), said to have contained ferocious crocodiles.

Angkor Thom is a microcosm of the universe, divided into four parts by the main axes. The temple of the Bayon is situated at the exact center of the axes and stands as the symbolical link between heaven and earth. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stonewall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolizes the cosmic ocean.

After the Khmer Kingdom went into decline, the city was at one point deserted and left to the jungle. In the 19th century, the site was rediscovered by French explorers, soon after which the EFEO (the École Française d'Extrême-Orient) began clearing works and restoration of the monuments overgrown by thick jungle.

The temples within Angkor Thom are probably some of the most interesting ones to visit. They're rather easy to visit also, because most of them are located in the center and built close to one another. It's amazing to see so many temples within a 'small' area, and most of them are a must-see too!

The vast area of the Angkor Thom ruins, over a mile on one side, contains many stone temples and other features to explore. The city has five monumental gates (one in each wall plus an extra in the eastern wall), 20m high and decorated with stone elephant trunks and the king's favorite motif, the four faces of Avalokiteshvara.

Each gate, which leads onto a causeway across the moat, is flanked with statues of 54 gods on the left and 54 demons on the right. This is a theme from the Hindu myth of the Churning of the Milk-Ocean (illustrated in the famous bas-relief at Angkor Wat).

The outer walls of Angkor, 3 kms long at each side, are surrounded by a 100 metres wide moat. They had city gates and causeways at each cardinal point and one more to the east. The fifth one is only 500 metres north to the East Gate and called Victory Gate. From here the Victory Avenue, now used by the Small Circuit road, led to the west, to the Royal Square in front of the Elephant terrace. The North and South Gate and the Victory Gate are partly restored and thus show Angkor's most impressive bridge balustrades, namely the bodies of Nagas used as ropes by rows of gods and demons.

Few tourists realise that you can escape the bustle of the South Gate by walking up along the top of the laterite wall (access is possible from any of the gates). You can either walk or cycle round the entire perimeter, safe in the knowledge that with an (almost) uniform shape you’re not going to get lost. There will be some areas where the wall has crumbled a little, so you may have to get off your bike and walk short stretches. With shady forest paths and a small temple - Prasat Chrung - on each corner of the four walls, this is an easy way to get away from the crowds. Nature lovers and bird watchers should enjoy this route. If you don’t want to stretch your legs too far, simply arrange for your driver to pick you up at the next gate.

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