Another great site to visit in Siem Reap’s Small Circuit is vast Angkor Thom. Established in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII, the place is described by Wikipedia as “the last enduring capital city of the Khmer empire”. So, basically, this is a lost city! #goosebumps
A few hours prior to setting foot here, my friends and I got to see Angkor Wat and just how grand it is. Angkor Thom’s scale is also immense! We couldn’t possibly see all of it because aside from the fact that it was mid-afternoon already, we were getting tired from all the walking we did that day. Plus, it was sooo hot yet it started drizzling…
Fortunately our guide noticed our hesitation so he just took us to the highlights of the place.
Terrace of the Elephants
The main beasts of burden in the ancient Khmer civilization are, you guessed it, the elephants. They carried all sorts of loads for merchants and they were even used in war. So it just makes sense that they feature prominently on carvings and bas reliefs. Now back to the Terrace of the Elephants – this is basically a platform where the king used to survey his returning victorious armies and be all badass. The terrace also functioned as a sort of receiving hall or a ceremonial platform.
While there, I felt like if I imagined hard enough I’ll be able to create an epic novel about monarchs sending their ferocious armies and elephant soldiers to battle. Oh wait, didn’t Lord of the Rings did that already? They even had mammoths and orcs. Damn.
The Leper King’s Crematorium
Now read that again and tell me it’s not interesting. How would a leprous king rule and how would he be viewed by the people? Would he be loved? Hated? Reviled? Unfortunately, we are only left to imagine because the Leper King is swathed in mystery. Even historians and archaeologists, professionals as they are, can only come up with theories. Lacking substantial evidence, we may never know what the heck happened.
Also known as the Terrace of the Leper King, this part of Angkor Thom stands out because of the decorations and the statue at the top. The carvings and bas reliefs are quite grand and detailed. They definitely make you think that the terrace is something very important, otherwise they wouldn’t have spent so much time making it awesome. Then there’s the statue at the top, which is seated in typical Javanese fashion. It is however naked and apparently that is an unusual thing in Khmer art. Was he unclothed because he was a leper? Who knows.
Many theories have been put forth about this terrace but what our guide told us was that the area is a king’s crematorium. Considering how ornate the place is, that would make sense. If that was where monarchs were cremated, then the platform has to be totally ceremonial, meaning highly decorated with all the religious symbology of the era.
Located inside Angkor Thom is this three-tiered mountain-temple style place of worship. Looking at it, I can recall Mayan temples and the pyramids. It’s certainly an interesting structure, made more captivating by the giant, albeit faded, reclining Buddha statue on one side. It was constructed to honor the Hindu god Shiva, but eventually got converted to a Buddhist temple, hence the huge Buddha. This conversion of Hindu temples to Buddhist ones and vice versa is quite common in the area.
Other Interesting Stuff
As mentioned, Angkor Thom is vast but with the limited time and energy we had, it was just impossible to see every corner of it. We spent, I think, another couple of hours there or maybe less. All the highlights above that we saw were definitely interesting, but then again I’m into this stuff. For many people, visiting the Small Circuit sites in one day can lead to being templed out. Still, give this area a shot and open your mind. 🙂
Here are other things we saw there that I felt are worth sharing.
Hope you enjoyed this post; next up is the Bayon. And as I am writing this on the first day of 2016, let me note my resolution to get this blog, or at least this Siem Reap series, up to speed as soon as possible. I’m quite excited to write the Japan series afterwards, so do check back for that. Happy new year!