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.
Erected around 1060 during the reign of King Udayadityavarman II, the Baphuon was situated just to the south of the Royal enclosure and was easily the largest temple of its time. It consists of a long, narrow entry path boosted by columns. The main structure would have been the tallest of the monuments at Angkor and is a three-tiered temple mountain built as the state temple of Udayadityavarman II dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva.
Work to repair the Baphuon started in the 1960s when the monument's 300,000 stones were dismantled and each one's unique position meticulously recorded by the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient (EFEO). Then the 70s — war and the Khmer Rouge — descended and for more than two decades work was suspended. During this hiatus, virtually all the supporting paperwork save some photos of the temple were lost, leaving the restorers in the unenviable situation of trying to assemble possibly the world's largest jigsaw puzzle. Work was still being carried out when I visited in December 2008.
These are the "libraries", a common feature of Khmer temple architecture, but their true purpose remains unknown. Most likely they functioned broadly as religious shrines rather than strictly as repositories of manuscripts. Freestanding buildings, they were normally placed in pairs on either side of the entrance to an enclosure, opening to the west.
The Bayon was revealed as a three-tiered pyramid temple after being cleared of overgrowth, with the central tower stretching to 45m in height and 25m in diameter. This central tower is topped with the largest examples of the all-facing, all-seeing enigmatic faces that litter the temple throughout.
Originally the Bayon was comprised of 54 towers, each of which supported four faces — one looking to each point of the compass. Today, 49 towers remain. Theories behind the meaning of the faces have surmised that the sculptures represented King Jayavarman VII as a god-king and suggest that the 54 towers represent the 54 provinces of the realm, with the king's face looking over the entire country.
The Bayon temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes. Though highly detailed and informative in themselves, the bas-reliefs are not accompanied by any sort of epigraphic text, and for that reason considerable uncertainty remains as to which historical events are portrayed and how, if at all, the different reliefs are related. From the east gopura clockwise, notable subjects are:
In the southern part of the eastern gallery, a marching Khmer army (including some Chinese soldiers), with musicians, horsemen, and officers mounted on elephants, followed by wagons of provisions.
In the eastern part of the southern gallery, a naval battle on the Tonle Sap between Khmer and Cham forces, underneath which are more scenes from civilian life depicting a market, open-air cooking, hunters, and women tending to children and an invalid
Still in the southern gallery, past the doorway leading to the courtyard, a scene with boats and fisherman, including a Chinese junk, below which is a depiction of a cockfight; then some palace scenes with princesses, servants, people engaged in conversations and games, wrestlers, and a wild boar fight; then a battle scene with Cham warriors disembarking from boats.
There are more bas-reliefs in the inner gallery that depict scenes from Hindu mythology. Some of the figures depicted are Siva, Vishnu, and Brahma and there is another depiction of the Churning of the Sea of Milk.
The Bayon was built in the late 12th century or early 13th century as the official state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII and stands at the centre of Jayavarman's capital, Angkor Thom. It was the last state temple to be built at Angkor, and the only Angkorian state temple to be built primarily as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine dedicated to the Buddha.
The Bayon was revealed as a three-tiered pyramid temple after being cleared of overgrowth, with the central tower stretching to 45m in height. This central tower is topped with the largest examples of the all-facing, all-seeing enigmatic faces that litter the temple throughout. Originally the Bayon was comprised of 54 towers, each of which supported four faces — one looking to each point of the compass. Today, 49 towers remain. Theories behind the meaning of the faces have surmised that the sculptures represented King Jayavarman VII as a god-king and suggest that the 54 towers represent the 54 provinces of the realm, with the king's face looking over the entire country.
The temple is known also for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs, which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes.
After visiting Angkor Wat, you enter Angkor Thom via the southern gate. As with all five bridges, the bridge here is flanked by two sets of statues recreating a scene taken from the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. To your left are gods and to the right demons, all dragging on massive naga balustrades. Some of the statues are replicas while others have been transported from the lesser used bridges. 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.
One of the largest of the ancient Khmer cities, Angkor Thom (which means Great City) was the state capital of Jayavarman VII and was believed to support a population of over a million. Jayavarman VII ruled the Khmer empire from around 1181 to 1220, with the site remaining in use for hundreds of years after his death. Work commenced on the city more or less as a rebuilding project after the previous state capital was sacked by marauding Chams. While the vast majority of people are believed to have lived outside the city's walls — towards the East and West Barays and Siem Reap river — nothing remains of their wooden dwellings and the enclosure itself has been largely taken back by the forest.
The scale of Angkor Thom is daunting. It measures 3km in length on each of its four 8m-high walls — all of which was once surrounded by a moat up to 100m wide. While today much of the moat has been given over to rice cultivation, it would be a safe assumption that the moat was once inhabited by something with a snappier bite than carp! There are five 20m-tall gates, one on each of the south, west and north walls, with the eastern wall having two. The northernmost of the two eastern gates leads from the Royal Palace to the Eastern Baray.
After visiting Angkor Wat, you enter Angkor Thom via the southern gate. As with all five bridges, the bridge here is flanked by two sets of statues recreating a scene taken from the legend of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. To your left are gods and to the right demons, all dragging on massive naga balustrades. Some of the statues are replicas while others have been transported from the lesser used bridges.
After entering through the narrow entrance you're inside the city where the most notable earlier temples within the city are the former state temple of Baphuon, and Phimeanakas, which was incorporated into the Royal Palace. But the centrepiece of Angkor Thom is the magnificent Bayon with its multitude of faces.
Angkor Thom is the other "must see" in the temple complex. It is really a day's work, as within its walls you can find the symbol of Khmer classic architecture, the Bayon, not to mention other icons like the Terrace of the Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, and the Baphuon.
Angkor Thom means the 'Great City'. Jayavaman VII built the complex on the ruins of an ancient city once controlled by Udayadityavarman II (1056-1066). The exterior wall forms a large square, running 3-km long on each side. Parts of the 100 meter wide moat have gone dry and are overrun with vegetation but the five gates offer an unforgettable entrance with most first time visitors entering through the spectacular Southern Gate, with Nagas 'churning the Milky Ocean'.