The fortified city of Angkor Thom (Great Angkor or Great City), some 10sq km in extent, was built by Angkor’s greatest king, Jayavarman VII (r 1181-219), who came to power following the disastrous sacking I the previous Khmer capital by the Chams. At its height, it may have supported a population of one million people in the surrounding region.
Centred on the Bayon, Angkor Thorn is enclosed by a jayagiri (square wall) 8m high and 12km in length and encircled by jayasindhu (moat) 100m wide, said to have been inhabited by fierce crocodiles. This is yet another monumental expression of Mt Meru surrounded by the oceans.
The city has five monumental gates, one each in the northern, western and southern walls and two in the eastern wall. The gates, which are 20m in height, are decorated with stone elephant trunks and crowned by four gargantuan faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara facing the cardinal directions. In front of each gate stands giant statues of 54 gods (to the left of the causeway) and 54 demons (to the right of the causeway), a motif taken from the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk illustrated in the famous bas-relief at Angkor Wat. The south gate is most popular with visitors, as it has been fully restored and many of the heads (usually copies) remain in place. However, this gate is on the main road into Angkor Born from Angkor Wat, and it gets very busy. More peaceful are the east and west gates, found at the end of uneven trails. The cast .gate was most recently used as a location on Tomb Raider when the bad guys broke into the “tomb” by pulling down a giant (polystyrene!) apsara. The causeway at the west gate has completely collapsed, leaving a jumble of ancient stonal sticking out of the soil like victims of a terrible historical pile-up.
The Southern Gate
In the centre of the walled enclosure are the city’s most importaint monuments, including the Bayon, the Baphuon, the Royal Enclosure, Phimeanakas and the Terrace of Elephants,
Unique even among its cherished contemporaries, Bayon epitomizes the creative genius and inflated ego of Cambodia’s legendary king, Jayavarman VII. It’s a place of stooped corridors, precipitous flights of stairs and, best of all, a collection of 54 gothic towers decorated with 216 coldly smiling, enormous faces of Avalokiteshvara that bear more than a passing resemblance to the great king himself. These huge heads glare down from every angle exuding power and control with a hint of humanity – this was precisely the blend required to hold sway over such a vast empire, ensuring the disparate and far-flung population yielded to his magnanimous will. As you walk around, a dozen or more of the heads are visible at any one time – full -face or in profile, almost level with your eyes or staring down from on high.
Bayon is now known to have been built by Jayavarman VII, though for many years its origins were not known. Shrouded in dense jungle, it also took researchers some time to realize that it stands in the exact centre of the city of Angkor Thom. There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face.
A number of locals suggest that the Khmer empire was divided into 54 provinces at the time of Bayon’s construction, hence the all-seeing eyes of Avalokiteshvara (or Jayavarman VII) were keeping watch on the kingdom’s outlying subjects.
The eastward orientation of Bayon leads most people to visit it early in the morning, preferably just after sunrise, when the sun inches upwards, lighting face after face with warmth. Bayon, however, looks equally good in the late afternoon, and if you stay for the sunset you get the same effect as at sunrise, in reverse. A Japanese team is restoring several outer areas of the temple.
Baphuon would have been one of the most spectacular of Angkor’s temples in its heyday. Located 200m northwest of Bayon, it’s a pyramid’s representation of mythical Mt Meru Construction probably began under Suryavarman I and was later completed by Udayadityavarman II (r 1049-65). It marked the centre of the city that existed before the construction of Angkor Thom.
Baphuon was the centre of EFEO restoration efforts when the Cambodian civil war erupted and work paused for a quarter of a century. The temple was taken apart piece by piece, in keeping with the anastylosis method of renovation, but all the records were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, leaving experts with die world’s largest jigsaw puzzle. The EFEO resumed a 10-year restoration programme in 1995, which should see the temple fully reopen to the public during 2005. Baphuon is approached by a 200m elevated walkway made of sandstone, and the central structure is 43m high.
On the western side of the temple, the retaining wall of the second level was fashioned – apparently in the 15th or 16th century – into a reclining Buddha 40m in length. The unfinished figure is difficult to make out, but the head is on the northern side of the wall and the gate is where the hips should be; to the left of the gate protrudes an arm. When it comes to the legs and feet – the latter are entirely gone – imagination must suffice. This huge project undertaken by the Buddhist faithful 500 years ago demonstrates that Angkor was never entirely abandoned.