Remarkable in scale and architectural ingenuity, the ancient city of Angkor Thom, which means Great City in Khmer, was founded by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century.
The largest city in the Khmer Empire at one time, it is protected by a wall 26 ft (8 m) high, about 7.5 miles (12 km) long, and surrounded by a wide moat. The city has five gates – four facing the cardinal directions and an extra one on the east side – all bearing four giant stone faces. Within the city are several ruins, the most famous of which is the Bayon, an atmospheric temple at the centre of this complex.
Exploring the complex The fortified city of Angkor Thom is spread over an area of nearly 4 sq miles (10 sq km). Of the five gateways into the city, the most commonly used is the South Gate, from which a pathway leads straight to the Bayon temple. Beyond this lie the ruins of many other striking monuments, including Baphuon and Phimeanakas.
The imposing South Gate is the best preserved of the five gateways into Angkor Thom. Its approach is via an impressive causeway flanked by 154 stone statues – gods on the left side, demons on the right – each carrying a giant serpent.
The South Gate itself is a massive 75-ft (23-m) high structure, surmounted by a triple tower with four gigantic stone faces facing the cardinal directions. The gate is flanked by statues of the three-headed elephant Erawan, the fabled mount of the Hindu god, Indra.
Believed to be one of the grandest of Angkor’s temples, Baphuon was built by King Udayadityavarman II in the 11th century. A Hindu temple, its pyramidal mountain form represents Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods. A central tower with four entrances once stood at its summit but has long since collapsed.
The temple is approached via a 656-ft (200-m) long raised causeway and has four gateways decorated with bas-relief scenes from Hindu epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana (Reamker in Khmer). Inside, spanning the western length of Baphuon, is a huge Reclining Buddha. As the temple was dedicated to Hinduism, this image was probably added later, in the 15th century. The temple has been undergoing intensive restoration, and a few sections are now open to the public.
This royal temple-palace was built during the 10th century by King Rajendravarman II and added to later by Jayavarman VII. Dedicated to Hinduism, it is also known as the Celestial Palace and is associated with the legend of a golden tower that once stood here, and where a nine-headed serpent resided. This magical creature would appear to the king as a woman, and the king would couple with her before going to his other wives and concubines.
It was believed that if the king failed to sleep with the serpent-woman, he would die, but by sleeping with her, the royal lineage was saved. The pyramid-shaped palace is rectangular at the base and surrounded by a 16-ft (5-m) high wall of laterite enclosing an area of around 37 acres (15 ha).
It has five entranceways, and the stairs, which are flanked by guardian lions, rise up on all four sides. There are corresponding elephant figures at each of the four corners of the pyramid. The upper terrace offers great views of the Baphuon to the south.
Preah Palilay and Tep Pranam
Two of the lesser, yet still impressive, structures at Angkor Thom, Preah Palilay and Tep Pranam are located a short distance to the northwest of the Terrace of the Leper King. Preah Palilay dates from the 13th or 14th century and is a small Buddhist sanctuary set within a 164-ft (50-m) square laterite wall.
The sanctuary, which is partially collapsed, is entered via a single gateway and rises to a tapering stone tower. A 108-ft (33-m) long causeway leads to a terrace to the east of the sanctuary, which is distinguished by fine naga (serpent) balustrades. Nearby, to the east, lies Tep Pranam, a Buddhist sanctuary built in the 16th century. This was probably originally dedicated to the Mahayana school. Used as a place of Theravada worship now, it features a big sandstone Buddha image, seated in the “calling the earth to witness” mudra (posture).
Terrace of the Leper King
This small platform dates from the late 12th century. Standing on top of this structure is a headless statue known as the Leper King. Once believed to be an image of King Jayavarman VII, who, according to legend, had the disease, it is, in fact, a representation of Yama, the God of Death. This statue is, however, a replica, as the original was taken to Phnom Penh’s National Museum.
The terrace is marked by two walls, both beautifully restored and decorated with exquisite bas-reliefs. Of the two, the inner one is more remarkable and is covered with figures of underworld deities, kings, celestial females, multiple-headed nagas, devadas, apsaras, warriors, and strange marine creatures. The exact function of this terrace, which appears to be an extension of the Terrace of Elephants, is not clear. It was probably used either for royal receptions or cremations.
Terrace of Elephants
Built by King Jayavarman VII, this structure is over 950 ft (300 m) long, stretching from the Baphuon to the connecting Terrace of the Leper King. It has three main platforms and two smaller ones.
The terrace was primarily used by the king to view military and other parades. It is decorated with almost life-sized images of sandstone elephants in a procession accompanied by mahouts. There are also images of tigers, serpents, and Garuda, the eagle mount of Vishnu.
North and South Khleang
These two essentially similar buildings are located to the east of the main road running past the Terrace of Elephants. The North Khleang was built by King Jayavarman toward the end of the 10th century, and the South Khleang was constructed by King Suryavarman I during the early 11th century. The main architectural feature of the Khleangs is their sandstone lintels as well as elegant balustered stone windows.
Unfortunately, the original function of the buildings is as yet unknown. Khleang, which means storehouse, is a modern designation and considered misleading.