After visiting Angkor Wat, many people head for Angkor Thom, which is situated just 1.7 kilometres away. Angkor Thom is well-known for its four-sided faces and towering southern gate. Established in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII, this royal city was the last capital of the Khmer Empire.
On the way to the temple grounds, you cannot fail to be impressed by the 100-metre-long stone causeway, flanked by 54 gods on one side and 54 demons on the other. The demons are distinguished by their round eyes and grimacing expressions, while the gods have almond-shaped eyes and look serene.
A laterite wall, 8 meters high, reinforced by a wide earth embankment, runs around the full perimeter of Angkor Thom’s moat. Angkor Thom has five entry gates – North, South, East, West, plus an additional gate at the eastern entrance.
While Angkor Wat is Hindu-inspired, the sculpted images in Angkor Thom lean towards Buddhism. Symbolically, Angkor Thom represents the universe. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stonewall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Mount Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolises the cosmic ocean.
At the exact centre of Angkor Thom’s axes stands the pyramid temple, Bayon. Most people will recognise Bayon for its four-sided smiling faces and extraordinary bas-reliefs. From afar, Bayon looks like a haphazard pile of stones. On closer look, however, there are some interesting bas reliefs on its outer and inner walls. Most of them are in pretty bad shape, but intact enough to give some insights into the Khmer way of life back then. The storyline carved on the bas reliefs are varied, depicting historical events, mythical stories and offering rare glimpses into domestic and rural life during that period.
Bayon symbolises the link between heaven and earth. It has some 50 towers with four faces carved in stone for most of them. Each face is four metres high with closed eyes bearing the same enigmatic smile. This gives the faces a mysterious yet serene countenance, perhaps portraying an all-knowing state of inner peace. I prefer to describe it as the “I know something that you don’t” look!
When looking at Bayon, two questions came to mind. How did the Khmer people manage to pile one huge stone on top of another? How did they manage to fashion faces from stones without using cement or mortar?
A Japanese team working on Bayon’s restoration estimated that more than 200,000 blocks of stone, some weighing 300 kilograms were used for its construction. While it would have been possible for four men to carry each huge stone with a sling, it still does not explain how the blocks could have been lifted to the heights of the central tower!
Time to revisit the Alien Theory, perhaps?
The east gate was used as a backdrop in Tomb Raider, where the baddies broke into the ‘tomb’ by pulling down a giant apsara. While the scene may have looked convincing on-screen, Hollywood actors are clearly no match to the ancient Khmers when it comes to strength because the apsara was made from polystyrene!