The Khleangs are two larger structures facing the Angkor Thom Royal Palace area from behind the Prasat Suor Prat Towers. One on each side of Victory Way, scholars doubt The Khleangs would have been made to function as store houses as their current Khmer name would suggest.
The North Khleang was built at the end of the 10th, beginning of 11th century, proceeding the South Khleang by a few hundred years signifying that the original purpose was not to build symmetrical buildings. The inscriptions on the North Khleang repeatedly mention king Jayaviravarman suggesting that it was built during his reign.
The South Khleang was probably built during the reign of king Suryavarman I and it was likely meant to improve the symmetry of the Royal Palace area. The South Khleang is narrower than his northern brother, less architectonically striking and was left unfinished.
Two pools were built to flank The Khleangs on inner sides but during my visit only south pool had water in it. It is my understanding that The Khleangs were built in their own distinguished style, but despite this potentially intriguing architectonic uniqueness I didn’t find them anything special and moved on to Vihear Prampil Loveng which is just as unattractive as The Khleangs but houses the statue of Buddha that was originally inside the central sanctuary of Bayon, but later destroyed by king Jayavarman VIII.
Twelve stone towers on the east side of the road, opposite the Royal Palace area are called Prasat Suor Prat. Five of the Suor Prat Towers are on the left and five on the right side of the Victory Way (road connecting the Royal Palace with the Victory Gate) and face the Royal Palace, while additional two are placed further back and face each other. They are each square in plan and identical to one another. Atypically, aside from main entrance doors with a porch, there are also windows on each of the remaining three walls.
Prasat Suor Prat Towers were likely built in early 13th century during the reign of king Indravarman II. Their exact purpose is unknown and left for speculation. Their current name, when translated from Khmer language means “Towers of the Rope Dancers” suggesting that the towers may have been used by tightrope walkers as entertainment spectacle for the royals who’d be viewing it from the Terrace of the Elephants.
However according to the account made by the Chinese emissary to Cambodia Zhou Daguan, the Prasat Suor Prat Towers were used as the celestial judgment halls used to solve disputes. If two persons were in a dispute, they would be put in one of the towers each and forced to stay there while their family watches. After a few days one of the persons would have caught bad illness (mostly a fever or ulcer) signifying that this is the person who’s in the wrong, whereas the person in the right would come out perfectly well.
Aside from potentially interesting legends surrounding the Prasat Suor Prat Towers there is little of interest there. I barely spent a few minutes with these towers – just took a couple of pictures and moved on.
The area of the Angkor Thom Royal Palace used to house the royal palace built by Suryavarman I in the 11th century. It was remodelled several times, most notably by king Jayavarman VII, builder of the entire Angkor Thom compound. It is believed that the royal palace area was in use as the royal palace area all the way until the end of the 16th century.
The area of the Angkor Thom Royal Palace was once surrounded by a 5 meters high wall. Only a few fragments of the wall remain today. Five gopuras (entrance gates) allowed for access to the royal palace. Main one was on the east, connected to the Terrace of the Elephants, while north and south wall had two gopuras each. After exploring the royal palace area, I exited through the gate on the northern wall, just west of Sras Srei pool.
After exiting the area I was first exposed to the sight I was looking forward to the most – ancient stone and jungle becoming one to a point that one could not be without another. This was the first thing I learned about Angkor Archaeological Park when I initially found out about it many years ago – ancient temples were abandoned, jungle grew over and across creating some of the most mind-boggling spectacles I have ever seen. I really couldn’t wait to explore Ta Prohm temple which has the most of these giant silk trees growing on top of ancient stones, but Angkor Thom Royal Palace area already contained the same, only on a much smaller scale.
Unfortunately, this was a rather remote spot which required getting off the well paved trail so when I exited through the gopura, I found myself in an area full of locals who looked pretty excited to see a foreigner there. I’m an explorer so my wandering feet took me to a place where no tourists ever go, but it came at a price. Cambodians enjoyed making remarks about me clearly realizing I couldn’t understand and had a good laugh at it. This was not an isolated incident though, as every foreigner visiting Cambodia gets that on virtually every step. Large groups of locals doing what they are the best at – nothing, spend their entire days sitting around, killing time by entertaining themselves by making remarks about every foreigner that comes into view. They don’t try to hide the fact that they are talking about you and the more uncomfortable they make you feel, the more entertained they get.
By venturing off the beaten track, I turned myself into a lamb that ran straight into wolves’ den. Seeing gnarly locals a large group of which I walked up to regrouping and pointing fingers at me while clearly talking about me and planning something out reminded me of the fact that Cambodia is one of the world’s most violent countries with remote areas of Angkor counting as particularly popular spots for violent crimes including armed robberies and rape, I quickly realized I needed to get out of there as soon as possible. I can’t even fathom what would have happened if I were a female foreigner, but I clearly understood how terrifying it must have been for scores of girls who got raped at Angkor. And while rapes at Angkor (and everywhere else in Cambodia, but particularly at Angkor because that’s where the most foreign girls venture on their own not expecting a violent crime) continue to occur with alarming frequency, violent crimes committed on foreigners at Angkor are not limited to sexual abuse of the girls.
I was able to assess the situation quickly and acted accordingly to maximize my chances of getting out of there unharmed. It was a very close call, but I believe my larger than average size as well as my acting as though I had something large behind my belt allowed me to have the potential attackers rethink their strategy which gave me enough time to get back to an area with many foreigners around.
Getting off the beaten track in Cambodia is a risky business. Locals take great joy at making foreigners feel uncomfortable with remarks clearly directed at them. This happens everywhere, including public areas where they are unable to take further actions. But once a foreigner finds themselves far enough from any safe heaven, verbal remarks start turning into attempts to take action. Value of human life is about $50 in Cambodia. The police force is a joke and if someone gets murdered, their corpse will rot somewhere in the jungle until the wildlife has carried all of the remains away. With millions of the military grade weapons from the Khmer Rouge regime floating around uncontrolled and unregulated, and with Khmer Rouge killing recruits currently in their 40’s and 50’s, there are more than enough reasons for one to be extremely careful wherever they go. True Cambodian crime statistics are purposefully skewed by the government known for being the most corrupt government in the world so don’t ever rely on that. There is a very good reason as to why Cambodia is considered one of the most violent and most dangerous countries in the world. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that they’ve been here for a long time and have had no problem, because restricting where they go and staying locked up most of the day to stay safe is not the lifestyle I would enjoy.
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.