Angkor Thom: The Great City of Cambodia – 12th Century Wonder

Nokor Thom -Cambodia -World- Heritage site-1992
Map of Nokor Thom – Cambodia -World- Heritage site-1992


Angkor Thom or Nokor Thom (‘The Great City’ in the Khmer language) is located in the northern province of Siem Reap in Cambodia. It was the last and most persisting capital of the Khmer Empire. Upon coming to the throne, King Jayavarman VII made Angkor Thom the new capital of the Khmer Kingdom in the twelfth century because he understood that the city would serve as his kingdom’s religious and political centre. 

The city extends over 400 square kilometres. It consists of a square of temples, monuments, hydraulic structures (reservoirs, basins, canals, dykes), and communication routes from the earlier eras and those established by Jayavarman and his successors. 

The Great City of Cambodia
The Great City of Cambodia

Temples such as the Bayon, Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Baphuon, and Preah Khan are the epitome of Khmer architecture. They are closely related to their geographical context and imbued with symbolic significance. Angkor Thom is one of the main tourist attractions in Southeast Asia.            

History of Angkor Thom

The Great City of Cambodia served as the royal centre from where the empire of Khmer Kings ruled one of the largest and most prosperous realms in the history of Southeast Asia. 

From the 9th century, when King Yashovarman I made Angkor his residence, the kings of Angkor ruled over the territory until the 13th century. The kings expanded this region from the vertex of the Indochinese Peninsula to Yunnan in China and from Vietnam toward the Bay of Bengal. They built several enormous structures throughout this period to exalt themselves, their gods, and their capital city by using their vast labour and financial resources.

Angkor was established as the capital of Jayavarman VII’s kingdom and was the centre of his massive construction program. The former state temples of Phimeanakas and Baphoun, incorporated into the Royal Palace, are the city’s two most significant earlier temples. The Mangalartha temple, the last one associated with Angkor Thom, was consecrated in 1295.

Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
Terrace of the Elephants, Nokor Thom, Cambodia

According to Zhou Daguan, a Chinese commercial envoy, Angkor was still a sizable, thriving metropolis and one of Asia’s most spectacular capitals in the late 13th century. Theravada Buddhism was emerging as a new and more moderate form of religion. The Ayutthaya armies stationed in the western parts of the dynasty were starting to trespass on the Khmer land. 

Nevertheless, the great building frenzy that peaked during the reign of Jayavarman VII ended when King Borommarachathirat II of the Ayutthaya Kingdom attacked Angkor Thom, forcing the Ponhea Yat-led Khmers to move their capital to Phnom Penh in the southeast.

By the 16th century, Angkor Thom was left only with the ruins of the once-impressive network of reservoirs and waterways and the jungle-covered remains of the old temples.

Architectural Design

The city is square-shaped and Bayon in style, delineated by walls that are 8 meters in height and 3 kilometres in length on each side. The walls are of laterite fortified by the earth, with a parapet on the top. The walled city has an area of about 900 hectares (2225 acres), and a moat surrounds it. Together, the walls and moat are meant to represent the continents and oceans in the mandala.

One must cross the five bridges or causeways connecting to gates that pierce the city’s wall to enter the city. All but one of the bridges and gates in Angkor Thom’s cardinal directions lead directly to the Bayon Temple, located in the city’s centre.

Angkor Thom South Gate - World Heritage Site - Cambodia
The Great City – South Gate – World Heritage Site – Cambodia

The fifth gate and bridge, North of the East Gate, known as “Victory Gate,” provides access to the royal palace. This gate is around 30 minutes from central Seim Reap, and the King used it to get to or from his palace.

Architectural Sites

Angkor Thom consists of remains of many temples and palaces of different eras and styles like Bayon, The Royal Palace, The Royal Terraces, Baphoun, Phimeanakas, Prasat Suor Prat, Preah Palilay, Tep Pranam, Prasat Chrung, and Preah Pithu Group.    


The Bayon, the centrepiece of Angkor Thom, is the spookiest or most captivating of the Angkor temples. There are around 54 towers with 216 smiling Avalokiteshvara faces looking down at you. With its network of tunnels, closed doors, and crumbling boulders, Bayon is a magnificent temple to explore and a great spot to get lost in the mysteries of Angkor.  

Bayon, the most notable temple at Angkor Thom.
Bayon, the most notable temple at Angkor Thom.
Prasat Chrung

Prasat Chrung, a small temple, can be found at each of the four corners of the walls surrounding Angkor Thom. Starting from one of the entrance gates, one can go down the dirt embankment inside the walls to the prasats. Prasat Chrung was constructed between the 12th and 13th centuries in honour of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara.

The temples, ornamented with sculpted Devatas, feature a cruciform floor plan and a terrace adjacent to them. 

Central Tower of Prasat Chrung
Central Tower of Prasat Chrung
Preah Pithu

The Preah Pithu Group, a collection of five temples, is located northeast of the Royal Palace. Most of the temples, situated in a serene woodland, are in a ruined state.

Preah Pithu - Cambodia
Preah Pithu – Cambodia

Angkor Thom: An Archaeological Site

Angkor Thom is one of the most significant archaeological sites in operation in the world. Between the end of the ancient city (mid-15th century) and the start of the modern era (late 19th century), much of the attention on Angkor was on Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat became one of Southeast Asia’s most significant pilgrimage sites after being taken over and preserved mainly by Theravada Buddhist monks. 

But even then, many early European travellers to Cambodia were keenly interested in the “lost city” (Angkor Thom). During the early 20th century, laborious and meticulous reconstruction work was also carried out by archaeologists, resulting in a partial restoration of the ancient complex of temples, reservoirs, and canals.

In 1992, UNESCO designated Angkor Thom as a World Heritage Site. Following that, various countries launched internationally coordinated preservation efforts and helped repair the Angkorian monuments. According to UNESCO, Angkor is a living heritage site where the Khmer people are particularly conservative concerning ancestral traditions and where they adhere to a significant number of archaic customs. 

To strive for sustainable development and eradicate poverty, the Angkor Site administration considers the local inhabitants living in poverty by linking them to the expansion of the tourist industry.

Aerial View of 'The Great City of Cambodia' - World Heritage Site by UNESCO
Aerial View of ‘The Great City’ – World Heritage Site by UNESCO

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