The 12th century Bayon is something of an enigma.
Its purpose is still being debated (although it is accepted that it is the State Temple of the new capital of Jayavarman VII, away from Rolous, away from Angkor Wat). But it is also quite difficult to get a full sense of the place, mainly because with its collection of some 54 towers (apparently the Khmer kingdom was made up of 54 provinces), many different levels, dark and uneven corridors, almost vertical staircases and those 200 enigmatic carved faces of Avalokiteshvara greeting you at virtually every turn at the higher levels, all add up to create a somewhat disorientating 'feel' to the place.
Unlike the central temple in Angkor Wat, the Bayon is spread out vertically AND horizontally. It is also huge - 8 metre high walls surrounding a 3km square inner moat before the inner sanctuaries are reached!
Also built in the 12th century, Angkor Thom is one of the largest ancient city temples of Khmer period. It is located just a few minutes tuktuk ride from Angkor Wat. We entered through the south gate with a cosway lined by statues of gods (left) and demons (right) leading through the entrance. The entrance has a tower with four faces pointing on four directions and three headed elephants. This temple complex includes Bayon temple which is known for the tower with four faces. This temple represents the intersection from heaven and earth.
The Victory Gate is one of two gates located on the eastern side of the wall that surrounds Angkor Thom. It provides access to the Royal Square and the Palace and, like other gates, is 75ft (25m) tall and surrounded by a turreted structure consisting of four faces of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara.
After visiting Angkor Thom, you can exit via the northern gate in order to visit Preah Khan. Like the South Gate it features a bridge which is flanked by two sets of statues recreating a scene taken from the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. As for the gate itself, like all five, it is 75ft (25m) tall and surrounded by a turreted structure consisting of four faces of the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara.
Commencing where the Elephant Terrace left off, and believed to date to the 13th century, the 6m-high Terrace of the Leper King is so named for the statue of Yama, the God of the Underworld, atop it. Stark naked, Yama sits with one knee raised, surveying the Royal Square. Because it is tainted by discolouration and lichen, the statue was believed to be one of a leper, and the name stuck. The statue is a replica, with the original now held in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The terrace is decorated with seven levels (the top level is almost all gone) of bas relief carvings. Three of the four walls (east, north and south) are carved with very deep bas reliefs.
In the centre of the Royal Palace compound stands the Phimeanakas (described as a "Tower of Gold") which rises on three levels to over 30m high. Legend has it that King Suryavarman used to sleep here with his lover, a serpent woman.
The construction of the Royal Palace was probably begun by Rajendravarman in the 10th century, enlarged by Suryavarman I in the 11th century and totally rebuilt by Jayavarman VII in the 12th century-13th century. This 34-acre area is bounded by a laterite wall - 16ft (5m) high, 807ft (246m) long from north to south and 1920ft (585m) from east to west - that in turn is surrounded by a moat. The main east entrance is from the Terrace of the Elephants from a gopuram (gateway). In the centre of the compound stands the Phimeanakas (described as a "Tower of Gold") which rises on three levels to over 30m high. Legend has it that King Suryavarman used to sleep here with his lover, a serpent woman.
Sitting to the north of Phimeanakas is Srah Srei (Women's Bath), a large pond worth more than a cursory glance. Look for the detailed sea life carved into the walls of sandstone that form the edge of the pond. Creatures include crabs, giant lizards and fish, along with the mandatory crocodiles.
The Khleangs are two buildings of unknown purpose on the east side of the Royal Square in Angkor Thom, located just behind the twelve towers of Prasat Suor Prat and separated by the royal route that leads from the Royal Palace to the Victory Gate. While the two appear to have been constructed as a set, that isn't the case. The northern Khleang was built first, by Jayaviravarman, with the southern following later during the reign of Suryavarman I, but was never finished.
Their actual purpose is a bit of a mystery, though given the name means "storeroom" it has been suggested that they were used to, well, store things — perhaps even people in the form of visiting foreign dignitaries.
The dozen Suor Prat towers stand directly opposite the Royal Palace enclosure and are placed symmetrically on either side of the royal road leading from the Victory gate to the Elephant Terrace.
Suor Prat is believed to date to the early 13th century during the reign of Indravarman II. The purpose of the towers remains unknown. The name Prasat Suor Prat means "temple of the tightrope walkers" and one story suggests that the towers were used for conflict mediation. Squabbling parties were required to sit in separate towers, apparently for days, until whichever party was in the wrong got sick, while the party in the right would display no signs of sickness. Another story suggests the towers were used as anchors for tightrope artists and other performers, though building a dozen brick towers to support a tightrope performance seems excessive — even by Angkorian standards!
Stretching for a full 300m from the Baphuon all the way to the Terrace of the Leper King, the photogenic Terrace of the Elephants surveys the Royal Square of Angkor Thom. As the name suggests, it's carved with lots of elephants and was used by Angkor's king Jayavarman VII as a platform from which to view his victorious returning army.
The 3m-high terrace includes five staircases — one at the north and south end and three running along its length, with the central set of stairs being the largest. In between the staircases, the wall is decorated with elephants and their mahouts in hunting scenes, along with a generous sprinkling of garudas and lion-like creatures.
The Elephant Terrace once supported the royal reception area and the many garudas and lion-like figures were intended to give the impression that the royal entourage, shaded by their parasols and gold-topped pavilions, were being held aloft in the heavens.