I got to the Terrace of the Leper King by following the north wall of the Royal Palace area as I was running away from gnarly Cambodian males preying on foreigners who wander off the beaten track. The Terrace of the Leper King got its name from the genitals lacking statue of Yama – the God of Death, resembling king Jayavarman VII known to have suffered from leprosy (according to the legend, leprosy was the reason why this king built so many hospitals. Khmer people believe that he was not the only king suffering from this disease). Because some layers of the statue got eaten away by lichen, it created an illusion of a person affected by leprosy. The original statue which dates back to the 14th – 15th centuries is no longer on the terrace. It was removed to secure its preservation and is currently located at the National Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. This was a good idea as the cement replica has already been decapitated.
Terrace of the Leper King contains extensive carvings on its walls depicting various divine and underworld characters. It is believed that the Terrace of the Leper King was used for cremations or other funerary purpose and was probably built by Jayavarman VIII who succeeded Jayavarman VII, the builder of Angkor Thom.
The walls of the Terrace of the Leper King are 6 meters (19 feet) high and have the carvings on them arranged in seven rows. The mythological scenes include five, seven and nine headed naga serpents accompanied by marine creatures (including mermaids) and several rows of gods often bearing rather ferocious looks on their faces.
Terrace of the Leper King is a standalone structure in a seemingly desolate state that’s easy to ignore so a visitor can move on to something more interesting, but there is more to the terrace than meets the eye – it’s the hidden wall. South west corner of the terrace contains narrow entrance to the trench that takes you through a zig-zag path containing its own bas reliefs. This secret passage is the collest thing about the Terrace of the Leper King and should not be missed by any visitor.
Sras Srei is a rectangular water pool within the Angkor Thom royal palace area, to the north of the Phimeanakas temple. The pond is 125 meters long and 45 meters wide. It is believed that either on the south or on the west side of Sras Srei there was a terrace which may have been used by the king and his company from where to watch water sports. Since the area around Sras Srei is overgrown with jungle, it offers much needed shade and possible breeze to cool off after exposure to the sun during climb to the summit of Phimeanakas.
There is one smaller pond to the east of Sras Srei which is believed to have been the part of the original royal palace which may have stood there during the reign of Jayavarman V, Udayadityavarman I and Suryavarman I. Sras Srei was likely built by king Jayavarman VIII, the destroyer of Buddhist artefacts installed by the great builder of Angkor Thom, king Jayavarman VII. The inscriptions suggests that the two pools existed so men can have one for themselves and women one for them. Based on typical sexism of Khmer people which is still as prevalent today as it was 800 years ago, the pool for men was built to be much bigger than the pool for women. Little has changed since the Angkorian era and the men of Cambodia still treat all women (including women from abroad) as someone of a lesser worth. That’s also why Cambodia is the rape capital of the world.
The royal bath pools of Sras Srei are no longer used by the royalties to bathe in, but the waters of the basins offer much needed opportunities for local kids and monks to cool and wash in.
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.
I left Angkor Wat temple recharged and ready to continue exploring the temples on the small circuit. Getting back to my bicycle was quite an ordeal as dozens of money hungry touts got in my face determined to go through fire and flames just to get me to buy something from them. Using all sorts of well tested lines, they tried their darnest to make me pull the wallet out and shell out a few dollar bills but I just kept steady pace and headed straight for the bike so I can ride off. Next on my list and next in line before the southern gate to Angkor Thom was a small pyramid temple called Baksei Chamkrong.
Baksei Chamkrong is the only pyramid temple at Angkor Archaeological Park that was not a state temple. It was built in the first decade of the 10th century by King Harshavarman I but was later rebuilt and re-dedicated (in 948) by King Rajendravarman. Baksei Chamkrong, which means “The Bird with Sheltering Wings” stands at the foot of Phnom Bakheng which is a hill popular with tourists during sunset hours (Phnom means hill or mountain in Khmer, the meaning of Phnom Bakheng is Central Mountain). It was originally built to house the golden statue of Buddhist god Shiva and his spouse Devi. King Harshavarman I had the temple built in the memory of his parents.
Baksei Chamkrong was originally enclosed within a brick wall but nowadays there are only small fragments of it left. The pyramid temple faces east and has stairs at each cardinal point. Just as it is with Bakan sanctuary of Angkor Wat, stairs leading up to the summit of Baksei Chamkrong are extremely steep and challenging to climb. One has to be very careful and physically fit to get on top. Also, as it is with all temples of Angkor, these structures were not built as dwellings for people, only gods lived in houses of stone. People, including kings lived in wooden houses which are long gone.
There is an inscription on the eastern door frame which from what I understand talks about important kings of pre-Angkorian era, including hermit Kambu who is believed to have been “born from himself” and is considered to be the very ancestor of Khmer people. The succession of old Khmer kings starting with Jayavarman II is also praised in the inscription as is the most beautiful nymph Mera. The Sanskrit text was engraved on the door jamb by king Rajendravarman.
Because Baksei Chamkrong is a small structure it is left out of the itineraries followed by large organized tours but many individual travellers miss it too (or don’t bother to visit). Even though there was much ruckus and traffic down the nearby road, I had the entire Baksei Chamkrong for myself. It was a positive change from overcrowded Angkor Wat yet it’s a jewel I would definitely advice everyone not to miss. While exploring Angkor Wat requires at least two hours, you can have Baksei Chamkrong covered in some 15 minutes. Keep in mind that Baksei Chamkrong precedes Angkor Wat by more than 400 years.
Royal Residence is where the king of Cambodia stays on his visits to Siem Reap. Given that Siem Reap is Cambodia’s main cash cow thanks to proximity to Angkor Wat, king’s focus on Siem Reap is apparent. How much time the king actually spends in Siem Reap I do not know. Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodian capital city is far superior a dwelling to Siem Reap’s Royal residence.
There is a traffic circle on the corner of the Royal Residence which I believe is the only actual traffic circle in Siem Reap, though there is another one outside of town limit, on the intersection of National Road #6 and the road leading to Siem Reap Airport. The corner of Royal Residence facing the traffic circle has a large poster with an image of the king. The image is nicely illuminated at night. The Stone Bridge which goes across Stung Siem Reap on the opposite side of the traffic circle is one way only – you can’t cross it going east, only coming back towards the Royal Residence.
I have never actually been inside of the Royal Residence in Siem Reap (nor have I gone to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, since entrance fee is a bit too high) so I can’t comment on whether there is anything to see. I’m not even sure whether public is allowed to enter. My guess would be it’s not as I have never see its doors open or any foreigners walking in or out. It’s probably not used unless King Norodom Sihamoni or other members of the royal family are in Siem Reap.
The only significance of the Royal Residence for me was its immediate proximity to Royal Independence Gardens – my most favourite place in all of Cambodia, thanks to the Flying Foxes. A road to Angkor Wat also leads by the Royal Palace so unless you are staying in one of the hotels or guesthouses which are at far end of Siem Reap, you will have passed by it on your way to and from the Angkor Archaeological Park.
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