Out of 5 gates that afford access to the royal Khmer city of Angkor Thom, only two are heavily trafficked. Being on the Petit Circuit through Angkor Archaeological Park, both South Gate (the busiest one, because it’s also part of the Grand Circuit) and Victory Gate have people passing through them often. Since Angkor Thom North Gate is on the Grand Circuit and off the itinerary vast majority of visitors to Angkor restrict themselves to, it is a much quieter gate than the other two.
Angkor Thom’s square shaped exterior wall has one entrance gate on cardinal point, except from the east wall, which has two – East Gate and Victory Gate. East Gate, even though it’s in the middle of the wall and in line with Bayon, sees very little in terms of traffic because everybody who passes through Angkor Thom simply takes the paved road which was laid to pass through Victory Gate. Yet there still is a gate traffic through which is even scarcer. West Gate is almost totally abandoned and hardly gets any visitors through. Only the most determined explorers who also decide to visit West Mebon (huge water reservoir west of Angkor Thom) take this detour which requires whole day (unless you have motorized transportation) and has very little else to offer.
Needless to say, South and Victory Gates, being the busiest of five have seen more restoration work than the other three gates. North Gate did get restored a bit, but it was one of the gates that was pretty well preserved to begin with. When looting became a profitable past time activity for average Cambodians, many stone giants (Devas on the left and Asuras on the right) adorning the sides of the causeways spanning the dried up moats in front of each gate were vandalized and their severed heads sold to collectors from abroad. Many of the North Gate giants didn’t escape this fate either, leaving this part of the North Gate desperately devastated, but the gate itself remains in pretty good shape.
Nothing otherwise makes the North Gate of Angkor Thom special in any way. It is quieter than South Gate, so if you seek less disturbance from the Cambodian touts of doom, you can find it here. However since all Angkor Thom gates were built to be identical, your best bet for pictures is to stick with the South Gate due to well restored Naga bearing Apsaras and Asuras on either side of the causeway. South Gate also gets many elephants through it which also makes for rather interesting, albeit sad pictures. Like all other gates as well as the towers of Bayon, the North Gate is crowned with the faces of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara bearing the likeness of king Jayavarman VII who had them build.
I didn’t spend much time at the North Gate, just passed through it, making only a minute long stop to snap a couple of pictures. By entering Angkor Thom through the North Gate, I returned to the area I had previously explored, so North Gate concluded my adventure on the grand circuit of Angkor. I did a lot that day. It was incredibly hot and I even managed to foil an attempt to have my bicycle stolen. I was ready to start riding back towards Siem Reap where my cozy bed at the Prom Roth Guest House and Ha were waiting for me. I only had one more stop to take – back at Angkor Wat to say “Hi” to the girls and have one more coconut for the energy to ride back after a long and tiring day.
After I was done exploring the Chapel of the Hospital, I was already so worn out by the scorching Cambodian sun, I didn’t have any strength left for any more temples. The day was drawing to a close anyway and I spent much of it battling the heat and the relentless touts so it was time to call it quits and start making my way back to Siem Reap. That heat definitely gets you. There is absolutely nowhere to escape the boiling hot temperatures within Angkor Archaeological Park so sooner or later, you’re bound to humbly yield to this mighty element hours of unceasing exposure to which will floor you. Luckily for me, Chapel of the Hospital was the last temple ruin on the Petit Circle through Angkor Archaeological Park I have not been to yet so I could consider this part of my Angkorian adventure successfully concluded. I only had one more stop to make – to get one more coconut at Angkor Wat just before they close the park for the day and night falls on the area. To get to Angkor Wat, I had to first ride through Angkor Thom the southern end of which gets busy with monkeys looking for handouts from people heading home this time of the day.
I was only steps away from Angkor Thom as the Chapel of the Hospital is very near the Victory Gate so I rode right through and then left at the Terrace of the Elephants, and straight down to pass by Bayon and further along the road leading to the South Gate. It was on this stretch of the road – between Bayon and the South Gate where hundreds of monkeys seem to descend from the jungle to look cute as they prance alongside the road to entice the visitors to Angkor to pause on their way back to Siem Reap and have a picture of themselves taken with them while at the same time feeding them. Needless to say, this dependency of monkeys on food from humans is bad for the wildlife and could have detrimental consequences but in Cambodia nobody cares as long as in the end there is some profit for them in it. And if engaging foreigners in feeding monkeys gets them all excited to spend money on overpriced seeds to give the anxious animals, they won’t let that opportunity to pass them by. Wildlife and all tree huggers can go eff themselves. Cambodians want tourists’ money. They care less if it results in gradual dependency of wild monkeys on humans and loss of their ability to fend for themselves.
There was a pretty sizable group of people engaged in monkey feeding along the road out of Angkor Thom. I got attracted by the crowd and paused to see what was so engaging about this tree-lined road to have everyone stop and hang around. I pulled over and pulled out my camera to take a few pictures to document what’s going on, but that didn’t go without attention from the monkeys who seem to switch their focus on a newcomer almost immediately, unless a person whom they are around is currently feeding them. As I had observed – they (the monkeys) are rather ungrateful creatures when it comes to that. People would spend money to feed them and for as long as their supply of monkey munchies lasts, the monkeys are all over them but as soon as they’re out, monkeys ungracefully move on to somebody else forgetting all about that original donor.
There were monkeys of all shapes and sizes along that road – from young and agile to old and grumpy. And they are uncontrollably attracted to shiny things and… well, basically all things that they can carry. Insatiably curious and investigative, these monkeys will steal anything that can be stolen. Put your bag on the ground to free your hands so you can feed a monkey that starts to cutely climb up your leg and next thing you know, other monkeys are already in the bag and if they grabbed something, consider it gone. They will climb up a nearest tree and you will see your possessions disappear before you’re able to do anything about it. I already had my scary encounter which nearly cost me a camera equipment before getting to Angkor Wat so I knew that one needs to watch their stuff really closely and have it safely mounted against themselves or put into something that’s tricky to open and unmovable. But as I stood there and had a few monkeys probe my wallet and key chain and my bag I had over my shoulders, I saw one lady lose her sunglasses after a monkey snatched it off the top of her head and disappeared into the crown of the tree above.
Aside from West, North, East and South Gate allowing access to Angkor Thom, the royal city had one more gate built on its eastern wall – Victory Gate. The Victory Gate is in line with the Royal Palace area and was clearly erected to allow for direct access to the Royal Square.
Similar to the South Gate, Victory Gate is crowned with the face tower and flanked by Airavata – the three headed elephants plucking lotus flowers with their trunks. Due to extensive theft of Angkorian artefacts by local people of Cambodia, many figures lining the causeway across the moat leading towards the Victory Gate were stolen or damaged during theft attempts. Most lack heads with only parts of their bodies holding naga balustrade as if in a tug-of-war remain.
When Jayavarman VII built Angkor Thom, he made sure it’s well fortified but physical fortification was only part of the city’s strenght. Angkor Thom was also built to be protected by divine powers. There is deep symbolism in much of Angkor Thom’s architecture – let’s take a look at its most significant features:
Similar to the symbolism of Angkor Wat, the world Angkor Thom represents is enclosed within the rock wall that’s 8 meters (26 feet) tall beyond which there is the great ocean symbolized by the surrounding moat. 54 deities and 54 demons guarding each entrance to Angkor Thom represent 108 protectors of the city – the sacred number linked to the Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
Nagas – multi-headed serpents held firmly by a row of 54 guardians on each side of the causeway leading to the gate across the moat represent serpent Vasuki from Hindu mythology. The serpents are ready to spit poison at the enemy out of each of their seven heads and have their tails erect to terminate all those who still make it through. With their seven heads, Nagas also serve as Khmer symbols of rainbow – the bridge between heaven and earth, between the world of the gods and the world of men.
To help keep watch over the city, Jayavarman VII crowned top of the city gates and the many towers of the state temple Bayon with faces of Lokeshvara. His compassionate, but attentive faces bearing the features of the king himself keep close watch over the city of Angkor Thom in all the directions.
Angkor Thom was taken over by sacking Chams in 1177 but the immortal city of Yashodhara was reclaimed for Khmer people by king Jayavarman VII in 1181. The king then built the wall and moat around it the fortification and symbolism of which proved so solid, future Khmer kings stayed in the city and remodelled Bayon, instead of building their own royal cities and state temples.
Known as Yashodharapura, the South Gate of Angkor Thom is the nearest point of entry to the royal city of Angkor Thom from Angkor Wat (and Siem Reap). There are five entrance gates to Angkor Thom – one at each cardinal point and a Victory Gate, which is on the eastern wall and affords access to the royal palace area, but South Gate is hands down the most popular and the most congested. All of the Angkor Thom gates look virtually the same, but because South Gate is the point of entry for vast majority of visitors to Angkor Thom, this gate is the most complete thanks to extensive restoration works. Just as most tourists do, I started my Angkor adventure with Angkor Wat too (not realizing at the time that it was not a good idea), which had me enter Angkor Thom through South Gate.
The laterite causeway that crosses over the surrounding moat to approach the Angkor Thom South Gate is lined on both sides with a naga (multi-headed serpent) balustrade held in place by statues of Apsaras (gods) on the left, and statues of Asuras (demons) on the right striking a pose resembling the tug of war. These figures previously existed at each of the causeways leading to Angkor Thom but most have been stolen. South Gate is the only one that’s vastly complete. North Gate still has several full figures but other gates were stripped of most of them with only a few remaining. Many of the missing heads along the causeway approaching South Gate have been restored with new ones, while a couple were still missing, waiting to be restored (at the time of my visit). There are 54 figures on each side of the causeway.
The gates themselves, which reach as high as 23 meters (75 feet) are surmounted by a structure with four faces each facing its own cardinal point. This symbolism is seen on many temples built by Jayavarman VII, including Angkor Thom’s state temple Bayon and Banteay Kdei which is on the eastern side of the small circuit. The faces represent the likeness of bodhisattva Lokeshvara, the deity with whom god-king Jayavarman VII identified.
Base of the South Gate tower is decorated on both sides by a three-headed elephant plucking lotus flowers. The trunks of an elephant form three pillars and are believed to represent Airavata, the mount of Indra. God Indra is the god of the sky and the king of the gods. His presence at each of the gates leading to Angkor Thom reinforces the idea that naga balustrades lining the approach to each of the gates were built to represent a rainbow – in Khmer mythology, rainbows are believed to link the world of men with the world of the gods.
If Angkor Thom was built as a representation of Mount Meru with the moat serving as the sea of milk that surrounds it, then naga balustrades would represent rainbows connecting the world inside of the temple (world of the gods) with the world outside of it (world of men). I was coming from the outside, entering Angkor Thom, world of the gods through the South Gate. I was drenched in sweat, worn out by the heat, but excited to explore the largest Angkor compound still standing.