Angkor Thom is a city within Angkor Wat’s vast complex containing some of the area’s most popular stops. You’ll see the many faces at Bayon and huge, larger-than-life stone carvings. Angkor Thom has much to explore.
This guide focuses on Angkor Thom and Bayon, but check out more visiting details for the central temple, Angkor Wat.
Visit Angkor Thom in the morning, so you have time to explore before the crowds appear. It’s hard to imagine how magnificent this entire region looked in its heyday, so we watched a couple of documentaries to have a better idea. Just type “Angkor Wat documentary” into your search engine, and you’ll find many solid selections.
Background and History of Angkor Thom
At four times the Vatican’s size, Cambodia’s Angkor Wat is the world’s largest religious monument. Many of the complex’s temples have intricate carvings and bas-reliefs depicting Hindu cosmology and mythology.
Angkor Wat and the surrounding city were initially Hindu places of worship. But as the culture shifted to Buddhism, the temples shifted too. So you’ll find a mix of Hindu and Buddhist symbolism throughout your exploration.
Angkor Thom means “Great City.”
Angkor means “city.” Thom means “large or big.” And Wat means “temple.” So technically, Angkor Wat was the City Temple near the Great City (Angkor Thom.)
Angkor Wat is a 12th-century temple and a monument to King Suryavarman II. It’s the best-preserved site in the region. Later, King Jayavarman VII built Angkor Thom in the early 13th century as a fortressed city, with Bayon Temple at its center.
The region we call Angkor (Wat) was a vast kingdom dominating much of SE Asia. With more than a million inhabitants, more people lived here than in Paris or London at the time.
While the region was partially abandoned in 1431 when the country’s capital moved to Phnom Penh, it was only forgotten by the outside world. Nevertheless, Angkor Wat continued receiving pilgrimages and had a Buddhist monastery for centuries. In fact, our Angkor Wat guide even studied there.
Planning your Visit to the Angkor Thom & Bayon
Here are a few things to remember during your visit(s) to Angkor Thom.
When to Visit
Visit early in the morning, before crowds arrive and the temperature rises. I consider hats and sunglasses a necessity. And think about carrying a sun umbrella or parasol too.
Our tour guide mentioned that in 2019 a couple of thousand people gathered daily for the sunrise at Angkor Wat. But in 2022, only about 300 people per day showed up. However, we opted to sleep in because the weather forecast showed clouds on the days we thought we’d wake early.
But seeing the sunrise over Angkor Wat is a big deal. So schedule it if your weather cooperates.
Official Website: https://www.angkorenterprise.gov.kh/
Open Hours Vary By Temple:
- Angkor Wat and Srah Srang 5:00 am to 5:30 pm (open for sunrise)
- Phnom Bakheng and Pre Rup Temple 5:00 am to 7:00 pm (open for sunrise and sunset)
- Other temples are open from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm.
Check with your driver or the official website for up-to-date information about opening times for the temple you’re visiting.
How to Get There
The easiest way to get to Angkor Thom and Bayon is to walk out of your hotel. You’ll get bombarded by tuk-tuk drivers wanting to show you around. And most hotels offer tours to the villages, so ask at your front desk.
It costs about $20 per day for the driver. First, he takes you to buy tickets, then to the temple, where he’ll wait to drive you to the following site, to lunch, or back to your hotel.
Many tuk-tuk drivers have laminated menus of local attractions. You’ll find them tucked into the roof, so point to one of the pictures if you have a language barrier. Most drivers speak a little English, so you’ll be fine.
Our Favorite Tuk-tuk Drivers
We met two drivers who we worked with our entire time in Siem Reap. Mr. Nhor Chea met us at the bus station on our arrival and took us to our hotel. We liked him so much that we booked him for five days touring the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Then we met Mr. Thet on a short trip to a grocery store. And he later took us out to the Floating Village.
Reach Mr. Chea on What’s App at +855 12 666 545.
Reach Mr. Thet on What’s App at +855 69 419 614.
What To Wear To Visit Angkor Thom and Bayon
As with every temple, dress appropriately with knees, bellies, and shoulders covered.
- No tank tops or strapless tops
- No off-the-shoulders or low necklines.
- No crop tops showing the stomach or back.
- No shorts or leggings.
- No mini-skirts.
One morning, I left the hotel in shorts, but Mr. Chea sent me back to change. I wasn’t even wearing short shorts, but modest Bermuda-length was still inappropriate. Don’t worry if you make it past your tuk-tuk driver but still get stopped at the temple entrance because you can buy a wrap-around scarf/skirt from a nearby stall.
While the women’s dress code remains strict, men have fewer clothing restrictions at temples in Cambodia and SE Asia. So Steve wore shorts every day, as did most men.
- Wear a shirt with sleeves (short or long is okay), but no tank tops.
- No disrespectful sayings, images, or slogans on T-shirts
- Preferably no ripped or torn clothing
- Longer shorts are better. To the knees or long pants are best.
Ticket Information For Angkor Wat Archaeological Park:
We don’t suggest buying your tickets online, even though there’s a link on the official website. Instead, your driver will take you to the Ticket Center building. There are maybe 40-50 ticket booths, so it goes quickly.
- Don’t buy tickets from a third party, as they’ll be invalid.
- The Ticket Center is open daily from 5:00 am – 5:30 pm. And tickets purchased after 4:45 pm are valid for entry starting the next day.
- They take your picture and print it on your ticket.
There are three ticket options. Here are the costs, but you can read below for more details:
- 1 Day = $37
- 3 Days = $62 (Entries valid for ~ 9 days)
- 7 Days = $72 (Entries valid for ~ 1 month)
When we visited in November 2022, you got extra days for your purchase. So a one-day ticket allowed you to enter on three separate days. We purchased the three-day ticket and entered the temple complexes over five days.
I don’t know if extra days are standard or only happening since they’re opening up again after Covid-19. But, if you have time, a three-day pass (five entries) was perfect.
Our entry date was 19-11-2022, and our expiry date was 28-11-2022. So we took days off to explore Siem Reap and watch documentaries to learn about Angkor Wat.
Hiring A Guide
We recommend hiring a guide, especially for Angkor Wat. Of course, you can hire guides for each temple individually or work with the same guide for all your visits.
If you hire a guide on-site, choose one in a pink shirt since they have official training. It costs about $20 for Angkor Wat alone.
Tips for an Enjoyable Experience
Here are a few tips for having your best experience at Angkor Wat’s Grand Circuit.
- It’s a good idea to purchase a lanyard to slip your ticket into and easily hang around your neck. We saw several people doing so and wished we’d considered it ahead. You show your ticket at multiple checkpoints, so keeping track of it is essential. We kept our tickets inside our pocket guidebook, but I always worried about losing them.
- Bring a bottle or two of cold water.
- When you get hot, stop and rest. As basic as it sounds, the heat feels overwhelming. So drink water, then relax in the shade.
- We spent 3-5 hours per day visiting temples. Longer days included a lunch break at one of the many nearby restaurants.
Exploring Angkor Thom & Bayon
Even in Angkor Thom, we skipped some sites. This is because too many choices exist, even with five viewing days. So pick and choose which temples or sites are the most important for your visit.
Here are the prominent sights in Angkor Thom.
- Baphuon Temple
- Phimeanakas Temple & Royal Palace
- Elephants Terrace
- Leper King Terrace
- Identical Corner Temples: Prasat Chrung
- Preah Palilay
- Preah Pithu
- North & South Kleang
What to See and Do at Angkor Thom
Since it’s challenging to see EVERYTHING, I’ll focus on the main highlights of Angkor Thom. Here you’ll find information about the cultural and historical significance of the temples. Or the don’t-miss Instagram photo spots.
Angkor Thom’s Boundaries and Gates
Angkor Thom covers about 4 square miles (10 square kilometers), while the Angkor kingdom covers approximately 154 square miles (400 square kilometers.)
The city’s layout mimics a giant mandala or sacred diagram of the universe. It was also surrounded by a moat and a vast Barray (reservoir.) So the walls and moat symbolize a mandala’s continents and oceans.
Five gates enter the city. Four head straight to Bayon at the Center, while the fifth, “Victory Gate,” goes to the Royal Palace.
- Movie buffs can check out the East Gate in the Tomb Raiders movie.
- The South Gate is restored and magnificent.
- In ancient days, wooden doors inside the gates kept intruders at bay.
- The Victory Gate got its name from the Khmer defeat of the Chams (an ancient name for Thais.)
- The moat was just over a half mile (100 meters) wide.
- Atop the gates are giant faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, “Lord who looks down with compassion.”
- The five bridges leading to the five gates were all identical in size. Their length, width, height, and carved stone statues were the same. Each had 54 gods on the right, and 54 demons on the left for a total of 108 larger-than-life-size statues depicting the Churning of the Milk.
We got to Bayon as it opened, which turned out perfectly. Only a few tourists were there, and we had much of the grounds to ourselves. I don’t think solitude was possible here before Covid, so one side benefit of the world pandemic is less competition at tourist sites. But, of course, there have been very few positives to the quarantines in the last couple of years, so I’ll find the good where I can.
Bayon is one of my favorite temples with all the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara faces and towers. The faces are said to resemble the king, which seems fitting since kings were considered earthly deities.
- 216 smiling faces
- 54 towers representing the 54 Khmer empire provinces
The third level remained closed to visitors, making it hard to get a great view of some faces. However, Bayon is one temple I’d love to see in its original state. It must have been quite the sight.
Like Angkor Wat, Bayon’s first level has carvings showing everyday Khmer life, including war victories and defeats.
Across the street from Bayon and to the left is a structure housing a giant Buddha. We walked over to see it, and I got a “blessing” from two older women. They tied a braided yarn bracelet around my wrist and said a few words before asking for my donation. It wasn’t quite the same as the monk blessing at Angkor Wat, but it still gave me a peaceful feeling.
Bauphon Temple was carefully taken apart for protection during the country’s 1970s civil war. Unfortunately, the records mapping each piece’s location were lost during the Khmer Rouge regime.
And so the temple became a giant jigsaw puzzle for the archaeologists to try to put back together. Ikea furniture is difficult enough, so can you imagine this project’s difficulty?
Phimeanakas Temple & Royal Palace
Phimeanakas means “Celestial Palace,” where some scholars believe a golden spire topped the structure. We meandered through the temple, listening to the jungle sounds like whistling birds and squawking monkeys.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much to see here since it’s undergoing restoration. However, at least four kings and their families lived in the royal palace, so I’m sure it was a wealthy area.
I wondered who planted the giant trees gracing the grounds. Maybe they came from a royal ceremony. Perhaps one tree honored a newborn’s birth? The whole area felt magical, and I continually pondered life during its ancient time.
The Elephants Terrace was used for public ceremonies, so the king may have presented a newborn prince to the crowds before the royals planted a tree in his honor. Who knows? It could have happened.
I stood on the terrace, trying to imagine how the scene looked back in its prime. One of the documentaries we watched helped me picture horse-drawn chariots, elephants, and rows of soldiers marching to honor the god-king. Musicians and dancers entertained the royalty and gathered crowds. It must have been fantastic when the buildings were shiny new. All the colors, carvings, and gold roofs had to be amazing.
Leper King Terrace
Some scholars believe the naked (but sexless) statue on this terrace portrayed the god of death, Yama. They think the royal crematorium resided here.
At the terrace’s south end is a small opening to a boardwalk through a “hidden terrace.” This area disappeared under the outer structure’s building, so many carvings are well preserved.
I took about a thousand pictures here. Way too many photos of apsaras (dancers), nagas (half-human, half-serpent), and scowling, grinning, staring faces. Towards the end of the walkway, there are quite a few places you can see chisel marks on unfinished panels.
Steve and I meandered through this inner terrace for at least a half hour while other visitors walked right through. So you can easily tailor your visit to your interests.
Check Out These Guidebooks
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We used this pocket guide every day onsite at the temples of Angkor. And we found it invaluable. The National Geographic Traveler book is another one we took to Cambodia and referred to often.
Summary of the Angkor Thom & Bayon Experience
It’s hard to pick a “favorite” temple site within Angkor Wat’s vast complex. I loved seeing the faces of Bayon, especially early in the morning when we had most of the place to ourselves. The glorious feeling of Bayon and Angkor Thom helped me imagine life back then.
Since the jungle tries to reclaim this vast area, it’s hard to remember that the Angkor empire was larger than modern-day New York’s five boroughs. So Angkor Thom exemplified city life on a grand scale.