Sublime smiles and long corridors. Angkor Thom and Preah Khan
Angkor Thom, the Great City is as enigmatic as it is impressive. A vast walled city which at its heart stands Bayon, the mighty temple of smiles.
The city was built by Jayavarman VII after he reclaimed Angkor back from the Chams in 1181. The Cham had sacked Angkor Wat after the death of Suryavarman II.
Jayavarman VII began a huge building campaign that resulted in a number of temples, including Ta Prohm and Preah Khan, and the great walled city of Angkor Thom. The city walls were built around existing structures, Phimeanakas, the royal palace, and Baphuon, a temple dating from 1050.
At the centre of the city he built the majestic Bayon, a new state temple dedicated to Buddha. Its many sublime faces are thought to represent bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of infinite compassion, but they could also be the face of Jayavarman VII. Maybe they are both, a vision of a King and a bodhisattva.
The temple is another earthly representation of Mount Meru, the mountain at the heart of the Hindu and Buddhist faiths. Below the huge faces is a warren of low corridors and staircases that lead up to the summit, a central tower. There are more towers at the cardinal points and all of the towers have giant faces gazing out on every side.
Visit Bayon at sunrise to enjoy this mystical temple in peace, to wander the quiet corridors and feel the powerful scrutiny of the 200 faces as you reach the higher terraces of the temple. As the sun rises it illuminates the faces one by one, warming their cheeks with a soft orange glow.
Once the sun is up the tourists will start to flood into Bayon, swarming around the terraces, marvelling at the faces. The peace is shattered but the faces seem oblivious.
Now’s the time to explore the lower corridors, the tourists are busy, they can’t wait to reach the top, the faces. The corridors are dark and lead down to the outer walls of the temple through many doorways and past delicate carvings that reveal the Hindu origins of the base of Bayon.
The outer walls are like a vast story book, detailing the history of Angkor Thom in a frieze of incredible bas-reliefs. These carved images show battles both on land and by sea between the Khmer and the Cham, and the subsequent defeat of the Cham. There are also mythical scenes and scenes from day-to-day life. Some of the reliefs are in better condition than others but they all give a fascinating, detailed insight into the lives of the Khmer living in Angkor Thom.
The best way to explore the rest of sprawling Angkor Thom is by bicycle, a relaxed way to potter from one sight to the next.
The poor elephants who pace around Bayon with a weighty howdah of bored-looking tourists would certainly prefer you to ride a bicycle rather than them. Their life is a miserable routine, they may once have been destined to roam wild in the jungles of Burma, where they were poached as calves, but not any more.
A bicycle can be propped up against a tree while you wander off and explore the Terrace of the Elephants in front of the Royal Palace enclosure. The stone elephants would have made a formidable frontage to the enclosure, life-sized and clasping lotus flowers in their long trunks. The terrace was used as a grand platform for royal events, it must have looked incredible in its zenith.
Just to the north of the Terrace of the Elephants is the Terrace of the Leper King. Another platform, this one is a curiosity. It’s not only the name that conjures up questions, within the terrace is a hidden wall of carvings that may never have been designed to be seen. This may have something to do with funerary rites, or simply that the terraced was enlarged at some point.
The strange name seems to come from a small statue on top of the terrace, the figure is thought to represent a Khmer King who suffered from leprosy.
Behind the Terrace of the Elephants is the Royal Enclosure, a walled area of pools and temples. The Royal Palace once stood here too but none of it remains. Phimeanakas is a ruined pyramid-style temple that translates as Celestial Palace, it was already standing when the city of Angkor Thom was being constructed around it.
The nearby royal pools now make a refreshing dip for the locals, a grand swimming pool if ever there was one.
Beyond the walls of the Royal Enclosure lies the earlier temple of Baphuon. This enormous pyramid temple pre-dates Angkor Wat and was the largest temple up till then. It is a Hindu temple built to represent Mount Meru and has a wonderful 200 metre long raised walkway leading up to it.
Around the back of the temple the reconstructed blocks appear to form a huge reclining Buddha, we failed to see this, choosing not to go round, underestimating the largeness of it. Fools!
The scale of Baphuon is impressive, even in its ruined state it leaves you feeling small, a monument to the gods. The reclining Buddha was a later addition, when seemingly the temple was already suffering from the soft ground beneath it. It has been heavily reconstructed, an immense jigsaw puzzle.
Another of Jayavarman VIIs’ temples to visit at peaceful sunrise is Preah Khan, a wonderful sprawl of a temple that is best appreciated without the crowds. Arriving just after sunrise should ensure few visitors and beautiful morning light, it’s worth an early wake-up call.
This is a temple of corridors, doorway through doorway, past bas-reliefs to the central sanctuary and a large stone stupa. It is a temple to explore, wandering through the maze. Bats roost in some of the cross-ways, peppering ancient stone yoni and linga and leaving a potent scent that drifts down the corridors.
Beyond the shady corridors, out into the new day, the temple grounds stretch out, enclosed by a wall. The low sun picks out detail in the temple walls.
The original entrance was through the east gate but most tuk-tuk drivers will send you in through the opposite west gate. The east gates brings you into an open area of colonnaded buildings and paved causeways leading through to the temple. This looks wonderful in the hazy early morning light, ask your driver.
The other treat if you enter through the east gate is the monumental tree roots devouring the eastern wall. Preah Khan is slowly being restored and much of the jungle has been cleared but some trees still remain to add drama and atmosphere to the temple.
Take time to stroll around the outer grounds of Preah Khan, to get an idea of its size and also to appreciate the romance to the site, a temple in the jungle.
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By Rachel Davis