Although Angkor Wat is the most famous sight in Angkor, it is not the only one by any means, despite the fact that the two names are often used interchangeably. Angkor in fact means ‘city’ and Angkor Wat the ‘city temple’. But there are over a thousand temples, ranging in scale from mere piles of rubble scattered through rice fields to Angkor Wat itself.
I’ve previously introduced you to Ta Prohm, the so-called Tomb Raider temple. That was the royal monastery of the Buddhist king King Jayavarman VII. Now I want to take you to his great city.
Angkor Thom lives up to its meaning of ‘Great City’ as it is the largest complex at Angkor by some way. Unlike Angkor Wat, which is (despite having a number of separate structures) a single site, here there are a number of different places to visit within the walls that encircle the city.
Angkor Thom is also a little newer than Angkor Wat. The former was built under King Suryavarman II between 1113 and 1150. After his death (probably in battle) a period of instability ensued in the Khmer kingdom. The capital city, then known as Yasodharapura, was captured by forces from Cham to the east who killed the ruling king Tribhuvanadityavarman. But a Khmer prince rallied his people and defeated the Cham. He then, in 1181, ascended the throne as King Jayavarman VII and built a new city, Angkor Thom, partly over the ruins of Yasodharapura. Within its walls he built the temple of Bayon, a royal palace and many other structures.
Although we travelled between some of the different sites by car, I think we did more than enough walking here for Jo to accept it as a Monday Walk!
The city gates
Jayavarman VII’s city covered an area of about 9 square kilometres, surrounded by a wall pierced with five gates. There was one on the north, south, and west sides, and two on the east.
Our guide Sam took us first to see the South Gate (in my feature photo). The bridge approaching the gate has a balustrade on either side shaped like a naga or multi-headed snake. The snakes are gripped by statues of gods, devas, on the left, and of demons, asuras, on the right. These represent the endless tug of war between good and evil. There would once have been figures like these on each of the causeways leading to Angkor Thom’s gates, but most have been stolen, lost or damaged over the centuries. This is the only one where the lines of gods and demons are close to complete. Here some of the lost ones have been replaced with modern copies. One of them even has an accurately reproduced broken-off nose!
The gate itself has four faces at the top, looking to the north, south, east and west. The faces are said by most sources to depict King Jayavarman VII himself, as do all of the many faces on the structures of Angkor Thom. He must have been something of a narcissist, to say the least! In the four corners at the foot of the gate stand three-headed elephants, in rather poor condition. They are depicted plucking lotus flowers with their three trunks, which form slender pillars.
The Bayon Temple
In the heart of his new city King Jayavarman VII built a temple, Prasat Bayon, probably starting around 1200. This was the last state temple to be built at Angkor. As the king was a Buddhist it is primarily a Buddhist shrine but with a nod too to Hinduism and to local animist deities.
It was originally called Jayagiri, Victory Mountain. But later, during the period of French occupancy, it was renamed Banyan, because the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under a banyan tree. When the local Khmer came here to work on its restoration they mispronounced the name as ‘Bayon’ and somehow that stuck.
Faces in stone
The Bayon is most famous for the gigantic faces on its towers, all identical. It is thought by many that this is the face of Jayavarman, as on the gates of the city, while others say that the faces are those of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Both theories could be correct in fact. The Khmer kings typically regarded themselves (and were treated) as deities. And what is more likely than that a Buddhist ruler would want to be identified with such a bodhisattva, if not with the Buddha himself?
The original number of towers is disputed; most say 49 but some as many as 54. Today only 37 remain, but they are still an impressive sight, creating the impression of a mountain range with many peaks. Equally the number of faces is uncertain. Even today visitors apparently don’t all find the same number, but the figure most often cited is 216. I didn’t even attemot to count them!
Stories told in stone
The upper level of the temple was undergoing restoration and therefore closed. But this didn’t really impact at all on our visit, and this was my favourite of all the places we visited in Angkor, not only because of the mysterious faces that looked down on us at every turn but also the intricate bas reliefs.
Sam pointed out the various stories that these tell. As at Angkor Wat there were battle scenes with generals riding elephants and foot soldiers carrying spears, and a naval battle.
But I liked best the ones that showed the details of daily life in those times. There were monkeys trained to climb trees and pick the coconuts; a little pig caught up in the wheels of an ox cart; a man blowing on the fire beneath a cooking pot to fame the flames; even a woman giving birth, assisted by a midwife.
Exploring the Bayon
I confess I got rather confused among all the twists and turns (the layout of the Bayon is quite complex, owing to the many alterations and restorations over the years) so I have no idea where each of the photos below was taken. But part of the charm of a visit here is to wander among the stone galleries to see what you come across. There are delights, and faces, wherever you look!
We finally left the Bayon on its northern side. There were some dancers in traditional costume standing, presumably waiting for any tourists willing to pay to see them perform .
The Royal Palace area
From Bayon we walked towards what little remains of the royal palace. This was originally built on this site by Suryavarman I and used by subsequent kings until the end of the 16th century. Because most of the buildings would have been of wood (stone was reserved for religious structures) they have not survived. Sam pointed out some of the foundations and the encircling wall. But more interesting by far was the Terrace of the Elephants. This was a 350 metre long platform used by Jayavarman VII to review his troops. Some elephants are depicted facing forwards, their trunk forming a pillar like those of the three-headed ones we had seen at the south gate, but most are bas reliefs.
The elephants in the parade may look appealing. But if you look closely you can see that some are fighting water buffalo and one appears to be mauling a child.
From the Elephant Terrace we walked through the eastern gopura (gate) of the Royal Palace. This is aligned with the centre of the terrace and with Angkor Thom’s Victory Gate beyond. We passed the small 10th century Phimeanakas Temple built by Suryavarman I, which was being restored, its surrounding moat drained.
Beyond this we came to the royal swimming pools, large and small, where the king would have watched aquatic sports.
Our last visit in Angkor Thom was to the Terrace of the Leper King. This was built during Jayavarman VII’s reign and like the Elephant Terrace overlooks the royal parade ground. The main relief carvings are at the back and were not so nicely lit for photography.
The Leper King?
The name of the terrace comes from a 15th-century sculpture discovered at the site. This most likely depicts the Hindu god Yama, the god of death, although there are many other theories. One of these is that it is of a late 9th century Angkorian king, Yasovarman I, who had leprosy. Another suggests that it got its name because the moss growing on it made it look like someone with leprosy. Suggestions that it depicts Jayavarman VII himself and that he too had leprosy, and therefore built many hospitals throughout the empire, have been discredited, I believe, although that is the version told to us by Sam.
The Tourism Cambodia website describes him thus:
‘The stone monarch is absolutely naked, his hair is plaited and he sits in the Javanese fashion. The legs are too short for the torso, and the forms, much too rounded, lack the strong protuberances of manly muscles; but, however glaring are his defects, he has many beauties, and as a study of character he is perhaps the masterpiece of Khmer sculpture. Whilst his body is at rest his soul boils within him.
His features are full of passion, with thick lips, energetic chin, full cheeks, aquiline nose and clear brow… his mouth, slightly open, showing the teeth. this peculiarity of the teeth being shown in a smile is absolutely and strangely unique in Cambodian art.’
The statue seen here today (in front of the terrace rather than on top where it would have stood, is a copy. The original is in the courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
I visited Angkor Thom in February 2020