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.
Phimeanakas was the state temple of king Suryavarman I. It was built in late 10th to early 11th centuries which means it was at its location long before the royal city of Angkor Thom was built around it. When king Jayavarman VII had the plan for Angkor Thom laid out, he made Phimeanakas part of his Royal Palace area. Because none of the carvings on Phimeanakas survived, this temple is artistically characterless, however it’s easily scalable and provides interesting views from the top. Perhaps when Baphuon is restored and made accessible by public, the views from up there will be even better, but for now the top of Phimeanakas is the highest you can get at Angkor Thom.
Yes I did climb on top of Phimeanakas and yes it was not particularly easy. The climb itself is not too bad, the western side of the temple (the back of it) has a wooden stairway built alongside the original stone stairway to make for an easier ascend but as is the case of everywhere in Cambodia, it’s not the climb that’ll destroy you, it’s the heat. A few minutes climb up the steep staircase directly exposed to the dilapidating sun will wear you down like a marathon run. The sun will suck out the last drop of energy you had in your body by the time you made it through the initial few steps. Each time you take a breather, it will only get worse. And as if the extreme heat from the sun was not enough, the temple blocks radiate it back at you from below giving you absolutely no way to escape the destructive heat.
Reaching the summit doesn’t make it any better. There is nowhere to escape the heat, only the rays of the sun within the blocks of stone where it seems to be hotter than in direct sunshine. The feeling of reaching the top is satisfying even though you will be entirely out of juice. The sanctuary on top is currently empty but was likely used to house a divinity while the temple was in use. According to the Khmer legend, Phimeanakas was crowned with the golden tower within which dwelt a nine-headed naga serpent which transformed into a woman every night. The king was obliged to make love with the serpent every night or else the kingdom would fall into ruin. I guess one of the kings failed in the task as once powerful Angkorian kingdom did eventually fall into ruin.
Terrace of the Elephants is located immediately to the north of Baphuon. This 300 meters long, 2.5 meters tall stone terrace represents the front of the Royal Palace area, including the Phimeanakas temple and the Sras Srei water reservoir. If you follow the road leading towards the North Gate from the Bayon temple, you will have the Terrace of the Elephants span for over 300 meters along the road on your left hand side. There are five stairways leading up to the terrace, with central stairway being in line with the Victory Way – the road connecting the Royal Palace area with the Victory Gate. Two smaller stairways exist on either side of the central stairway and two more are at either end of the terrace.
The original name of the terrace is unknown, however the reason why it’s been referred to as the Terrace of the Elephants becomes clear as soon as one comes close to it. The walls are covered with carvings of elephants and side stairways are flanked by three-headed elephants with trunks pulling lotus flowers, similar to those found on the South Gate to Angkor Thom.
Front end wall is for the most part covered in carvings containing hunting scenes with elephants. The sections of the wall between the central stairway and its small side stairways is covered with garudas – mythical bird men known as the vehicles of Hindu god Vishnu, also known for being the mortal enemies of nagas, the seven headed serpents representing rainbows. Alongside garudas, these small sections of walls contain figures of men with lion heads. Both garudas and lion-headed figures are sculpted with their hands raised above their heads and are alternating along the wall.
I got to the Terrace of the Elephants in the early afternoon but because the terrace faces east, I had all the front end carvings as well as the three-headed elephants blackened by the shade. Terrace’s orientation clearly suggests that the best time to visit it is in the morning or anytime before noon – that’s if you want to catch it in the best lighting for photography.
I climbed the central staircase to get on top of the Terrace of the Elephants where balustrades containing naga heads and guardian stone lions decorate the space. This was my access point to the rest of the Royal Palace area including an ancient temple of Phimeanakas, the Sras Srei pond, Preah Palilay and Tep Pranam. I walked back along the north side of the Royal Palace to get to the road where I accessed the Terrace of the Leper King.
There are some fine carvings on the north wall of the Terrace of the Elephants, including the carving of a five headed horse the mythical origins of which are unknown, but the pictures of this one is one of the few I was unable to recover from the formatted memory card after my laptop was stolen.
Angkor Thom means “Great City” in Khmer language. Covering the area of 9 kilometres squared, the royal city of Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Angkorian Empire. Completely surrounded by wall and moat that’s almost 3 kilometres long on each side, there are five entrance gates to the royal city – one at each cardinal point and the Victory Gate which connected the east side with the Royal Palace. Each of the Angkor Thom gates is crowned with four giant faces, similar to those found on Bayon temple.
Angkor Thom as we know today was constructed over the site of earlier temples and was occupied by city people for five centuries. It was brought to its final glory by King Jayavarman VII though construction of Angkor Thom continued to certain degree after his death.
The remodelling to Angkor Thom to its current state started after King Jayavarman VII drove away Chams who sacked the city. The King remodelled what was left of Angkor Thom into an ensemble that represents the Mount Meru with Bayon in its centre and the moat around it representing the sea of milk that encircles the sacred mountain range. It’s a microcosm of the universe.
Archaeologists speculate that during its boom, Angkor Thom had a water system running through the city. River O Khlot may have been branched and have some of its flow diverted to supply the royal city with life supporting water.
King Jayavarman VII also built temples at each corner of Angkor Thom. These temples, known as Prasat Chrung (Shrine of the Angle) contain an architectural element called “stele” which is an upright slab with inscriptions. The south-eastern Prasat Chrung is the only one with a stele containing complete inscription in Sanskrit on all four sides of the slab. Prasat Chrung temples were dedicated to the Bodhisattva Lokesvara, same as Bayon which served as city’s state temple.
Parts of today’s Angkor Thom, the last capital of Angkorian Empire overlap the area of what used to be Yasodharapura – the first capital of Angkorian Empire (9th century). Temples of Baphuon and Phimeanakas which still exist within today’s Angkor Thom were built in previous centuries and were incorporated into the new layout of Angkor Thom by Jayavarman VII.
Following the tradition, the royal palace was built north of the state temple (in this case it was Bayon). There is nothing left of the royal palace but the courtyard and terraces, as dwellings of people, including royalty were built of wood. Stone dwellings were reserved exclusively for the gods.