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Angkor beyond Angkor Wat

Indochina Day Five, part two

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The Bayon, Angkor Thom

Although Angkor Wat is the most famous sight in Angkor, it is not the only one by any means, despite the fact that the two names are often used interchangeably. Angkor in fact means ‘city’ and Angkor Wat the ‘city temple’. But there are over a thousand temples, ranging in scale from mere piles of rubble scattered through rice fields to Angkor Wat itself. Of course it is impossible to visit them all, even on a visit of several days, and we didn’t have several days, only one. Certainly we could have managed to fit in a second day but decided not to – partly because tickets are sold either for one day or three so it would have made it quite expensive, but mainly because Chris is less interested in historical sights than I am and it seemed only fair to split our time in Siem Reap between past (today) and present (tomorrow).

So with a day in which to explore, Angkor Wat ‘ticked off’ the list, and breakfast out of the way, it was time to move on.

Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom means ‘Great City’ and this is the largest complex at Angkor by some way. Unlike Angkor Wat, which is (despite having a number of separate structures) a single site, here there are a number of different places to visit within the walls that encircle the city.

Angkor Thom is also a little newer than Angkor Wat. The former was built under King Suryavarman II between 1113 and 1150. After his death (probably in battle) a period of instability ensued in the Khmer kingdom. The capital city, then known as Yasodharapura, was captured by forces from Cham to the east (what is now southern Vietnam) and killed the ruling king Tribhuvanadityavarman. But a Khmer prince rallied his people and defeated the Cham. He then, in 1181, ascended the throne as King Jayavarman VII and built a new city, Angkor Thom, partly over the ruins of Yasodharapura. Within its walls he built the temple of Bayon, a royal palace and many other structures. In fact though, the name of Angkor Thom only came into use in the 16th century – prior to that the Khmer would have used the old name of Yasodharapura.

The city gates

Jayavarman VII’s city covered an area of about 9 square kilometres, surrounded by a wall pierced with five gates – one on the north, south, and west sides, and two on the east.

Sam took us first to see the South Gate. The bridge approaching the gate has a balustrade on either side shaped like a naga or multi-headed snake.

Causeway to the south gate

This is held in place by statues of gods on the left, and statues of demons known as asuras on the right, holding the snakes as if engaged in a tug of war, as in the Churning of the Sea of Milk story also told in the bas reliefs at Angkor Wat (see my previous entry). There would once have been figures like these each of the causeways leading to Angkor Thom’s gates but most have been stolen, lost or damaged over the centuries – this is the only one where the lines of gods and demons are close to complete. Here some of the lost ones have been replaced with modern copies, one of which even has an accurately reproduced broken-off nose!

A god on the left, demon on the right

The gate itself has four faces at the top, looking to the north, south, east and west. The faces are said by most sources to depict King Jayavarman VII himself, as do all of the many faces on the structures of Angkor Thom, in particular the Bayon Temple (he must have been something of a narcissist, to say the least! In the four corners at the foot of the gate stand three-headed elephants, in rather poor condition. They are depicted plucking lotus flowers with their three trunks, which form slender pillars.

The south gate of Angkor Thom

Carving on the gate, and a three-headed elephant

After taking photos here we returned to the car to enter Angkor Thom by the Victory Gate, one of the two on the east side. I’m not sure why Sam did this – most people coming from Angkor Wat, as we were, use the nearer South Gate, but he may have been trying to avoid the busiest paths on the approach to our next sight, the Bayon Temple. Certainly we had a pleasant walk through the shady trees (the day was rapidly getting hotter), to the sounds of a small group of musicians playing traditional music. All of them had been badly injured by landmines, a major issue for Cambodia, and despite their resulting disabilities had learned to play these instruments as a way of earning some money. Of course we made a donation in appreciation of the music that had brightened our walk.

Arriving from the east also brought us directly to the main entrance of the Bayon.

The Bayon Temple

The Bayon

In the heart of his new city King Jayavarman VII built a temple, Prasat Bayon, probably starting around 1200. This was the last state temple to be built at Angkor and as the king was a Buddhist is primarily a Buddhist shrine but with a nod too to Hinduism and to local animist deities.

It was originally called Jayagiri, Victory Mountain, but later, during the period of French occupancy, was renamed Banyan (because the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment under a banyan tree). When the local Khmer came here to work on its restoration they mispronounced the name as ‘Bayon’ and somehow it stuck.

The Bayon is most famous for the gigantic faces on its towers, all identical. It is thought by many that this is the face of Jayavarman, as on the gates of the city, while others say that the faces are those of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Both theories could be correct in fact; the Khmer kings typically regarded themselves (and were treated) as deities, and what is more likely than that a Buddhist ruler would want to be identified with such a bodhisattva, if not with the Buddha himself?

Some of the faces of the Bayon

The original number of towers is disputed – most say 49 but some as many as 54. Today only 37 remain, but they are still an impressive sight, creating the impression of a mountain range with many peaks. Equally the number of faces is uncertain, and even today visitors apparently don’t all find the same number, but the figure most often cited is 216.

The upper level of the temple was undergoing restoration and therefore closed but this didn't really impact at all on our visit, and this was my favourite of all the places we visited in Angkor, not only because of the mysterious faces that looked down on us at every turn but also the intricate bas reliefs.

Sam pointed out the various stories that these tell. As at Angkor Wat there were battle scenes with generals riding elephants and foot soldiers carrying spears, and a naval battle.

Generals and foot soldiers
~note the apsara on the shield

But I liked best the ones that showed the details of daily life in those times: monkeys trained to climb trees and pick the coconuts; a little pig caught up in the wheels of an ox cart; a man blowing on the fire beneath a cooking pot to fame the flames; even a woman giving birth, assisted by a midwife.

Monkey picking coconuts

A pig stuck in the wheels of a cart

A family on foot
~ the woman is carrying a baby on her back

A woman giving birth

I confess I got rather confused among all the twists and turns (the layout of the Bayon is quite complex, owing to the many alterations and restorations over the years) so I have no idea where each of the photos below were taken. But part of the charm of a visit here is to wander among the stone galleries to see what you come across, so in a way it doesn’t really matter. There are delights, and faces, wherever you look!


In the Bayon

Devata carvings

Lintel detail

We finally left the Bayon on its northern side where some dancers in traditional costume were standing, presumably waiting for any tourists willing to pay to see them perform – we were not, but I did grab a few photos!

Dancers at the Bayon

Royal Palace area

From Bayon we walked towards what little remains of the royal palace, originally built on this site by Suryavarman I and used by subsequent kings until the end of the 16th century. Because most of the buildings would have been of wood (stone was reserved for religious structures) they have nor survived, but Sam pointed out some of the foundations and the encircling wall.

More interesting by far was the Terrace of the Elephants, a 350 metre long platform used by Jayavarman VII to review his troops. Some elephants are depicted facing forwards, their trunk forming a pillar like those of the three-headed ones we had seen at the south gate but most are bas reliefs.


The Elephant Terrace

The elephants in the parade may look appealing but if you look closely you can see that some are fighting water buffalo and one appears to be mauling a child.

Elephant apparently mauling a child

In the centre as a break from the elephants is a frieze of garudas and mythical lion-men.

Garuda and lion-men

From the Elephant Terrace we walked through the eastern gopura (gate) of the Royal Palace which is aligned with the centre of the terrace and Angkor Thom’s Victory Gate beyond. Sam pointed out an inscription on this which he told us was in an ancient script, but I’ve not been able to trace any info about this.

Eastern gopura and Sanskrit inscription


We passed the small 10th century Phimeanakas Temple built by Suryavarman I, which was being restored, its surrounding moat drained.

Phimeanakas Temple - south side

Phimeanakas Temple - east side

Beyond this we came to the royal swimming pools, large and small, where the king would have watched aquatic sports.

A Royal Palace swimming pool

Our last sight in Angkor Thom was the Terrace of the Leper King, built during Jayavarman VII's reign, which like the Elephant Terrace overlooks the royal parade ground. The main relief carvings are at the back and can be seen from a trench-like path, so were not so well lit for photography.

The Terrace of the Leper King


Statue of the Leper King

The name of the terrace comes from a 15th-century sculpture discovered at the site. This most likely depicts the Hindu god Yama, the god of death, although there are many other theories. One of these is that it is of a late 9th century Angkorian king, Yasovarman I, who had leprosy, while another suggests that it got its name because the moss growing on it made it look like someone with leprosy. Suggestions that it depicts Jayavarman VII himself and that he too had leprosy, and therefore built many hospitals throughout the empire, have been discredited, I believe, although that is the version told to us by Sam.

The Tourism Cambodia website describes him thus:

'The stone monarch is absolutely naked, his hair is plaited and he sits in the Javanese fashion. The legs are too short for the torso, and the forms, much too rounded, lack the strong protuberances of manly muscles; but, however glaring are his defects, he has many beauties, and as a study of character he is perhaps the masterpiece of Khmer sculpture. Whilst his body is at rest his soul boils within him.

His features are full of passion, with thick lips, energetic chin, full cheeks, aquiline nose and clear brow... his mouth, slightly open, showing the teeth. this peculiarity of the teeth being shown in a smile is absolutely and strangely unique in Cambodian art.'

The statue seen here today (in front of the terrace rather than on top where it would have stood, is a copy - the original is in the court-yard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh where we had seen it a couple of days previously (see https://toonsarah.travellerspoint.com/413/).

I was tiring by now so when I saw some refreshment stalls near this entrance I suggested we stop for a break and a cold drink. Sam seemed ready for a break too so we sat for a short while over our drinks. We got chatting to a friendly young couple from Chile, now living in China, and I bought a scarf for $3 from one of the rather persistent hawkers. I had resolved to resist their pleas to buy, and clearly failed in that endeavour - but it is a nice scarf!

Tuk tuk driver by the Terrace of the Leper King

Ta Prohm

Then it was back in the car to drive to Ta Prohm, which had been high on my must-see list. This is sometimes known as the Tomb Raider temple because some of the scenes were filmed there. It is famous (and popular) because unlike some of the other temples the surrounding vegetation has been allowed to ‘take over’ the structures, with trees growing out of the very stones in places. This was a deliberate decision by the French body that oversaw the huge task of conserving and restoring the monuments of Angkor in the early twentieth century, the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, who choose Ta Prohm as the temple to be left in its natural state as an example of how most of Angkor looked when first ‘discovered’ by Europeans in the 19th century. Of course this didn’t mean totally neglecting the structure but rather carefully conserving it so that the trees remained but weren’t allowed to further destroy it – an ongoing task.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm was built during the last decades of the 12th century by King Jayavarman VII and was originally called Rajavihara, meaning ‘Royal Monastery’. As I mentioned above, this was a Buddhist king so this was a Buddhist monastery. Scholars know quite a lot about it because of a stele found at the site, dated 1186 and written in ancient Sanskrit. It tells us that the site was home to more than 12,500 people, including 18 high priests and 615 dancers, and that there were a further almost 80,000 living in the surrounding villages providing services and supplies. The stele also records the riches amassed by the temple, such as gold, pearls and silks. The stele also mentions that at the time there were 102 hospitals spread over the Khmer empire and 121 rest houses spread over the empire, along the major routes from Angkor to places as far away as Phimai in Thailand or Champa in present day Vietnam.

By the time we arrived here the sun was climbing higher so the light was a bit flat and harsh for photos, added to which there was quite a crowd of people when we first went in, queuing to take a photo of one of the most iconic 'tree root and temple' images. We didn’t join the queue, as taking selfies in front of the sights doesn’t interest either of us. But I did attempt, and sort-of succeed, to get some photos of the tree itself, grabbing them as one tourist left their stance in front of it and before another arrived to pose!

The most photographed tree at Ta Prohm

But then Sam led us a few metres further and around a corner, and suddenly there was only a handful of tourists and an unobstructed view of the same tree from the far side.

From the other side of the wall!

There are two types of tree at Ta Prohm. The tall ones with large roots (like the one above) are silk-cotton trees or Ceiba pentandra, while the smaller ones with thinner cascading roots are strangler figs, Ficus gibbosa.



Trees and tree roots

For the rest of our time in Ta Prohm we had large parts almost to ourselves, with only a sprinkling of other visitors. It seems most people come to get that shot and move on. But there is a labyrinth of chambers and passages to explore, which we wandered through with Sam – such a shame that most people miss it. Or maybe not, as we enjoyed the peace and quiet here once we’d left the crowd behind.

And as we were to see there is much more to Ta Prohm than one tree, with some beautiful carvings of dancing girls and ornate doorways – and several more such trees!

Devata carvings


Doorways and tumbled stones

Unfinished carving

Banteay Kdei

The last temple we went to was Banteay Kdei, which has a peaceful setting among the trees. It was built in the mid 12th to early 13th centuries AD, during the reign of Jayavarman VII – the king who had defeated the Cham and built the new capital city of Angkor Thom, the Bayon and Ta Prohm. Banteay Kdei is smaller than any of those and was built as a Buddhist monastery on the site of a temple built by Rajendravarman, a 10th century Khmer king.

Unlike the other places we went at Angkor, we had this almost to ourselves – just two other couples were exploring with their guides. We approached from the east, passing through the gopura which has the same enigmatic face (Jayavarman VII? Avalokitesvara?) as the Bayon.

Gopura, Banteay Kdei

Beyond this we came to the main entrance causeway (a later addition) which is guarded by stone lions and naga balustrades.

The causeway

Approaching Banteay Kdei

The entrance

In the entrance to the temple is a Buddha statue in very good condition (surprisingly good given that this temple was disfigured by Hindus in the 13th century). It is clearly still the focus for Buddhist worship like those at Angkor Wat.

Buddha at the entrance to Banteay Kdei

Beyond that entrance is a library, a later addition to the temple.

The library

The first main chamber here is known as the ‘Hall of the Dancing Girls' because of the number of apsaras and devatas carved on the walls.


The Hall of the Dancing Girls

Beyond this are two rectangular galleries, rather like cloisters, one inside the other and with cross passages. Everything is on one level, unlike the Bayon for instance, and its easy to just wander and yet feel you’ve taken everything in. Unlike the statue outside, images of the Buddha inside have been defaced, destroyed or stolen.

Destroyed statue
~ a Buddha maybe?


The temple has not been very much restored and perhaps because of that has lots of atmosphere. A few trees are growing out of the stones, much as at Ta Prohm, and because it was built of soft sandstone many of the galleries and porches have collapsed. You can see in one of my photos above, of the Hall of the Dancing Girls, how the tower is being held together with blue tape.

When we emerged at the western end Sam led us back around the outside on the southern side, and here we were completely alone – no other visitors to be seen apart from an occasional glimpse of one within the temple. It was the perfect spot from which to get our last views of an Angkor ruin.


Banteay Kdei from the south

Time to relax

Refreshing mango juice

By the time we left Banteay Kdei it was very hot, we had been on the go for nearly ten hours, and I was tired, so in many ways I wasn't sorry to stop at that point, although I was also conscious that this would be our only day at the temples and it was only early afternoon. It made no difference anyway – as I said in my previous entry, Sam clearly had our day's itinerary all worked out and it wasn't really down to us to decide which temples, and how many, to see. Nevertheless it had been a fascinating and fulfilling morning, and had left me with lots to digest and a digital mountain of photos to sort and edit.

We were dropped off back at the Moon Residence and had sandwiches for a late lunch in the bar/restaurant. We then took it easy for the rest of the afternoon, sorting the piles of photos and relaxing after the early start and busy morning.

In the evening we took a tuk-tuk to a restaurant on the far side of town that had been recommended by Selective Asia, Viroth. It proved a good choice, with good food, friendly service and tables set out under trees on a terrace. I especially liked my chicken cooked with lemongrass (too much so to photograph that dish, it seems!)

In Viroth

Spring rolls

Banana pancakes

Then it was another tuk-tuk back in time for an early night. The journey took a little longer, as the driver at first set off in completely the wrong direction (away from rather than towards and across the river), even though I’d shown him a business card from the hotel. It was a few minutes before we realised and another few before we could alert him and convince him of his mistake, but once he turned around we were back soon enough.

And at least tomorrow would be taken at a more relaxed pace.

Posted by ToonSarah 12:23 Archived in Cambodia Tagged trees architecture restaurant history ruins cambodia buddhism angkor_thom angkor ta_prohm archaeology banteay_kdei

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I loved your description of a "digital mountain" of photographs Sarah. Throughout today's reading, I was constantly thankful for the fact we have digital cameras today. I cannot imagine how you would have chosen what to photograph were we still using films.

I think I shall have to read this several times to take in all that you have written and illustrated.

I had to smile at your having to tell the local taxi driver the way to your hotel as that is exactly what happened to some of us in a taxi last year in Plovdiv when we were driven in exactly the opposite direction to the restaurant where we were to eat!

by Yvonne Dumsday

My favourite when we visited was Ta Prohm, because it had been left with the jungle growing all over it. We also spent a lot of time there. I loved the mysterious faces of the Bayon, too. I don't think we visited Banteay Kdei, but it looks fantastic. Well worth returning to see. You've certainly got a good eye for detail. I was impressed by how much you noticed on the bas reliefs.

by irenevt

Fascinating to try to work out the details of some of these sculptures and bas reliefs.

by Nemorino

Thank you all

You're right Yvonne, it would have been so hard to decide what to photograph and what not in the old days of expensive film - and what if I had got home, had the film developed and discovered that most of the images were disappointing?!

Irene, I like Ta Prohm a lot too, but I think Banteay Kdei was my favourite after the Bayon, partly because it was so quiet and also small enough to take everything in. As for noticing so much on the bas reliefs, that was thanks to Sam pointing out so many of the details!

by ToonSarah

very interesting - I'm glad it was you and not me. I couldn't take the heat.

by greatgrandmaR

It wasn't too hot for the first part of the morning, Rosalie - we had started so early that it was only around 9.00 / 10.00 when we were at the Bayon. But it did get a bit much for me by the middle of the day, I have to say. I'm not much good once it gets above 30 C

by ToonSarah

I confess I have not done much reading about the temples of Cambodia so I am finding all of this completely fascinating. Especially like the statues lining the causeway, and other carvings you saw throughout the day. Great photos of every place and every thing, Sarah. And, your dinner at Viroth looks delicious! Another great day for you & Chris!

by starship VT

So glad you're finding this of interest Sylvia :) And thank you for the kind words about the photos!

by ToonSarah

For one day, you guys certainly have seen a lot and looking at your pictures of Ta Prohm, it wasn't possible to do so when we were there. You were lucky!

Nice to read it all again.

by Ils1976

Yes Ils, we did well at Ta Prohm. It amazed me that hardly anyone else bothered to explore beyond that first tree!

by ToonSarah

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