Bayon is just the tip of the iceberg at Angkor Thom. You could really spend all day here (we pretty much did) getting lost.
After Jayavarman VII got fed up with those asshole Cham and Siamese invading his empire, he decided to make his capital untouchable.
Angkor Thom is surrounded by a moat and thick walls. Its entryways are flanked with fearsome naga balustrades, held upright by lines of stone gods and demons.
Basically, the Cham would be shitting themselves next time they tried a stunt like that.
And what was inside Angkor Thom that was worth protecting?
Estimates say between 80,000 and 150,000 people, as well as some of the most important temples of the Khmer Empire…and the king’s palace. This was the epicenter of one of the greatest civilizations in history, one that once covered Cambodia, half of Laos, the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and much of Thailand and the Malay peninsula.
“All” that’s left now are the temples, though. Most everyday structures—even the king’s palace—were built with wood and are long gone.
But there are a lot of temples.
Our second day at Angkor Wat went into full swing as we tried to squeeze in as much as possible after Bayon, starting with must-sees like the Elephant and Leper King terraces and the mighty-steep Baphuon.
This particular group of relics sits in the northwestern corner of Angkor Thom. The sites are connected by winding dirt trails through the jungle, made easy as pie since we were smart enough to rent mountain bikes this time.
Pedaling north on the road from Bayon, you pass the entrance to Baphuon temple—itself directly connected to the Terrace of the Elephants.
Yes, Terrace of the Elephants is an above-average name for a band. But its name comes from its carvings of massive elephants, not to mention even more statues of elephants pulling up lotus stems with their trunks.
What you see is just the foundation, but this is where the king would stand to greet his army as it returned from battle (hopefully with some new concubines and plunder).
The Terrace of the Leper King, on the other hand, could have been named better…maybe “Whooping Cough Castle” or “Jayavarman’s Wall o’ Clap.”
But we’ll soldier on and make do with leprosy. The Terrace of the Leper King sort of blends into the Elephant Terrace at one point, but continues into the hillside. The carvings here are even more impressive, as the wooden and stone passage winds its way to a short hilltop.
Leper King refers to the statue found on top of the hill here, which was discolored and covered with moss when rediscovered. Hence, leprosy.
Worth mentioning is that Angkor Thom is the most “user-friendly” of the park’s sites. You can transition between one temple to the next in a way that feels natural—no irritated tuk tuk driver pressing you on to the next destination without pause.
You could meander from the top of the hill at the Leper King Terrace to smaller temples tucked off the road near Angkor Thom’s north gate…which is exactly what we did.
Tep Pranam and Preah Palilay are very old sites predating much of Angkor Thom by hundreds of years. Tep Pranam is simply a large stone pathway leading to Buddha statue. There’s really not much to say about it, except that the lack of tourists and road noise make it like a private retreat.
Continuing on from Tep Pranam is Preah Palilay, a tiny temple completely covered in moss, grass and trees. In fact, Preah Palilay is a few blades of grass shy from looking like a natural hill.
South of these smaller temples are the enclosed grounds of the Royal Palace. While only a fraction of the palace’s foundation remain today, you can still see the temple of Phimeanakas, several small ponds and a handful of smaller stone structures (although Phimeanakas was closed for renovations at the time).
Hundreds of years ago, this is where King Jayavarman VII hung out with his royal guard, wives, concubines, etc. Some say his second wife’s jealousy still haunts the grounds to this very day.
Sandwiched between the palace grounds and Bayon is Baphuon, a temple that gets far less recognition than it should—mainly because Angelina Jolie didn’t make a movie here.
Of course there are still a ton of tourists, but not nearly as much as Bayon or Angkor Wat.
Baphuon was memorable for two things—its sleeping Buddha, and its homicidal staircases.
The stairs are so steep that I refuse to believe any Khmer ever used them. Maybe monks reached the top via cable car, or the king came to pray on the back of his royal pterodactyl. Maybe the stairs were built this way to encourage monks to avoid alcohol.
Even the steps built for tourists are dangerous. The only upgrade is a thin metal railing, but it’s a slight improvement.
The climb is worth it, though. Natural selection ensures that only the fittest explorers reach the top, meaning more room for you to recover before another bout of vertigo trips you off the summit.
Of course, the very top tier of the temple was closed for renovations…but don’t let that stop you! Because next you get to slide down the steps on the other side, preferably on your ass.
Which brings us to the end of our roller coaster ride, and the sleeping Buddha.
As if building colossal monuments out of stone a thousand years ago wasn’t hard enough, the Khmer decided this particular temple needed a full-length reclining Buddha on its north face (the symbol is meant to represent Buddha’s illness before entering parinirvana).
This, of course, happened after the temple was originally devoted to the Hindu god Shiva—the equivalent of a later king spraying graffiti all over the first king’s garage. Overcompensating?
I bet he drove a truck with a ballsack trailer hitch, too.
And yet, this temple isn’t even on some peoples’ top 10 lists at Angkor Wat…there’s just so damn much to see.
Do you enjoy staring at thousand-year old rocks as much as I do? Let me know in the comments below.