The other day, I wrote a brief post about Angkor Wat. The amazing temple grounds, however, are only a part of a much greater complex. About 3 km up the road lies the “Greatest City” – Angkor Thom. Covering some nine square kilometers, it was the last and most impressive of the Khmer capital cities (more on that below). If you ever plan on visiting, it is good to remember that the city is ‘construction on the largest of scales’, so be prepared to do even more walking than at Angkor Wat!
Having lived in Spain prior to this trip to Asia, I have been fortunate enough to see my fair share of ruins from Classical Antiquity and the Medieval period. I’ve walked along the base of the aqueduct at Segovia, seen the Roman ruins of Saguntum and lived in the veritable shadow of the 750 year old castle at Capdepera in Majorca. All of which are very impressive examples of engineering and architectural expertise. With these experiences as my standard, I can state that Angkor Thom is truly one of the most incredible ruins that I have ever seen! It is not just size and scale that awed me, but the adornments and attention to detail. Nonetheless, the shear size does have quite the ‘wow’ effect. Everywhere you go there seems to be a shrine, a statue, another temple or a jumbled pile of stones. Sneaking off into the bush upon our first visit, we stumbled upon quite a few foliage shrouded ruins yet to be opened up to tourism.
Construction on this amazing urban compound was begun sometime in the latter 12th century under the reign of King Jayavarman VI. A wonder of the ancient world, Angkor Thom would serve as the capital until the 15th Century!
We had spent the morning at Angkor Wat and then met out tuk-tuk driver for an early lunch, before driving up the road to the city. You can spend days in Angkor Thom alone and still only see a fraction of what there is. As I mentioned before, there are many shrines and temples to explore. From our previous visits we knew that as you follow the road north you eventually reach a beautiful stone causeway that straddles another wide moat and enters one of Angkor Thom’s magnificent city gates. This is the well-known South Gate, or ‘Gopura'(a cross-form gatehouse with a tower atop it). The South Gate leads out from the city straight to Angkor Wat and as such is the main way to enter and exit the ruins of the capital. In front of the South Gate, the causeway has sculptures of devas and asuras (spirit or celestial beings) all grabbing onto a great Naga. Nagas are seven-headed serpents of oriental myth that unlike the hydra of occidental mythology are associated with protection and not destruction. I have found sculptures of Nagas throughout all the places that I have visited in Thailand and Cambodia. They are not just found in pagodas, shrines or other holy sites. Nagas are everywhere, protecting all manner of bridges and buildings. Crossing this causeway, thousands of tourists pass through this South Gate daily. The road on the other side, like all gateway avenues, leads directly to the Bayon at the center of the city.
On my very first visit to the ruins I had met a tour guide who explained the increase in tourism to the temple ruins. He told me that in just three years visits to the temple had gone from several hundred thousand annually to over two million. We can only guess what type of long-term impact so many people may have on this world heritage site. Degradation is a big problem and restoration projects have met with countless obstacles over the years. As a lay visitor you will (and rightly so) see the place in amazing shape considering the ravages of time and war. Nonetheless, there have been complaints in the preservation community considering things like the installation of flood lights that turn on at night. I can tell you these lights are absolutely beautiful, but probably not at all good for the longevity of the site. Apparently they drilled lots of holes to place the system that they shouldn’t have. The controversy still rages and only time will tell, if the way in which the system was installed will invite further water damage to the great structures. As we all know, sometimes it’s hard to know who to believe when passions run hot. New conservation projects have learned a great deal from previous errors and also about ancient Khmer building techniques, so there is hope.
The lay out of the “Greatest City” is a roughly square-shaped pattern, but technically its a rectangle. The city was once completely surrounded by its moat. A Cambodian friend had told me long before I ever visited that not all the moat of Angkor Thom is intact. Many ancient moats and canals throughout the region have long-since filled with sediments. The portions I saw along the South Gate Causeway were in great shape, but the eastern side is partly exposed towards the tail-end of the dry season. The city moat is as wide as the one surrounding Angkor Wat; though it was originally much longer as it wrapped around the entire 9 km² site. Folktales say that deadly crocodiles were placed in the moat, but this seems the product of overactive imaginations. It’s highly doubtful that such an unpredictable security measure was at all necessary. It does, however, make for a cool story!
The “Greatest City” is further protected by the city wall. Once you see this thing, replete with parapet and gate towers, one understands how unlikely vicious crocodile infested moats sound. I read that the outer curtain’s total length around the city is 12 kilometers and rises to the height of 8 meters. A total of five city gates interrupt these massive walls. Four of these gates are located at each of the cardinal points: north, south, east and west. The fifth gate, known as the Victory Gate is located on the eastern side of Angkor Thom. Each gate tower stands over twenty meters tall. They are all ornately decorated with the iconic image that many of you may know from watching television documentaries and Hollywood films.
King Jayavarman VI had his city dedicated to the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara and its that four-faced motif that one sees at the famed Bayon and the above entrances to the city gates. Some say that these intricate carvings are of the king himself. Others insist that it is the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. This male bodhisattva (enlightened being) is the female figure Guanyin of the Mahayana Buddhist traditions. It’s impossible to know how many people perished, building the “Greatest City”. The organized masses of people working on it must have been akin to the great armies of Egyptian citizens that worked on the ancient pyramids and temples as a form of both tax and religious devotion.
Historians aren’t sure what the city was called after its founding. They do know that name Angkor Thom would come later. As mentioned in my introduction to this post, Angkor Thom sits roughly upon the same site of an earlier Khmer capital, Yashodharapura. Due to its large size, it even overlaps parts of this former capital, having incorporated a number of temples (like Phimeanakas) that had been constructed decades or even centuries before. They may have just continued to call the city Yashodharapura in its first century of existence.
Once inside the city walls, our first stop was the Bayon, the official state temple of the city’s founding monarch, Jayavarman VI. A Buddhist temple dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, these ruins nevertheless display a curious fusion of Hindu imagery and cosmological elements. Before officially adopting Christianity, Rome went through a period that saw its emperors alternating between paganism and the teachings of Jesus. So too, the Ankorian empire saw a period where their rulers alternated between Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. For example, King Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana Buddhist monarch, but after him the empire saw a string of Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings, before the realm officially became a Theravada Buddhist country for good. This is why ruins throughout the city (like the Bayon) display a mix of images from both religious traditions.
The Bayon stands right smack in the middle of Angkor Thom. The entire set up of the city is like a map of the Hindu Cosmos with the main temple tower representing Mount Meru; a bridge between heaven and earth. The stairs leading to the upper level are very steep, so one has to be careful. Another thing I should mention is that the Bayon is nearly always packed with tourists. Although a beautiful experience, it can get a little claustrophobic. The temple has forty-four towers, each one decorated with the four-faces of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The ground level of the temple is awesome. A labyrinth of narrow passages opening up to small courtyards with the smiling faces of the bodhisattva visible from just about any corner of the compound. I find it really interesting that it was originally a Mahayana temple, because Cambodia, Thailand and Laos are exclusively Theravada Buddhist countries today.
After that we took a short walk over to the Baphuon temple. It’s very close to the Bayon temple and served as the state temple of the empire before Jayavarman VI had his city erected. Its form is a little bit like a step pyramid. They are still in the process of putting it back together and you can see mounds of numbered and unnumbered stones scattered about the outside of the Baphuon temple. I am not sure how far along in the reconstruction process they are, but I’m assuming from what I saw that they have a way to go yet. The coolest thing about this temple is that the inner wall on the second level (facing west) is actually a huge reclining Buddha.
It is often difficult to imagine what the entire city must have looked like in its heyday. The encroaching tropical foliage is not the only reason for this. Apparently only religious monuments were allowed to be rendered in stone. This means that everything else was made of wood and other perishable materials. Most of the ground within the city walls were in fact occupied by palaces, houses and other secular edifices that have not survived the ravages of time. If you look at the villages that dot the whole country, you get a vague idea of what it may have been like: elevated timber housing, roads, alleys, open markets and masses of traders, craftsmen, servants and slaves going about their daily business and chores, while armies of Buddhist monks and nuns roaming about the city streets with their begging bowls in hand, while others attended to the many temples and shrines of the capital. Most of this area is now covered by forest, brush and jungle. Entire neighborhoods completely obscured, waiting to be uncovered.
It was a long day for us and the above is just an overview of the basic lay out and highlights on a few of its more popular sites. The enclosure of the Royal Palace is just aside the Baphuon, but alas there is no palace to be seen. Such magnificent buildings were largely timber constructions and though hard for me to find, only a few posst holes possibly for wooden columns remain. There are several other temples that we visited on previous trips, like the Mangalartha and Phimeanakas temples. The latter within the enclosure. Also the royal viewing platform known as the Terrace of Elephants. I hope everyone reading this has the opportunity to visit this amazing place.