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.
I walked through the entrance gopura of the Angkor Wat central temple and continued walking upwards to reach the five-peaked summit of what represents Mount Meru. The first level wall contains extensive bas-reliefs but I left those for later. I really wanted to see the central temple first.
Gallery of the first level consists of a cruciform cloister with four rectangular stone basins. There were several statues of Buddha within the passages of these semi dark galleries. When Angkor Wat turned from being a Hindu into being a Theravada Buddhist temple, this area was named “Preah Poan” or “Hall of the Thousand Buddhas”. While there certainly are dozens of Buddhas in the halls, you won’t find anywhere near thousands of them there. It is possible that in the 16th century when Angkor Wat temple was a site of pilgrimage for Buddhists, there were as many as thousand statues there, but they were either removed to prevent them from damage or destroyed by the Khmer Rogue regime in the 1970’s.
I climbed further up to reach the second level from where you can already see the towers of the Angkor Wat central temple unobstructed, in all their glory. Similar to the causeway through Angkor Wat city, central temple has two small libraries on both sides of the footbridge leading to the courtyard. I walked around the courtyard to the north-east corner to get a photo of the temple with the sunlight but that was not easy even after I stuck myself all the way back into the corner. The temple is set slightly towards the east so I could get much better a picture from either north-west and south-west corners but because of morning light, from there I would get the dark side of the temple and have strong backlight. Yet another reason why it is absolutely essential to visit Angkor Wat in the afternoon, not in the morning hours.
Third level of the Angkor Wat central temple carries all five towers and the uppermost gallery, but at the time of my visit it was off limit. There was ongoing construction and restoration work in progress so I never got to reach Bakan – the summit of Angkor Wat. It looked like part of the restoration process was the construction of wooden stairs that would lead to the third level. That sort of made sense because the temple is built very steep with original, stone stairs under insanely difficult angle.
Climbing up the stairs that are only a few degrees off being completely vertical is excessively strenuous and dangerous – much like climbing a mountain. This perhaps was the thinking of the engineers and architects who designed Angkor Wat – if it’s meant to represent Mount Meru, let’s make the climb to its top as challenging as climbing a mountain. I can’t otherwise imagine why they would build the stairs this steep.
It is speculated that third level gallery once housed the statue of Vishnu which is now at the entrance gapura within the exterior wall. I never got to go up there, but I understand that the gallery presently houses four statues of Buddha, each facing the different direction signifying the fact that the temple is now dedicated to Buddhism, not Hinduism as when it was originally built.