Angkor Thom is the remains of the capital city of the great Khmer Empire. It literally means “the great city” in Khmer. This imperial compound lies on the west bank of the Siem Reap River, a tributary of Tonle Sap. It is a square walled area and was the last capital city of the Angkorian Empire. This complex was built by Jayavarman VII after recapturing Angkor from the Cham invaders in 1181. He built this around existing structures, like Baphuon and Phimeankas; he also constructed one of Angkor’s greatest temples, Bayon, set at the centre of the city. There are five entrances to the city, one at each cardinal point and the victory gate.
We drove by Angkor Wat and entered Angkor Thom through the South Gate by another bridge over another moat. On that bridge, the railings were sculpted into the Devas and Asuras, taking part in Sea-Churning. The gateway was crowned with four faces, while the fort walls extended on both sides.
First up was Bayon, the crown jewel of Angkor Thom. It is a huge temple and like Angkor Wat, it has a structured base with each hallway a little more elevated than the other and most of the walls filled with carvings. It is a mountain temple built to represent Mount Meru, considered the centre of all universes in Buddhist, Jain and Hindu cosmology.
The giant stone faces on the towers in Bayon have become recognisable images connected to Khmer architecture. Bayon does look a lot like “Amon Hen” from The Lord of the Rings, though its structure is quite intact, unlike the latter.
We entered through an open-sky doorway on the north-side which would have looked elegant if it still had the roof. Climbing up into the second hallway, we walked around in circles, not knowing what to do and being quite uninterested in the beautiful carvings that surrounded us.
On the East side of the temple, we came across a spot with lush green grass and a view of the top and cloudy sky in the background. As we came closer to the centre, I was able to gauge the height of the temple. We climbed up more stairs, but, unfortunately, we didn’t get to the top. After a few moments, we climbed down to the dark hallways and came outside towards the South. My brother and I had toured the temple pretty fast and spent the rest of the time sitting and admiring the rather monotone compound walls.
As jobless people, my brother and I sat eating snacks. We spotted a group of Buddhist monks in their stark saffron dresses as they posed for photos with tourists. Some people have this misconception that the monks live inside the temples. They don’t, they go there like the rest of us to admire the temples and for pilgrimage, as these temples are still the largest religious monuments in the world. On one side of the temple lay many rocks as restoration work went on. Recognising the correct pieces of this complex puzzle and assembling them to build something from the past sounds exciting.
“Drinks? Yes!” and we went and had pineapple and dragon juice. “This is a huge glass, no less than half a litre” I thought as I gulped the extremely chilled and delicious dragon juice.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER
I was still drinking; it was never going to finish. I thought I had just had my lunch, I was full, on we went to Baphuon. This is not one of the normal temple-like structures because the top is missing. It is a simple form of cuboids on top of each other. This temple had an extensive and troubled restoration. Work began in the early 1970’s but had to be abandoned during the war. The records were lost during the years of war, leaving a huge jigsaw puzzle of rock. It was finally restored in 2011.
That actually looked fun. I went on and climbed up the stairs where my brother was not allowed. The first hallway was arched and the light streamed through the windows. The doorways were pretty small, even for me.
As I completed one round, the hallway vanished and it was open-air. On top, there was no hallway, just a flat terrace to walk on. What was interesting was that it had another level which was barricaded, and stairs which led to four doorways which face each other. I guess it was a temple or a shrine and would have been one of the most beautiful structures in the complex.
After climbing down, I sat beneath a tree and wiped my face clean. We then entered the royal compound through the entrance near Baphuon. The royal enclosure has a few structures which represent the power of the Khmer rulers at their prime which is clearly visible, as the remains are truly gigantic and dominating. Most of the palaces and apartments of the king were made of wood and hence, there are no remains, but the majestic temple of Phimeanakas made of laterite and sandstone still remains.
The Phimeanaka might have been one of the biggest attractions in Angkor Thom if its temple at the top would have existed. As we kept walking through the compound, we reached the Elephant’s Terrace opposite to the Sur Prat and Prasats, which are basically twelve nearly identical towers. The Elephant’s Terrace is an impressive wall adorned with carved elephants and garudas, spanning Baphuon and the Royal Palace Area.
It was getting pretty hot as the sun shone directly above our heads. We sat in the car and took off for the Old Town Area to have lunch. Angkor would have been a formidable city and the majestic structures give insight into the power of the great Angkorian Empire. There are many reasons proposed by people as to why this great empire came to an end, but the truth has not been ascertained yet.