Sorry for the belated post, folks! There was just so much to write about that filtering the pictures to publish took some extra time. In previous Adventures in Angkor we’ve visited the jungle temple Ta Prohm and ,of course, the famed temple Angkor Wat. The latter has become somewhat synonymous with the entire Angkor, and in fact if you’re read closely at the whole slew of Angkor articles that came out this week you’ll notice that the less informed pieces call “Angkor Wat” being bigger than previously thought. In reality, Angkor Wat is just one section of a now much larger network of temple complexes – perhaps the most iconic, but not nearly the largest:
Angkor Thom is many times larger than Angkor Wat, which by itself is the size of six football fields. And the even huger rectangular plot that we call the Western Baray was a man-made reservoir. Although no longer in use and now only half filled, one can immediately appreciate the immensity of Angkor’s water management system that has made the news this week.
Before we start, here are the places we’ll be visiting in this section of Adventures in Angkor:
1. The Southern Gopura
2. The Bayon
5. The Elephant Terrace
6. The Suor Prat Towers
As you can tell, Angkor Thom is the largest of the temple complexes of Angkor, sitting in a square some 3km long on each side. It was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII in the 12th century, and continued to be in use for much longer – probably because of it’s immense size, following rulers might have found Angkor Thom hard to top! So they would’ve have assumed Angkor Thom and made it theirs through their own modifications. Something as big as Angkor Thom would have enveloped structures that were previously built there, including some pre-existing temples. Again, the complex is surrounded by a moat with gates (gopuras) on each cardinal side – but you’ll notice from the two roads on the east side the presence of two gates – one gate leads to the Bayon in the centre while the other gate would have led to the palace, traditionally built to the north of the temple.
1. The South Gopura
We entered the temple through the south gopura, traversing yet another large man-made moat, to be greeted by the face towers that is so distinctive of the Bayon style.
Hmm… a row of deities pulling on a large naga-snake. Does this motif look familiar to you? Yes, we’ve seen this motif before, previously in Angkor Wat on the relief depicting the Churning of the Milk Sea. A row of devas and asuras flank the causeway again, pulling on Vasuki the giant snake. If you compare the statues here and the bas-relief in Angkor Wat, you’ll find that they even wear the same corresponding headdress!
If the demons and demigods are pulling here, does that mean that the Bayon in the middle is the focal point?
2. The Bayon
The roads from the gopuras lead to a forbidding structure in the centre – The Bayon, most probably the state temple of Angkor Thom, judging by the lack of a wall surrounding it.
Like Angkor Wat, the Bayon is home to many series of bas-reliefs, this time depicting daily life in the ancient Khmer world:
A scene of cooking over a clay stove.
Two competitors getting ready to release their chickens for battle. Cock-fighting, still a popular sport in rural parts of Southeast Asia, and a heavily gambled-on sport.
Two gladiators or soldiers, either sparring or training for battle. Notice their interesting armaments and shields. We know that they are not in fact enemies, because the enemy is depicted clearly in the next relief:
A Khmer warrior places the killing low on a Cham invader – in the earlier post about Angkor Wat I mentioned how the Cham were the constant enemies of the Khmer and how they wore crescent-shaped helmets. You can see the helmets clearly here.
This depiction of building is a rare insight to the construction techniques used by the Khmers. Notice the use of chisels and hammers, as well as the manual carrying of stone blocks as opposed to using elephants, which we know were well in use by the Khmers. Or maybe they didn’t have space to carve an elephant…
The Bayon has a distinctly crammed look and feel about it, and as many as 37 of the original towers vie for prominence in the skyline.
The most distinctive features of these towers are the serene faces that look towards the four cardinal directions.
Situated northwest of the Bayon is a large temple-mound of Baphuon, built in an earlier period by Udayadityavarman II in the 1th century. The Baphuon was for a long time in a state of collapse and disrepair, and it was only in last year that restorations works were sufficiently carried out that it could receive visitors once more. The dark clouds were threatening to rain, so unfortunately I gave this a miss.
Another early temple, dating earlier than Angkor Thom, is the stepped pyramid of Phimeanakas, north of the Baphuon. This site dates to the reign of Jayavarman V in the mid-11th century, but was incorporated into Angkor Thom and in later centuries.
As you can see, the structure is made mainly of red laterite and doesn’t have the impressive sandstone finish like the other temples we’ve seen before. The ascent to the pyramid is another steep climb, comparable to Angkor Wat, but fortunately a wooden stairway was constructed on the western side of the pyramid for easy access.
Phimeanakas was probably also part of the actual royal palace, but the palatial bits would have been constructed of perishable wood, which gives the pyramid its chaotic look today.
5. The Elephant Terrace
Running 300 metres from north to south, east of Baphuon and Phimeanakas is the Terrace of Elephants, a raised platform overlooking an expanse of field, no doubt an assembly point for troops. Why is it called the Elephant Terrace?
No prizes for guessing here – carvings of elephants line the wall of the terrace. Atop this terrace, one can imagine the king convening with his generals on the plan for war.
Some portions of the terrace are “propped” up by two sets of mystical animals, the simha (lion) and the garuda (bird, you can tell by the beak) – a symbol of the king’s divine nature, perhaps?
Hidden in one of the terraces is also a rare carving of a five-headed horse.
Nearby, a separate terrace houses a statue of the Leper King – there is an old legend that one of the Angkoran kings was a leper, which gives this terrace its name. The statue dates to the 15th century, however, while the terrace itself was built in the 13th century.
6. The Suor Prat Towers
Here’s the view of the assembly field from the Elephant Terrace. From a distance, you can see a row of 12 small towers. Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who spent a year in Angkor in the 13th century wrote about its unique use:
When two men are in dispute and the truth cannot be ascertained, each is placed in a tower for one or more days. After those days, the men emerge from the tower and the man not suffering from any illness or disease is deemed to be telling the truth. This unique judicial process is called “Celestial Judgement”!
That wraps up this week’s Adventures in Angkor – and just about covers my entire archaeological tour. Pity, I only had so many days to spend in Siem Reap and there is so much more to explore – which definitely means I’ll be returning in the future! Next week, I’ll have a little section on Siem Reap town itself for the tourist-minded planning to make a trip down.
Some books about the topics covered in this post:
– Bayon Reconsidered by V. Roveda, O. Cunin and C. Jacques
– Angkor Cities and Temples by C. Jaques
– The Armies of Angkor: Military Structure and Weaponry of the Khmers by M. Jacq-Hergoualc’h
– Ancient Angkor (River Book Guides) by C. Jaques
– The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
– Angkor: The Khmers in Ancient Chinese Annals by P. Y. W. Chuen and W. Weng