Angkor Thom - The Great City
By: Jon McCoy..Picture by: Sem Vannjohn. ( November, 2002 Volume 2 No.11 )

The ruins at Angkor in Siem Reap province attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Some people come back to the same sites again and again, and on each visit experience a different sensation. Besides the magnificent Angkor Wat, perhaps the most remarkable of Angkor's temples is Angkor Thom. Angkor Thom, the last capital and the opulent great city of King Jayavarman VII (who reigned from 1181-1220) is a truly amazing sight. Its South gate, which is itself a masterpiece of stone carving, causes many visitors to stop and take a photograph. The signature faces of the Bayon on the top of the gate are very well preserved. Flanked by warriors lifting two enormous seven-headed Nagas to guard the gate, this is a great place to take a picture.
About 1.5 km past the gate sits the site of one of the most enigmatic temples of the Angkor group - the Bayon Temple. Over 200 regal faces, each expressing a slightly different smile, are carved on the 54 towers in the complex. The four faces on each tower are thought to symbolize the omnipresence of King Jayavarman VII, although some scholars think they represent the Boddhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Im).

Despite an overall Hindu and Brahmin influence throughout the Angkor complex, the Bayon Temple is believed to be a Buddhist monument, judging from some of the scenes carved on its walls. The temple of the smiling faces has earned itself a reputation matched only by the magnificent Angkor Wat itself. The carvings and bas-reliefs on its exterior walls depict scenes from everyday life - markets, festivals, fishing, cockfights, jugglers, wrestlers, processions, battles - and mythical scenes. On almost every pillar are delicate carvings of Apsara dancers and through almost every doorway you can enjoy different views of the many faces of Jayavarman VII. It is endlessly fascinating to watch the shifting light create new shadows and highlights on the faces as the sun moves around the temple. The Phimean Akas temple was where the king worshipped. Legend has it that a nine-headed Naga (mythical snake) that lived in the temple transformed itself into a beautiful woman in order to seduce the king. The woman insisted that the king slept with her every night before he returned home to his wives and concubines - otherwise, she said, he would die. Despite its poor condition, Phimean Akas is still a charming temple.
The Elephant Terrace is another fascinating site that stretches some 300 meters, from the Baphuon to the terrace of the Leper King. The terrace and its interior retaining walls are covered in beautiful bas-relief carvings of elephants. Huge sculptures of three-headed elephants plucking lotus flowers with their trunks form columns that flank the stairway. Explore the walls of the inner platform by going down the flights of steps and into every corner and gangway. There are countless bas-reliefs of elephants, all in different poses. On one of the platforms behind the outer wall a large horse with five heads stands on each side of the inner retaining wall, surrounded by menacing demons armed with sticks, who are pursuing obviously terrified people. These sculptures are unusually deep and well-preserved, and the entire site is breath-taking.
Moving on, we come to the terrace of the Leper King, where more dramatic carvings and bas-reliefs abound. It is here that scholars insist some of the carvings of naked figures are Javanese in style. The site got its name from the statue of the Leper King on the platform of the terrace. The statue seated at the site is only a replica: the original is now in the National Museum in Phnom Penh. On the walls, mythical beings, giants with many arms, serpents, nagas, garudas, naked women, fishes and elephants are all depicted in exceptionally clear bas-relief. All in all, the ancient city of Angkor Thom is a great place to visit. Its numerous fascinating features are perhaps the reason why visitors keep coming back for more. The familiar face of the Bayon at every gate perfectly symbolizes the omnipresence of a great King.