Cambodia // Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor //

Angkor Thom

The wall of the city is some five miles in circumference. It has five gates each with double portals … Outside the wall stretches a great moat, across which access to the city is given by massive causeways. Flanking the causeways on each side are fifty-four divinities resembling war-lords in stone, huge and terrifying…

Zhou Daguan, visited Angkor Thom 1296–97

The wall of the city is some five miles in circumference. It has five gates each with double portals… Outside the wall stretches a great moat, across which access to the city is given by massive causeways. Flanking the causeways on each side are fifty-four divinities resembling war-lords in stone, huge and terrifying…

Still recognizable from this description by the Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan, who visited the Khmer court at the end of the thirteenth century, the ruins of the great city of ANGKOR THOM form the physical and architectural centrepiece of Angkor, home to a trio of state temples – Baphuon, Phimeanakas and the spectacular Bayon – as well as numerous other royal, religious and secular structures. The former city itself covers an area of three square kilometres, enclosed by a wide moat and an 8m-high wall reinforced by a wide earth embankment (constructed by Jayavarman VII after the city had been sacked by the Cham in 1177). Sanctuary towers stand at each corner of the walls, which are pierced by five much-photographed entry gates – one per cardinal direction, plus an additional eastern portal, the Victory Gate. Each gate is topped by a tower carved with four huge faces looking out in the cardinal directions and approached via a causeway lined with huge naga balustrades. Nominally, these faces are said to represent the bodhisattva Lokesvara, although they also bear a certain similarity to carved images of Jayavarman VII himself, perhaps symbolizing the far-reaching gaze of the king over his lands and subjects.

The site is most usually approached from Angkor Wat through the 23m-high south gate and along a 100m-long stone causeway flanked by a massive naga balustrade, with 54 almond-eyed gods on one side, and 54 round-eyed demons on the other holding a pair of nine-headed nagas, which are said to protect the city’s wealth. Most of the heads here are replicas, the originals having been either stolen or removed for safety to the Angkor National Museum. The base of the gateway itself is decorated with sculptures of Indra on a three-headed elephant; the elephant’s trunks hold lotus blossoms that droop to the ground, doubling as improvised columns.