With many tourists starting their temple explorations at Angkor Wat, our tuk-tuk driver Fickry suggested we start with Angkor Thom. Good choice. The largest complex in the area, it wasn’t overly crowded.

Approaching the south gate of Angkor Thom was an exciting moment for me. Those looming faces carved into that ancient stone- what treasures would we find within?

Begun in the 12th Century, Angkor Thom was the new capital of the Angkor Empire, built by the ambitious ruler Jayavarman VII. He was the first of the Angkor kings to follow Buddhism, leaving us to wonder about the faces throughout the temples: do they portray the Buddha, the spell-check-busting bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, or someone else? In any case, they’re way cool and one of my favorite elements in any of the temples.

The large Angkor Thom complex is surrounded by a wall (hence the gates) and once upon a time, a moat. There’s plenty to explore inside, starting smack dab in the center at the Bayon temple.

The Bayon is famous for its bas-reliefs, telling the tales of the Angkor Empire. They run all around the outside of (what’s left of) the building.

I didn’t know it yet, but the Bayon would turn out to be one of my favorite places around Angkor Wat. A half-restored temple like this fires my imagination more than a fully-restored one, allowing me to not only imagine the people who built it, but also the people who discovered it crumbling in the jungle.

But wait, there’s more to Angkor Thom! Like the fascinating Baphuon, coming up next time.