Date Traveled, August 2012
Angkor Thom, the "great city", is the site of the last capital of the Angkor Civilization. Founded by the Khmer Empire's greatest monarch, the Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, Angkor Thom is home to some of the finest and most famous surviving sites and temples outside of the Angkor Wat itself, including the surreal temple at the heart of the city, the Bayon with its massive stone face towers looking out in every direction.
The Asura balustrade, the Devas were on the other side
The Siem Reap river
There is debate in scholarly circles about the significance of the faces on the towers and what or who they represent. Some believe the faces to represent the King Jayavarman VII himself while others believe it is a representation of the Avalokiteswara, a Bodhisattva (an enlightened being in Buddhism) of compassion. Whatever the true meaning of these faces, they are there to greet you at the very entrance to Angkor Thom.
All the gates leading into Angkor Thom have one of the massive towers with the faces looking outward in all the cardinal directions and they remain a truly impressive sight to impress visitors to the capital of the Empire today as they must have been to travelers in the past. Another equally impressive construction is the balustrade on the causeway that is used to cross the moat to reach the gates with their face towers. Unlike the Angkor Wat with its naga balustrade, the balustrade here is built based on a famous scene from Hindu mythology, the churning of the sea milk where the Gods and Daemons together churn a seas of milk using a giant serpent twined around a mountain to bring up the nectar of immortality. The Gods or Devas pull the serpent of the left side of the balustrade while the Asuras or Daemons, pull the serpent on the right side.
One of the gates to Angkor Thom
All the roads from any of the gates of Angkor Thom lead right into the center of the city where stands the state temple of King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon with its face towers and 200 or so faces. It is enthralling to just watch the outline of the temple from outside of it with its face towers, there is probably nothing else like it that was built at any time or place in our history. But the exciting part of visiting the Bayon is of course to climb the temple to reach the upper level and the chance to walk right beside the faces. There are faces staring at you the moment you reach the top terrace and follow you at every angle as you walk around. It might sound creepy but it most certainly is not I assure you. The best word I can use to describe the feeling is surreal. The faces all have varying expressions some smiling, some with their eyes closed, but all have this calm not at all threatening look of serenity about them so at no point do you feel weirded out. In fact it is quite inviting to walk around and admire these faces and I felt like I could have easily spent hours there.
The Bayon temple beckoning
The face towers
The face towers around the Bayon
They look happy
Walking around the terrace greeted by the Avalokiteswaras
Historians debate whether the faces represent King Jayavarman VII himself
But not having the luxury of being able to spend hours there and with so many more sites to see, I forced myself to move on from the Bayon to the neighboring sites inside the Angkor Thom. Walking from the Bayon to the cluster of main sites to its left you get a view of the Baphoun, a temple which predated the establishment of Jayavarman's city and the two famous terraces, the first of which is the terrace of the Elephants and further onward, the terrace of the Leper King. The terraces are attached to the grounds of the main palace complex of the Kings, the Phimeanakas and presumably the King and his courtiers and household would view processions and events from the terraces. Across from the terraces are the towers of the Prasat Suor Prat. I suppose you could imagine this as the central square of the Royal city with the crowds thronging across from the terraces by the towers as parades and processions and other displays took place in between.
The terrace of the elephants
Garudas hold up the terrace
The elephants that presumably give the terrace its name
The Prasat Suor Prat Towers across from the royal terrace
The terrace of the Elephants is presumably named because of the Elephant sculptors that appear to be holding up the terrace. This is on the left side of the main entrance to the Phimeanakas palace grounds when facing it. Of the Phimeanakas itself, today it is mostly forest as only a stone temple and the two bathing pools made of stone survive as the palace and the other buildings themselves having been made of wood have not survived the ravages of time. However, detailed accounts of the city and its people and daily life have survived thanks to the writings of a Chinese traveler, Zhou Daguan who visited Angkor Thom in 1296, well past the reign of Jayavarman VII though. A translation of his works is on my to read list and I have the link to the book at the bottom of this article if you are interested.
The Phimeanakas, the royal enclosure
The only surviving building inside the old royal enclosure
Royal bathing pools
Interestingly, there were two young Cambodian women relaxing in one of the pools in the palace grounds. Being the rainy season, the pools were full but I suppose they dry out in the hot summer. I do not know how frequently the pools are used by people and am not certain if that was allowed, I am guessing not, but there were hardly anyone in the grounds when I went except for the occasional fellow tourist. Most of the visitors congregate at the Bayon and even then, one of the perks of the rainy months is the sites are far less crowded than normal and walking around the terraces and the Phimeanakas was one of the many times in the trip I experienced stretches of time where there were hardly any other visitors. I guess the infrequency of visits to that site in the season encourages people to relax in the heat although to be honest the muddy water did not look inviting me.
The terrace of the leper king
Intricate wall carvings make the terrace famous
The detail on the carvings are impressive
The terrace on the other side of the central entrance to the Phimeanakas is the famed terrace of the Leper King. This is a modern name of course because it was supposed to associated with a King who had leprosy, however that is not what makes the terrace famous, it is the extremely detailed carvings at the base of the terrace, and note, on the inner walls as it isn't a single structure so to speak. There is a passage way that lets you navigate in between the inner walls where you can view the carvings of Gods and Goddesses from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. The carvings cover the entirely of the walls from top to bottom and is beautiful to view. This must have been painstaking work that took years to complete.
There are more things to see in Angkor Thom and I could easily have spent much longer at any of these sites, but unless you are on a two week trip I do not believe you can cover everything in the Angkor list around Siem Reap, but maybe some time I will return for doing just that.